Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Step Aside, Families

They are young. They are paired off. They are childless. They are everywhere.

Valentine’s season has come and gone and I am pleased to say that I had a fairly successful time avoiding the aggravating, relationshippy bullshit taking place all around me. As a single person, this is an important skill and one that I have perfected over the years. I can sense when a friend is about to gush about his girlfriend or mope about her breakup or bemoan his single status, and I am always prepared. A subtle conversational misdirection here, an innocuous segue there, and I am usually, as they say, golden. I was not, however, prepared to be attacked with this crap by the one constantly faithful institution in my life: TV.

I know this has been sneaking up on us for some time now, but never before have there been so many relationship sitcomsnot to be confused with friend sitcoms, a topic for another day—pervading the airwaves in every. freaking. direction. I think it’s safe to declare the Couple Sitcom the new Family Sitcom in terms of unimaginative comedy with mass appeal. It’s true. Every major network has one, and I am virtually incapable of flipping channels on any night of the TV-viewing week without stumbling on a pair o’ lovers mumbling hackneyed apologies to, or trying to hide some absurd blunder from, one another.

It all started harmlessly enough when CBS, arguably the stodgiest, most boundary-pulling network, introduced Rules of Engagement back in 2007. Two couples and an aging lothario (played by David Spade (as if! (there aren’t enough parentheses in the world to fully capture all of my Inception-style reactions to this))) hanging out and trading repartee about the so-called differences between men and women? OK, sure; I’d watch that in the Dakotas. I didn’t even give a second thought to ABC’s fluffy-haired, fluffy-brained Better with You, which premiered this fall and is occasionally amusing. This, by the way, is a show with stylish outfits, square older people, and cutesy sets (one of the couples lives in an old firehouse, cue eye roll) meant to appeal to younger audiences. Again, harmless enough. But no sooner did the 2011 confetti touch the beer-soaked ground than two more such sitcoms sprouted within mere weeks of each other: NBC’s Perfect Couples and Fox’s Traffic Light, wherein the titular road signal is officially the dumbest analogy for a relationship I’ve ever heardsomething about the different color lights symbolizing the different stages… I don’t know; I tuned out when the dopey wrap-up music started playing. 

So what gives? Is this what the market wants? I can respect that, but do all of these shows have to be exactly the same? Oh, look: Jack and Jill are the couple that’s been together forever; they need to find ways to keep things fresh! John and Jane are just starting out; they are naïve and still think relationships are fun and easy! Whatever will they all learn this week?!

The problem with this formula is that it inevitably draws on certain relationship clichés to make its stories work, not the least and most irritating of which is painting its women as hormonal shrews and its men as clueless doofuses, younger versions of Debra and Ray Barone but without the kids or the lovable core. Either that or it’s the gullible bimbo wives who repeatedly fall for the countless schemes and tricks the men concoct to temporarily escape the confines of the relationship. And so, instead of giving their audience an actual team for which to root, these shows invariably give us an antagonist, whether it’s the women’s ball busting tactics or the men’s utterly avoidant styles of husbandry. By the way, I’d really love to know how much more of the “I love my wife, but I am still a man” motif I can look forward to yawning through this year. Not only is this trope more tired than James Franco, but it is completely false. I don’t know any women in relationships who actively seek to emasculate their partners to the degree that television will have us think or, you know, at all. I mean, cry me a river, guy, but if you are in a committed relationship with a Lady, just accept that your days of going to strip clubs or similarly sleazy locales are over. Am I right?

For me, the most successful, if poorly titled, of the four sitcoms is Perfect Couples. The edge it has is in taking an atypical approach to the establishment of the couples. Instead of giving us three relationships at three different stages on the joint journey towards death, this show merely gives us three stylistically different relationships; I call them the Average Joes, the Drama Queens, and the Wild Cards. It works because the characters are each distinctively fleshed out, and the actors, bless their hearts, fully commit to their imagined personas. There’s also a glorious lack of a men vs. women competitive/mean-spirited streak, for which I am truly grateful. Ultimately, these elements all come together to create a comedy that’s actuallyare you sitting down?funny.

What do you guys think of this phenomenon I call the Couple Sitcom? And for the love of God, who finds David Spade sexy???


  1. Wow that was bitter. This may not be what the market prefers, but it IS what they've expressed interest in.

    Shows that aren't watched are cancelled pretty quickly (mercy anyone?). If people are watching then that means there's people for advertisers to market to; the network makes money and continues to make shows and round and round we go.

    Perhaps the reason why there are so many couples sitcoms is because "couplehood" is on the decline.

  2. ...and you've just articulated why I've avoided TV this year...

  3. @Andrew: an interesting hypothesis.

  4. Preach it. I think these shows do appeal to the majority of people. I also think the majority of people are about as interesting as those shows. I agree with Andrew that long term couplehood is on the decline but that coupling isn't going anywhere any time soon. So different manifestations of these banal shows will continue to flourish. Forever.

    As an aside, I didn't even like Friends. And David Spade is not so sexy.

  5. @Artillery

    I think as viewers we're very much in the driver's seat here and that's great. If we want film to change, we're going to have to make a collective decision to support the kind of things we want to see.

    At their core, the networks are all about money. If enough of our interests change they'll simply go where the money is. We see this in music all the time. Blink 182 broke into the mainstream and all of a sudden we had a dozen pop-punk bands (e.g Sum41, New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, etc.) as the labels rushed to cash in on the "new" cash cow.

    We don't need most of the market to change either (as cable programming has shown), it just needs to be enough.

    It seems to me that people crave meaningful relationships, yet gravitate towards shallow expressions of those relationships. So I'd say that crappy programming will continue unless people start showing they want better.

  6. @Atillery & Brandy
    David Spade always rubbed me the wrong way. It always seemed like he went out of his way to be a jerk.

  7. @Andrew: I liked Spade in Just Shoot Me, when he was playing a much more believable role as "hapless dweeb." He also resembled a child then, and it's hard to really dislike a child...

  8. @Brandy
    He was still a jerk as the "hapless dweeb".

  9. @Brandy

    My bitter comment was unfair. I'm sorry.
    I re-read your thoughts with a different perspective and I have a better idea of where you're coming from now.

  10. Okay, here's something: There's a show out called "Parenthood" that is SO good. It's not a comedy, more of a drama. And has a spread of relationships, but all in one family. I think they do a really good job of "keeping it real", and it seems like every episode their storyline options increase exponentially. I am stoked about this show. Please watch!

  11. Thanks, I'll check it out! I saw the very first eppy last year, but couldn't find a way to add it to my "repertoire." Maybe this time?

  12. You definitely should as it's just really hitting it's stride. :) love it!