Tag Archives: Sitcom

Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season

The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season

November 10th, 2010

ABC’s Modern Family has always been concerned with questions of race: that Gloria and Manny are Colombian, and that Lily is Vietnamese, were prominent factors in the series’ pilot, so questions of race (and racism) have been evident throughout the series.

And yet, something seems different in the second season. While nothing has been fundamentally changed in terms of questions of race, the show is going to racial humor more often and in a few instances from a different perspective. I would never go so far as to say that the series is racist, but in its desire to increase the amount of racial humor it seems to have forced the issue without allowing it to flow naturally from its characters or even its storylines.

While it is not enough to condemn the series, I would argue that the way race has been presented so far this season shifts ownership of these dynamics to the people behind the scenes as opposed to the characters within the series, creating problematic questions of authorship that threaten both the series’ realism and its complexity.

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Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

August 3rd, 2010

I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.

However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.

Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.

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Season Finale: Dan for Mayor – “The Return of Wheel-o”

“The Return of Wheel-o”

June 28th, 2010

While it may not be the best comedy on television, I’d argue that Dan for Mayor makes a strong case for being one of the most confident. While some shows spend their first seasons in a state of becoming, the series seemed to spring fully formed from the minds of Mark Farrell, Paul Mather and Kevin White – the initial premise had potential which played out throughout the season, and from the beginning it was intertwined with the interpersonal relationships which make the series more than a clever premise. The notion of a lowly bartender running for Mayor as a way to impress his ex-girlfriend offers plenty of potential for humour, but the series has evolved into something much more than that: “The Return of Wheel-o” reflects a season which didn’t shy away from plot development, constantly changing the stakes of the race to the point where the finale gives Dan everything he wanted only to twist once more.

And yet, for a show which refused to rely on stability to tell its stories, Dan for Mayor has been remarkably consistent. It’s an extraordinarily clever show, but it never felt like it became too clever for its own good, its material always working in tandem with its cast in order to present a far more cohesive world than seems possible when presenting three different campaigns along with a number of personal lives. It never seemed like the show struggled under the weight of this challenge, capable from the beginning of managing both political satire and character development without breaking a sweat, and so I figure I should spend some time discussing what was a really enjoyable season of television.

Which, you know, 99% of you haven’t seen.

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Cougar Town – “Turn This Car Around”

“Turn This Car Around”

March 24th, 2010

Earlier this week, How I Met Your Mother did an episode which more or less spoke to one of the more popular readings of the show: people think that Ted is a jerk, so they did an episode where the characters discussed whether Ted was a jerk. In the process, at least to my mind, they were able to control the narrative of Ted’s behaviour and use that unpleasantness in order to say something about their friendship.

I guess you could say that “Turn This Car Around” says the same thing about the love of wine and sleeping with younger women on Cougar Town. The episode becomes about “change,” which is one of those really terrifying words on most sitcoms (Chuck Lorre is shaking in his boots at the very thought of it, I’m sure), and the show ends up making a compelling argument for small changes, rather than large ones. Combine with a completely useless subplot that made me laugh a lot, and you’ve got a nice half-hour.

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How I Met Your Mother – “Of Course”

“Of Course”

March 8th, 2010

When How I Met Your Mother threw in the towel on Robin and Barney’s relationship earlier this season, I was angry.

The reasons I was so frustrated were, just to be clear, not simple. I was not just a “shipper” of the couple or someone who thought they should stay together forever, someone who responds negatively because the show doesn’t go in the direction I want it to. Rather, I was also annoyed that it felt like the show was abandoning a story which had untapped potential in order to return to its status quo, shallow Barney stories where he turns into a complete womanizer. I prefer Barney when he shows some sense of humanity, some shred of awareness of his own actions, and his relationship with Robin felt like it had the potential to bring that out more often.

For their relationship to end – according to interviews with the creators at the time – just so that the show could return to a more one-dimensional version of Barney’s character felt like it ignored the show’s emotional complexities, and it has in some ways tarnished the entire season for me. While Barney’s womanizing is still funny, it has seemed spiteful and at times even hurtful as the season has continued without giving the breakup time to settle in. Instead of laughing at Barney’s antics, I found myself focusing on Robin, and how she must be feeling to know that Barney is moving on so quickly. In some ways, it bothered me that the show was moving on so quickly, that it was so willing to turn its back on comic and dramatic potential for the sake of returning to something familiar that, let’s be honest, won’t remain fresh forever even with Neil Patrick Harris at his Emmy-nominated, should be Emmy-winning, best.

“Of Course” is effectively the show’s apology, where they admit that there were unseen consequences to Barney’s quick return to his normal self, and where they admit that there was unresolved tensions surrounding their breakup. So, as one of the most vocal critics of the way in which the pair were broken up and certainly the critic most unable to look past it as the season wore on, the question becomes whether this retconning was enough to convince me that the show made the right decision.

The answer to that question is “No,” even though “Of Course” is a damn fine episode of television.

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Modern Family – “Fears”

“Fears”

March 4th, 2010

I understand sitcom formulas: I know why they exist, I know why they can sometimes be very funny, and I understand why there are quite a few viewers who are in love with them. And while I’m on the record as amongst those who are not quite on the Modern Family bandwagon, I respect a lot of what the show is doing, and do not begrudge it for being formulaic to varying degrees each week.

If I’m being honest, “Fears” was one of the best episodes the show has done in its most limiting formula, the separation of the three families into distinct stories. The theme was consistent, the comedy was varied, and the show perhaps came the closest yet to earning its saccharine conclusion. None of the stories fell too far into comic farce to feel like they were shoehorned into the corny conclusion, and while every story was on the edge of tipping into that land of love and caring that makes me want to throw up, they mostly stayed within something funny and sweet without going too far.

