“Late to the Comedies”
December 17th, 2009
[This is Part Five in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade - for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
Flipping through the three channels I got using my rabbit ear antennas in my dorm room late one night (okay, early one morning), I stumbled across a very snowy episode of television. In it, a group of office employees organize an “Office Olympics,” which ends up both funny and quite sweet, and I wanted to know more about this single-camera comedy.
Following internet chatter, I heard of a cult-favourite show that my only memory of was my confusion at its victories at the Emmy awards. Fan response was overwhelmingly positive to the point where my very credibility as a television viewer was in jeopardy if I didn’t join in for its upcoming third season.
Although no one I knew actually watched the show, I heard word of a multi-camera comedy with some recognizable faces that was slowly building a cult following of its own with what it called a “Robin Sparkles,” and since I was wrapped up in a “Save this Show” campaign for a different show at the time I figured I should see if another bubble show might be worth getting behind.
A decade ago, my only recourse in these situations was to find out when the various shows (which, for the unawares, are The Office (US), Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother, respectively) aired and just pick up wherever they happen to be, hopeful that some day reruns could fill in the gaps.
However, we live in an age where I was able to catch up with twenty episodes of The Office to be up to date a mere week later, and where I marathoned two seasons of Arrested Development to be able to join the Bluth family in progress, and where I spent the summer before HIMYM’s third season learning what a Slap Bet was and watching Barney Stinson own the Price is Right. As a result, I became a vocal supporter of all of these shows, getting in on all of their jokes, despite having been late to the party with every single one of them.
And I’ll admit right now that I probably broke a law or two doing it.
When I arrived at university, the novelty of Direct Connect was lost on no one. Here was a program that, through the magic of the internet, had last week’s episode of CSI at your fingertips, easily accessible and viewed on your computer screen, and where students complained when an episode went up any later than a few hours after it aired. While it’s generally considered to be too risqué to discuss torrents and the files which result from them in such an open forum, it seems naïve to write about the decade in television without talking about what has become a substantial form of distribution through which people experience this medium.
I don’t condone pirating television as a general rule, but I would argue that the reason some people do it is for immediacy rather than out of a desire to screw over the various parties involved. Yes, many people download television because they’re too cheap to buy DVDs or too cheap to buy cable, but quite a few others use torrents to stay “current” on their favourite shows, and there was a time before iTunes and Hulu and network streaming where torrents were the only way that was possible. That people have continued using torrents rather than downloading/watching from reputable sources is an issue of complacency, certainly, but there is an unquestionable value to being “current” in an age where online television communities are so plentiful.
And while the issue of international rights (where some shows are shown later than their initial U.S. airings, or not at all, outside of the country) is certainly a complex one, there’s a participatory element to watching television (in my case, writing about it) that you lose when your accessibility is so limited. What are the chances that someone who lives in Canada, where reality shows like Project Runway and Top Chef do not air, would be able to stay spoiler-free while not living under a rock? As someone who loves watching television and also talking about television, is anybody going to be discussing the latest episode of Sons of Anarchy when the (obscure) Canadian rights holder only starts airing Season 2 in January 2010? We live in a age of spoilers, and one where even comedies like the three I caught up with earlier in the decade rely on inside jokes and serialization that would have been lost had I jumped right in.
Would I have been as much of a fan of The Office if, after having watched “Office Olympics, I had just picked up where the show was, not fully understanding the mythos of Jim and Pam or having the opportunity to see how much the show grew between its first and second seasons? So much of The Office’s charm comes from knowing where these characters came from, and the blossoming of the random actors populating the office into characters in their own right is the sort of thing that I would have missed had I just jumped into it. And while it’s true that I could have waited until the second season came out on DVD, the show and I had a moment: that weekend spent catching up with the show gave it a special place amongst my stable of shows, and as a result I now own the first four seasons on DVD and continue to watch, write about and pimp out the show to this day.
And while the show has had its periods of turmoil, like the rough stretch of hour-long episodes early in Season Four or some of Michael Scott’s more cringeworthy comedy bits, there is something about the show that is enormously comforting to me. I tried getting into The Office (UK) after getting hooked on the U.S. version, but there was something about it that was just too dark (yes, I’ll go back to it eventually). While there is a sadness to Dunder Mifflin, and to all of its characters, there is also a sort of sadsack optimism in this little branch that could, and in the sweetness of Jim and Pam, and in how the show’s most charming element at the moment is a relationship between two characters who didn’t exist until the show’s third and fifth seasons respectively. I have no proof that this sort of connection wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t “caught up” midseason, but I know that watching “Casino Night” live and being able to rush online afterwards to discuss it was worth it.
Arrested Development, meanwhile, is a show that has likely played for more people on DVD than it has on television, considering the show’s low viewership and its eventual cancellation. While torrents are unquestionably problematic, TV on DVD has been an integral development for both drama and comedy. I find it’s particularly great with the latter, and in particular those shows which welcome viewers to follow along in its construction of jokes as elaborate as those in Arrested Development. With Ron Howard’s marvelous narration simultaneously grounding the series and adding a touch of whimsy to the proceedings, the story of the ridiculous Bluth family was a never-ending series of jokes, to the point where the DVDs on “Play All” were like some sort of drug (the Forget-Me-Now’s cousin, the Watch-Me-More, perhaps).
