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Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community Paperback – March 1, 2014
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“Astute and bursting with information—an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[...] Austerlitz ingeniously and persuasively uses the genre of situation comedy as an American Rosetta stone, showing it to be capable of decoding itself (thanks to its endless self-references) and of making intelligible an entire social archaeology, [...] Bottomless in its depth of research but as light in touch as the best of its subjects, Sitcom belongs in any home that has a sofa and a TV set.” —Stuart Klawans, the Nation
“Austerlitz writes with a direct and punchy style… that makes for compelling reading.” —Paste
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Realism -- all about the instability at the heart of 1950s conformism, and the gradual disintegration of that conformism through the '60s and '70s -- was the age of Ralph Kramden, Lucy Ricardo, Beaver Cleaver, Gilligan(!), Mary Richards, and Archie Bunker.
The modernist sitcom played to a mass audience while blurring the lines between comedy and drama (M*A*S*H), peppering soap opera romance with jokes (CHEERS, FRIENDS), making shows mimic the pointless, plotless minutiae of real life (SEINFELD), or exploding the sitcom format's boundaries altogether (THE SIMPSONS).
The postmodern sitcom -- arch, cerebral, self-reflexive, formidably well versed in the history of its genre -- plays to a dwindling audience of hipsters, critics, and intellectuals. While ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, 30 ROCK, COMMUNITY, and THE OFFICE play to their hip, literate niche audiences, viewers who don't feel as if they're in on the joke are probably still watching CBS (the old people's network), where sitcoms haven't evolved since 1990.
I like this book. Rather than merely tickle our nostalgia and call it a day, Austerlitz makes the case that the sitcom is both a frequently embarrassing TV genre, and a pop art form that actually matters. It shows us ourselves, as what we aspire to, and as what we are.
Even though Austerlitz chose episodes from 24 different TV shows to illustrate the history of American sitcoms, he mentions many more throughout the book. And don't worry, he did remember to exclude your favourites, just to annoy you. Or as he puts it: "Like any mix tape worth its salt, there will be grounds for complaint over what is left off as much as what is included." I think the mixed metaphor bothered me more than the missing TV shows.
The episodes he chose are arranged chronologically according to when the series first aired and there aren't a lot of surprises, in that all of the shows represented are TV classics in their own right (except The Phil Silvers Show. Does anybody remember that show?). He seems to have chosen the shows for their impact on television history, but the individual episodes for how much they exemplify the state of the medium itself. So a lot of the episodes he discusses are ones that are increasingly self-reflexive and self-referential.
The story Austerlitz is telling is that of sitcoms as an American art form that has increased in self-awareness as it becomes more and more a part of its viewers lives. When discussing The Honeymooners, for instance, he mentions that in a scene in which Ralph Kramden is supposed to be painting a wall, the paper-thin set wall shakes when he touches it because "they hadn't learned to hide those imperfections from us yet." Fast forward a few decades and Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock are so aware of television conventions and viewer expectations that they deliberately subvert them as part of the joke. "Remember all those times..." they muse, prompting the viewers to wait for the inevitable flashback sequence. Instead the characters stare off blankly for a few beats, remembering.
Of course some of the author's choices are no doubt informed by his own personal tastes. Was Sex and the City REALLY a sitcom or did he want to include it because he liked the show? Was Friends REALLY the "last sitcom to be so inclined...to hold the splintering masses together--or to want to"? Is Modern Family such a " deeply conservative reimagining of the classical sitcom decorated with contemporary touches"? And could he not find it in his heart to include an episode of Three's Company in the list? Or Maude? Or The Facts of Life? Or Good Times? Or anything starring Bob Newhart? And has he seen Archer? But I digress.
And sure, there are times when I wanted to nitpick and say, "But wait! That's not so!" His claims about the post-sitcom lives of the stars of Seinfeld and Friends, for instance, seems to include Julia Louis-Dreyfus' brilliant turn on Veep but ignore Lisa Kudrow's tour-de-force series Web Therapy. All right, I really am being nitpicky. But that's what television does to us. It turns us all into furious experts, arguing over how many episodes there were of Star Trek or whether we ever accepted the "new Becky."
I may not agree with Austerlitz's assertion that the sitcom is a uniquely American art form (he doesn't include any British shows, though he does mention a few) nor that it's in its last stages of decline. But I do agree that it is a uniquely unifying art form. Even though more than half of the shows he talks about in the book aired before I was born, I can attest that I have seen every single one of the 24 episodes he lists (except The Phil Silvers Show. Seriously, what was that?)
For more about this and other books, please visit my blog, Cozy Little Book Journal.
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As a television and pop culture junkie, this book was right up my alley. I was not disappointed.Read more