And yes, that’s the most convoluted way of saying “this was a pretty good episode of Modern Family” you’re likely to find.

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A Canuck in an American Sitcom: The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

A Canuck in an American Sitcom: A Paper

February 8th, 2010

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the 16th Annual McGill English Grad Students’ Conference in Montreal, where I gave a presentation on the subject of Canadian space in How I Met Your Mother. I had a fun experience at the conference, but I was never entirely satisfied with my paper: I thought it was a decent representation of the basic argument I wanted to make, and people responded to the clips and were able to “see” what I was talking about, but the paper didn’t represent the depth of the show’s depiction of Canada. I only had 20 minutes, so my time was limited, but it felt like those limitations were keeping the paper from reaching its full potential.

So, rather than posting the truncated version of the paper, I spent part of my 21-hour train ride home from Montreal adding some additional material, expanding on ideas that were only hinted on before. As a result, the paper has been transformed into something far longer than I had intended it to be, a lengthy treatise written in the form of a journal article but with the focus of a blog post (in that I don’t spend a great deal of time with sources and the like, focusing primarily on the show itself). It’s a bit of a bastardization of both forms, too informal for one and too long for the other, but I think it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling as if I’ve done the subject justice, and as a result I’m posting it here for you to peruse at your leisure – enjoy!

A Canuck in an American Sitcom:

The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

The greatest challenge facing a multi-camera sitcom is creating a world that feels real even when it is unquestionably fake. Although we are almost always aware that the locations in such shows are only sets, that they have been meticulously crafted and designed by a series of people behind the scenes, the sitcom depends on building a relationship between the audience and its characters, and their homes (like Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld) or favourite drinking establishments (Cheers on Cheers) are important reflections of who they are and how we relate with them. Setting is, to adopt John Fiske’s use of Roland Barthes’ term, an important ‘informant’ that identifies or locates in time and space, but the falsehood apparent in a multi-camera sitcom can potentially complicate this process. However, over time, the fact that these are only sets becomes irrelevant, as the sets become synonymous with the characters who habitate them: Central Perk goes from a strangely well-lit coffee shop to “the place where Rachel, Joey, etc. hang out,” and the locations become synonymous with the show’s reality through their continued presence in the characters’ lives.

However, while this explains how regular sets in which a sitcom’s characters consistently interact gain meaning beyond their initial construction, it has only limited effects on additional spaces the show may introduce. What I want to address is how CBS’ How I Met Your Mother manages to create distinctly Canadian spaces within a series set and filmed in the United States in order to develop the show’s Canadian character, Robin Scherbatsky. Although the audience is aware that these spaces are ‘fake,’ the show’s writers establish a real connection between the spaces and Robin – a journalist who moves to New York to make it big – that establishes her Canadian identity as a facet of her character which can be played for humour rather than as a joke which defines her character. Robin’s actions and mannerisms place her comfortably within an external conception of how Canadians act or speak, but through the depiction of cultural, expatriate and significant commercial spaces, the series develops its own complex image of Canada’s national identity that fuels both comedy and character within its universe, all within the spatial limitations present in the multi-camera sitcom.

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Series Premiere: 18 to Life – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

January 4th, 2010

It’s not a huge surprise that ABC (likely through ABC Family), which already has a show about teen pregnancy, would be interested in acquiring the rights to 18 to Life (Mondays at 8 on CBC), a show which investigates teen marriage (as has been pointed out to me now, that co-production deal eventually fell apart). However, the Canadian series is not the same type of moralistic investigation that The Secret Life of the American Teenager wants to be. While it may not necessarily be offering an endorsement of kids who marry on an impulse at a young age (there’s a cautionary tale, here), it has no interest in taking the premise beyond its sitcom roots: this is a show about the madcap hijinks that face two kids trying to start a life together before their parents believe their lives have actually started, and the lack of moral aspirations is perhaps its strongest quality.

If you’re looking for something to break down sitcom expectations, you’re not going to find it here: of course the young couple have secrets that complicate their relationship, and of course their parents represent polar opposites, and of course they don’t think everything through before committing to their marriage. However, the pilot captures enough of the charm the premise is capable of evoking that I’m willing to endorse the show as a light-hearted negotiation of life, youth, and holy matrimony.

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The Big Bang Theory – “The Jiminy Conjecture”

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“The Jiminy Conjecture”

September 28th, 2009

I know it’s unrealistic, but part of me wanted this episode to start with a moment of recognition from Leonard as to how he treated Sheldon last week, and for that matter a moment for Sheldon to reflect on his own behaviour. I know that this is a traditional sitcom, one where the storyline from the week before could well have never happened (to some degree) before this one, which meant that the show will pick up the next day in some ways but not in others, but part of me wanted them to admit that what happened in the season premiere was not just another incident, and that Sheldon quitting his job was not something that can just be rewritten and forgotten.

However, that didn’t happen: there are no apologies, Sheldon magically has his job back, and the only thing that continues on is Penny and Leonard’s relationship. As such, this is my final complaint: I think it was a mistake, and that it tainted what could have been a strong premiere.

Now, moving onto “The Jiminy Conjecture,” this was an example of the show going back to basics by dividing off their characters and letting the Sheldon, Raj and Howard have some fun while Leonard and Penny attempt to figure out their relationship. While my past views on the show can tell you which side of the episode I preferred, it was a fun half hour of comedy at the end of the day, which is more than I can say for the convoluted premiere.

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