What I loved about the show was that it managed to create these enormously elaborate scenarios and yet maintain some form of fundamental humanity to these characters who often acted in ways that would seem to cancel out that humanity. In some ways every character on the show should have felt as real and genuine as Franklin, and yet somehow I even cared about the race-uniting puppet by the time the show got to the end of its run. A weaker third season demonstrated that the show perhaps wasn’t meant to last forever, and that FOX giving the show three seasons at all was an act of generosity that is often ignored in favour of placing the blame squarely on their shoulders (blame America), but those first two seasons were very nearly chaotic yet orchestrated perfection. And while I didn’t get to be one of those people who was there from the beginning (heck, I didn’t even know what “The Final Countdown” was when I first heard it on the show), I did get to be one of those people lamenting its cancellation at the end of its third season, joining the crowd of people with their head hung low walking slowly on suburban streets saddened by the loss of this show from our televisual universe.
And yet, I think there was something even more satisfying about being able to watch as How I Met Your Mother went from a low rung on the CBS totem pole to a legitimate hit. While TV on DVD is great for accessibility, the prevalence of cheap TV on DVD has been a far more important development in terms of spreading television series to new audiences. I don’t know if I would have started watching How I Met Your Mother until much later if not for an Amazon sale where he first season was only $21. While the show is perhaps not the best comedy of the decade, it has always felt like an ideal balance between the multi-camera familiarity (owing a great deal to a show like Friends) and the single-camera inventiveness (of shows like Malcolm in the Middle, etc.) that have been dominant forces in television comedy. On paper, the show is a multi-camera sitcom on a network with a terrible two and a half-headed monster of a multi-camera sitcom, but in reality the show broke down those expectations to create something enormously easy to fall in love with.
The show is inherently romantic in its story of a man telling his kids the (apparently very lengthy) story of how he met their mother, and while that conceit has long stopped being the best element of the series it helped provide the series with a sense of purpose in its early episodes. The second season represented the point where the show started to turn the corner, and where its charm came from what it had constructed on that foundation (the Slap Bet, Robin Sparkles, etc.) more than the foundation itself. And even as it struggles with developing some of its characters (Lily and Marshall post-marriage, Robin and Barney’s relationship, Ted whenever he’s being a tool), it has committed to taking these characters on a larger journey that demonstrates the degree to which serialization and continuity are integral to my love of modern comedy. It’s a show that’s captivating when it paints an inherently romantic image of love, hilarious when it lets Neil Patrick Harris run wild, and fascinating when it uses websites, time shifts, and various narrative techniques to construct its universe.
And when HIMYM plays those games, to be months behind catching up on DVD just isn’t the same, which is why Hulu and iTunes are such great inventions (and, on a personal note, why it’s such a huge frustration considering the former is locked out to global viewers). The ability to play “catchup” is becoming more and more common, and more importantly shows like these three are rewarding those viewers with great television just as those new viewers are providing an additional viewership base for shows that might be struggling for ratings. The decade is riddled with shows like the stunning Freaks and Geeks (which only isn’t getting a longer writeup because I just finished watching it for the first time recently), the soaring Firefly, and the inventive Wonderfalls that never got their due on the air, but are living on in DVD. It’s a new way to experience television that provides both long-term posterity and short-term accessibility, creating a record that could be experiences ten years or ten months down the line; Hulu and, well, the illegal-downloading-method-that-must-not-be-named, meanwhile, can be accessed ten hours, or ten minutes, later, and the immediacy (to my mind) creates the type of fan cultures and interactions that breed television viewers like me who will shell out money and talk about these shows until the cows come home.
I do not, just so we’re clear, endorse the illegal downloading of television. However, I would argue that this unquestionably widespread trend over the past decade has played a substantial role in constructing and building fan communities. Impatient international viewers might be seeing a show early, but many of those viewers are also spreading the word about a particular show’s virtues to their own country when it debuts there. Speaking on a personal level, discovering a show through the means of torrents (in a time before Hulu and TV on iTunes) was more empowering than enabling, pushing me to do my best to spread the word about the show and do what I can to support it.
And while I understand that this is perhaps not a common response, as a large majority of people who download television are not going to then shell out the money to purchase those DVDs or spent as much time writing about them as I am, I also know that torrents (and Hulu, and TheWB.com, and iTunes, and Amazon Video, and NetFlix Watch Instantly) have been an important way of how we experience television that needs to be understood more carefully beyond presuming that those who partake are pirates pure and simple.
Because I don’t know if I’d be the television viewer I am today without them.
Your Turn: I wavered on whether to actually admit to downloading television here, but chose to do so in an attempt to create some sort of dialogue on the subject. Have a personal experience or opinion in support or opposition of the practice to share? Please post it, as the more we discuss this (anonymously or not) the more we come to understand its impact.