overthinking the idiot box

September 19th, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

The War of Sitcom Oppression

What happens when scripted and unscripted mix?
by Joel Bergen

"We started thinking: 'What is television about right now?' And we both agreed that what it was about was kind of the war between reality shows and sitcoms."
Michael Patrick King, Fresh Air, June 22, 2005

This summer, two series, both alike in indignity, debuted that put this war front and center: Bravo's Situation: Comedy and HBO's The Comeback. One is a reality show about making a sitcom, the other is a sitcom about making a reality show about making a sitcom. Both shows are at times painful to watch, full of egos gone wild and unable to find either critical adulation or an audience. Oh yeah, and they were both highlights of my summertime viewing.

Four years later, it's telling that Friends spin-off Joey resorted to casting Australian Outback runner-up Colby Donaldson in a recurring role as Joey's rival just to stay afloat against the latest installment of Survivor.
Situation: Comedy and The Comeback are only the most recent shots fired in a war that began in 2001 when CBS launched the opening salvo. The network scheduled Survivor: The Australian Outback opposite television's reigning comedy, the invincible Friends. Some wondered if CBS was prematurely committing Nielsen suicide by pitting the relatively untested reality genre against the undefeated comedy champ. Four years later, it's telling that Friends spin-off Joey resorted to casting Australian Outback runner-up Colby Donaldson in a recurring role as Joey's rival just to stay afloat against the latest installment of Survivor.

CBS' gamble proved so successful that NBC's decades-long comedy stronghold crumbled — not just to the Mark Burnett reality without, but to the Mark Burnett reality within. In 2004, for the first time since 1983, NBC's Thursday night no longer featured a two-hour block of comedies as Donald Trump was given the prime real estate once owned by Cheers and Seinfeld.

Around the time that Sex and the City, Friends and Frasier were making their final curtain calls, people started lamenting the death of the sitcom. Though there are many reasons for the genre's somewhat exaggerated decline, one can't help but notice that it's coincided with the reality boom (in the same coincidental way that dramas have managed to thrive in the face of reality).

Reality shows started gunning for laughs in half-hour installments, aggressively moving in on the sitcom's traditional turf. This evolution of the format is primarily found within the "celebreality" subset, and indeed, like that subset, it can be traced back to The Osbournes. Since that show's premiere in 2002, The Anna Nicole Show, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, The Simple Life and many more have followed suit, playing out like (supposedly) unscripted sitcoms, emulating the rhythms and story structures of the half-century-old form. Reality producers have even gone so far to directly reinterpret classic sitcoms with The Real Gilligan's Island and the in-limbo Real Beverly Hillbillies.

Sitcom producers have fought back, appropriating the aesthetics of reality television in, for lack of a better term, "mockreality" shows. What's shocking is that it took the reality big bang of 2000 to bring the mockumentary to series television. Sure, E.R., The Practice, The X-Files, The Simpsons and The West Wing did individual mockumentary episodes, but I'm having trouble coming up with a single 20th century series that sustained the artifice over its entire run (The Larry Sanders Show may have looked like a documentary, but it never purported to be one).

In 1999, HBO aired a mockumentary special called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. The network was pleased with what they saw and ordered a series based on that special. A year later, Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted. At first, the series attempted to continue the mockumentary style of its antecedent (minus the talking head interviews), however after a few episodes, they dropped the ruse. Though the dialogue continues to be entirely improvised and shot on the fly with two cameras, there are camera angles and scenes that wouldn't realistically be shot by a documentary crew (the process is a fascinating one, documented in great detail by executive producer Robert B. Weide here).

Like reality television, the first continuous televised mockumentary would come to us from overseas. In 2001, The Office premiered on BBC-2. It was followed in 2003 by the original American series Reno 911! and Arrested Development and in 2005 by its own Americanized version. Strangely, any of these shows could've been produced at least ten years earlier (The Offices and Arrested Development are more documentary than reality while Reno 911!'s progenitor COPS has been around since 1989). Yet, in the same way that documentary films didn't become blockbusters until two years into the reality craze, it took viewer familiarity with the aesthetics of reality for these series to court even their meager audiences.

Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow — adding a new level of reality to unscripted programming, via a scripted HBO comedy.
All of this makes The Comeback the first mockreality sitcom to reflect modern reality television (like my TiVo, I'll ignore Comedy Central's Drawn Together) — specifically celebreality. The show, starring Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a has-been sitcom star, cleverly uses the conceit that everything we see is "raw footage" from the fictional Comeback reality show in order to justify showing things that would never appear on a broadcast network as well as their use of awkward pacing and the breaking down of the fourth wall. Unlike those other mockreality series which are ostensibly the edited for broadcast versions, The Comeback prominently features its reality crew as characters. This allows them to show the reality of reality TV more than any reality show (other than The Joe Schmo Show) does.

Part of what I love about The Comeback is that it plays Willy Wonka, taking us on a tour of the sausage factories of both sitcoms and reality shows. As anyone who's ever been in a writers' room (or read The Smoking Gun accounts of what goes on in them) can attest, they're usually ten times more entertaining than what makes it on the air. Similarly, people who slave away editing reality shows claim that the best stuff is what we don't see. The Comeback exposes all of that.

It also takes equal digs at both bad sitcoms and bad reality. The fake sitcom at the heart of The Comeback is the atrociously crass and unfunny Room and Bored, and no clichı is spared in the bits we see. Meanwhile, in the heightened reality of The Comeback, Valerie Cherish shares the air with reality shows like America's Next Great Porn Star and Take That!, where newlyweds whack each other with a pipe, a shovel or a board for money.

Both The Comeback and Situation: Comedy are attempts by veterans of some of the greatest sitcoms of the last 15 years to appease reality viewers while chasing sitcom glory once again. However, both shows expose (The Comeback satirically, Situation: Comedy not so much) a part of the development process that has hindered sitcoms that has absolutely nothing to do with reality television: A refusal to try anything new. Perhaps if the network heads who greenlit the Situation: Comedy pilots had gone for shows more like The Comeback and less like Room & Bored, the reality of sitcoms wouldn't be so grim.

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