The State of Television in Today’s Challenged America

Daniel Poblete ’23

Contributing Writer

In March of 2005, American audiences were introduced to a cast of characters working at a mid-sized paper supply company with the NBC sitcom The Office. By the end of the first season, show creator Greg Daniels had found his voice. The show ran for 201 episodes before ending in 2013. This past summer Daniels and Steve Carrel–frontrunner of The Office–were expected to deliver again with Space Force on Netflix. For whatever reason, the show fell flat. So, what changed? Has Daniels lost his voice, or has  our collective taste changed? 

In the past fifteen years we have seen a recession, footage of police brutality, and a devastating pandemic. Are American audiences simply not in the mood to watch sitcoms anymore? Circa 2005 American audiences enjoyed shows like Arrested Development, Community, Parks and Recreation, and others. These shows were not devoid of any plot, but they all shared similar formats. Over the course of 30 minutes a story is introduced and developed with jokes spread throughout. The landscape of television is simply not the same. Television is now watched on computer screens hours at a time with no breaks for advertisements. It is worth noting that both Community and Arrested Development attempted comebacks in recent years to minimal success. But why is the sitcom format seemingly dead? 

Rest assured, laughter is not dead, but it is definitely different. The sitcoms I have mentioned are not only linked by their format, but tonally they are all on the same page. Yes, we care about the characters, but tonally they are all funny. As I said, laughter is not dead. The most popular shows on streaming services usually have hour long episodes. With this format, current shows have the ability to shift tonally throughout a single episode. Season three of Stranger Things is probably the best example of shifting tonally. The third season would spend time on the character of Nancy, dealing with sexism in the workplace than cut to a subplot about another character singing to his long-distance girlfriend with his friends present. 

Other examples of this mix of comedy, suspense, and drama are Succession (HBO), Barry (HBO), Sex Education (Netflix), The Boys (Amazon Prime). My answer to the disappearance of the 30-minute sitcom is that our taste has matured. For whatever reason, American audiences embraced the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory for 12 seasons. The show finally concluded in May of 2019, effectively putting the nail in the coffin of the laugh track situational comedy. We have lived through one too many pandemics to laugh for a wholesome, tonally constant 30-minute episode that will not challenge any of our beliefs. There is something to the hour-long format of a suspenseful show with comedic relief that allows for a more cathartic viewing experience.

We need to accept the reality of the fact that we live in an America where presidential debates have regressed into petty scuffles between the moderator and the President. It seems to me that The Big Bang Theory should not exist during this strange period. It simply is not good for the collective intelligence of our country anymore. We, America, have matured. 

Our taste needs to mature, and this shift seems to be beginning. We need to embrace television that asks important questions while exposing the funny parts of this absurd state in which we live.

bclark

Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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