Now that finals are over (for me, anyway), I might have time to engage in that distinctly American pastime--watching television. I do know one thing: I won't be tuning in to any network station before 10 o'clock, unless it's for an NBA playoff game. The reason? Sitcoms.
I don't understand why Americans love their sitcoms. The characters are all transparent, and the plots are utterly mundane. Most of the shows follow a hapless person through a never--ending series of embarrassing situation. Still, any attempts at absurd humor falls flat and is generally replaced by ludicrous slapstick.
Woe to the watcher who treats a sitcom like a good book, or even an above--average movie! One cannot make the mistake of taking these characters seriously or having any emotional involvement at all. You're not meant to cringe at their discomfort, but instead to laugh out loud at their idiocy.
Language out loud, and in derision--that's what Americans want to be doing. Those sitcom characters certainly aren't as smart as you are! You saw this whole thing coming from the very first! Yes, you sitting there on the couch with the glazed look and the short attention-span.
You've never seen a sitcom with a genuinely intelligent character. At least, a character who didn't have some serious personality flaw to go along with the brainpower. No, that would threaten the average American. All those smart characters must have something wrong with them. They make the perfect kind of despicable foil--superior enough to resent, yet inferior enough to dismiss. The anti-intellectual American can rest easy.
The actual purpose of sitcoms, therefore, is not entertainment. True, little entertainment outside of absurd humor comes without the cost of a little mockery or deprecation. But a sitcom doesn't supply much wit or coincidence, just a constant stream of feeble pointing and ridiculing built on some imaginary person's futility.
It is ironic that so many successful stand-up comedians are said to have 'really made it' when they land their own sitcoms. These skilled practitioners, who generated humor from real life, and their own wits for years, 'succeed' when they trade in their own clever repartee for mindless scripts.
Of course, the crowing feature of all sitcoms is that everything is resolved within a wild and wacky 30 minutes. This phenonmenon ensures that no American will be burdened by even the slightest worry, if some slight emotional concern did happen to develop during the course of an episode. Next week, in most cases, they start all over again. If it weren't for the factors' aging sitcoms wold have complete inertia. Not that aging makes too much of a difference--the characters don't lose any vacuousness as they mauture physically.
Yes, the 30-minutes time slot is crucial. Those hour-long specials never fail to fall flat, and you can hear the groans across the country when "To Be Continued" flashes across the screen. The American attention span can just barely encompass 30 minutes, and heaven forfend that viewers should have to remember what happened last week! That's what those little "Last Week on...."blurbs are for.
Thomas Hardy wrote tht fictions was about extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people. Nothing extraordinary can happen to sitcom characters, otherwise the banel balance of the situations would be irretrievably upset. The only exceptions to this rule is when an actor has to leave a show; extraordinaryly implausible explanatory events routinely result.
Extraordinary things happenning to ordinary people are left to good books (some of which Hardy wrote) and above-average movies, for the most part. The only substitutes for these things are extraordinary people. Fortunately, these can be found on television in multitudes, though where you find them depends on what you consider extraordinary. You might prefer news magazines to afternoon talk shows, for example. I prefer the NBA playoffs.
This Daniel Altman's last column of the semester.