Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The Problem With Family Sitcom Show Stories"

When I did a show called Family Man in 1988 – I wrote eleven episodes, though they only produced seven – I determined that all the stories would revolve around experiences that happened to me, either as a kid (I stole chalk from school) or as an adult (I was excluded from the “Preferred List” of life insurance purchasers and feeling bummed out to have fallen into an insurance category that included the Wallendas.) 

I decided to only tell stories that happened to me, not to egotistically project my personal experiences onto the largest possible canvas – though that impulse is not beyond being an unconscious contributor – I did it to guarantee that every story I told on this family network situation comedy would be a story had never been told on any other family situation comedy before. 

I still hoped that viewers would identify with the situations – even though they happened to me and nobody else but me – but I did not want to surrender to telling the same recycled stories – albeit delivered by a different writer and a different cast – that had been told over and over on family sitcoms since radio. 

Moving to today…

Having lemmingly ventured into comedies featuring quirky single girls in their thirties – The New Girl, The Mindy Project, Two Broke Girls, Whitney, something about a bitch you’re not supposed to trust, and something with Chelsea Handler – this season, the networks brain trusts – inevitably relying on irrefutable research – have thrown in their Quirky Single Girls” cards and selected instead – and hardly for the first time – a replacement hand of “Family Sitcom” cards. 

Possibly because of the phenomenal success of Modern Family.  (Or the overall failure of the previous strategy.)  From which – talking about Modern Family – the new shows appear to have learned virtually nothing, offering nothing smart,  nothing grounded in mainstream reality (a category that now includes gay couples with children), nothing tasteful, and, consequently, nothing particularly funny.           

Aware that there is no excitement in doing (or pitching to a network) a series about a typical family – despite the fact that The Middle chugs along creatively and commercially successfully – today’s series creators have opted for family show concepts where the characters have skittered precariously off the rails.  Or are, at least, identifiably different.

Alcoholic Moms, arrestedly developed fathers, prematurely pregnant daughters, a gay single father, and in one case – and we definitely haven’t seen this before – a father with Parkinson’s disease.

(For the most part, the highly dysfunctional characters in these series are the parents.  Which, being only a slightly dysfunctional parent myself – it comes with the package of my overall dysfunctionality – offends me by its exaggeration.  However, being the child of a parent, I kind of know where those show creators are coming from.)

Short summary – They put their money on family shows but, hedging their bets, they made some if not all of the members of those families

Seriously messed up. 

The problem is, in America at least, with the exception of Married With Children (where the family behaved as if their house were located unhealthily close to a toxic waste site) and animated family shows (where you can get away with more because it’s not actual people), you wind up doing exactly the same stories that family shows have always done. 


Because, not just networks censors, but our American sensibilities will not permit us to be too destructively crazy in a family comedy context.  “Irresponsible” – okay.  “Having your rights read to you crosses the line.  Americans are not comfortable with child endangerment in their comedies.  Abusive family stories are shuttled directly to SVU.  

As a result – and I cannot provide a comprehensive list, as I have merely skimmed the debuting sitcoms – I have noticed yawningly familiar family sitcom stories concerning bullies (cyber-bullies but still), parents competing over their young son’s afterschool activities (hockey versus pottery) and a show where the single gay father is faced with buying his adolescing daughter her first bra.  (We did the same story on Major Dad – my partner on that series insisting on it – although, in that case, the Dad was a macho Marine, which – and I may be prejudiced here suggesting that gay men are more sensitive than Marines – made that version of the story inherently more embarrassing.)

The point here is, no matter how weird or unconventional the family is, American family situation comedies are by their inherent nature akin to Tootsie Pops – a hard shell, with a soft center in the middle. 

No dangerous threats.  No questionable behavior.  Barely a psycho-traumatizing insult. 

Push comes to shove – “Awwww” – they actually like each other.

Expectation of boundaries is why it’s so difficult to make family shows feel original.  Unless you tell stories that have never been told before, because they specifically happened to you.

Of course, Family Man was rejected by two networks – NBC and Fox – and ABC cancelled it after seven episodes.

So we may have to look elsewhere for the breakthrough solution.    


Frank said...

I don't watch any family sitcoms as I hate seeing smart ass kids act like goofy immature adults. Network tv comedy has sure gone downhill fast since the heady days of Seinfeld.

Canda said...

But, Earl, as you have pointed out, the networks aren't doing traditional family shows. They are doing shows about families that are dysfunctional in some way.

Also, no network wants a show about a nuclear, functioning family. It might surprise people if you actually did that, where parents are involved in a healthy way in raising their kids, and the kids are functioning in a positive way, despite the myriad problems that face kids and teens in today's world.