Haircuts, couches & mild dysfunction: Why “Must See TV” must always be comfy.
September 2, 2014
The most watched show on broadcast TV is The Big Bang Theory. A few weeks ago each of its primary cast inked deals worth a million dollars per episode. Last decade the big show was Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men. The decade before that it was Friends. In the eighties I don’t recall. Was it Cosby?
So these are the shows that define the decades in American popular culture. Not Mad Men. Not Breaking Bad. Those shows get all the press but TBBT gets all the viewers. Like it or not, it is these slickly made and arguably idiotic sit-coms that tell the tale of us.
What is it about certain ensemble comedies that keep young professionals glued to broadcast TV? They all feature a big star or create one (Charlie Sheen, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Aniston, Jim Parsons) but I think it’s the fluffy familiarity that attracts so many worker bees to the flame. After whatever kind of day one had at work (be it hectic or dull) these shows are like down comforters we can sink into. The “vast wasteland” is comfy as hell.
They don’t challenge us. On the contrary they make us feel content. We look forward to the mild dysfunction surrounding these characters the same way we look at their signature haircuts (the Jennifer!) and colorful wardrobe (Bill Cosby’s hideous sweaters and Charlie’s doushbag bowling shirts).
While I happen to think TBBT is the dumbest show of the lot I’m sure that has more to do with my age than the show itself. I won’t lie. As cool as I think I am I once watched Friends fairly religiously and liked it.
Which brings me to the Simpson’s. Here is a show that has defied the decades as well as the odds. Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious (and white and male), it was and still sometimes is the writing that makes the Simpson’s a true cornerstone in popular culture.
Yet, at it’s core the Simpson’s has a lot in common with TBBT, Friends and the others. It too has its mega stars (Homer & Bart) and there is no question it is an ensemble –the likes of which we’ve never seen before or likely will. Still, it is the mild dysfunction and total familiarity that propel this show into the zeitgeist. Homer’s home. Bart’s school. These indelible locations are no different than the colorful almost tacky sets in all those other shows. We wanted to hang out in Rachel’s apartment or that proto-Starbucks, Central Perk the same way we adore plopping on Homer’s iconic couch or the ones that belong to those nerds on “TBBT.”
Let us hang, we all ask. We won’t get in the way. Let us watch you fall in and out of preening love. Let us watch you get in trouble then fix it. Let us in! We won’t even balk at the laugh track; something, by the way, we find intolerable on truly good shows (like the Simpson’s).
Ensemble sitcoms have been around since television itself (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy) and they have proved over and over and over again to be the most lucrative 22 minutes or so EVER. And while none today (save for maybe the Simpson’s) offer the social commentary or biting observation of an All in the Family, M.A.S.H., or Mary Tyler Moore they clearly don’t want to.
Why, I wonder? Well, I’ll tell you. They don’t have to. After scrubbing leads all day in Media what 34 year-old Chloe wants most is not a tricky satire on race relations or the intolerance of ISIS; she craves a twit remark from Penny and a tarty retort from Sheldon. Throw in a subplot about the new hunky neighbor, who may or may not be gay, and she’s good. We all are.
A final note: I’m not bitching. My intent is not necessarily to disparage your favorite sit com. Compared to The Real Housewives of X, The Big Bang Theory is like Masterpiece Theater. (Look it up.)