Sitcoms reveal America’s changing reality, writes the author in this enthusiastic overview of an enduring genre.
Movie and TV critic Austerlitz (Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, 2010, etc.) brings his keen analysis of American culture to sitcoms, long the staple of prime time. Each chapter focuses on a single episode of a popular show, which launches the author’s investigation into the evolution of comedy; the talents of stars, producers and writers; and the changing expectations of viewers. As the author sees it, sitcoms emerged in the 1950s as “field guides to the new postwar consensus, an effort to simultaneously reflect the lives of their audiences and subtly steer their behavior.” The shows celebrated family life and domesticity, even when their subjects were sparring, childless couples, such as Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners. Most early sitcoms featured middle-class white families with stay-at-home mothers, children who invariably got into and out of mischief in half an hour, and fathers who did not always know best. Those sitcoms, writes the author, “promised comfort and familiarity, the certainty of an eternal present free of all but the most fleeting concerns.” In evaluating the genre, Austerlitz sets the bar high: I Love Lucy was brilliant, while Leave it to Beaver was repetitive and only occasionally funny. Some of his discoveries may surprise readers: The long-running, award-winning The Dick Van Dyke Show and Cheers were almost cancelled after their first seasons; Carl Reiner envisioned Johnny Carson for Van Dyke’s role; the creator of the racist Archie Bunker was “a card-carrying liberal humanist.” Roseanne, writes the author, disrupted the idea of sitcom as middle-class comfort zone; Friends offered viewers “a replacement family” in the form of a group of confidants; Seinfeld began a trend in which sitcoms spoofed television itself, “undercutting its medium, ridiculing its traditions and its unspoken assumptions.”
Astute and bursting with information—an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.