Sitcoms-- Establishing the Rules of the Road

The sitcom confronts a frequent American problem-- how to reconcile the individual with the group. It tries to fit people into an ideal, integrated version of society. While the conventions of the sitcom are linked to it's changing history, it has fundamental rules that are universal.

All sitcoms deal with relationships, and how characters fit into a group which is usually a blood family, but can also sometimes be a surrogate family, as is the case with shows set in the workplace. The action neatly resolves itself in about 22 minutes, with everyone back where they started. "In good sitcoms the malcontent, brat, loner, lout, clodpoll, or witch creates disorder, then gets slowly drawn back, redomesticated, through the love of others and the private dawning of wisdom (Friend, 119)."

Television situation comedies grew out of radio shows, and the family centered shows we know today came of age in the fifties. After the turmoil of the second world war, viewers were ready to see an optimistic vision of the family. "In the fifties and sixties, the sitcom had offered the Depression-born post-World War II adult group a vision of peaceful, prosperous suburban life centered on the stable nuclear family (Marc, 14)."

Programs like Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, and Ozzie and Harriet came on the scene. While certainly idealized, these shows, which portrayed suburban nuclear familes did reflect trends of the times-- more women were emmersed in the domestic sphere after men returned from the war and reclaimed many jobs, and there was an immense migration of families to the suburbs.

However, already they demonstrated the messages and conventions which became a hallmark of the sitcom-- conformity to the group. "Mediated by the controlling authority of the family patriarch, group consensus was always realized by the conclusion of a given episode as stability was restored (Hamamoto, 25)." The shows dealt with family relationships, and if they sent no other message it was don't stray too far from the group. For example, in shows like I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball would create tension by challenging authority, but by the show's end she would see the error of her ways and returns to the group (Marc, 17).

Perhaps the sitcom that exemplified best the rules of the road was Father Knows Best. "Father Knows Best preached many basic lessons: Fulfill your promises; respect others; don't lie to your parents; always do your best work. But if it had one driving theme, it was this: Learn to accept your role (Jones, 98)." Set in the town of Springfield, the Andersons lived the American dream of a comfortable home in the suburbs and a smoothly running family. "Father Knows Best is rich text, a germinating artifact of the period many historians like to call 'the American Celebration' (Marc, Comic Visions,. 55)."

In the sixties, the sitcom was relatively unresponsive to the social changes going on in the country. The controversy spawned by the Vietnam War was largely ignored and networks aired bland family shows like The Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. It was only in the seventies that sitcoms started reflecting the changes in society that rocked the sixties. All in the Family, which dubuted in 1971, introduced the Bunkers, a working class family, which dared to have raucous fights and serious conflict on TV. Yet, even though they broke the mold of the stereotypically happy family, even they conformed in the end to the assurances of a happy family. "But that sentimentality also supported the strongest message that Archie brought mass America: that the world is insane and destructive but that somehow, with the support of our families, we will endure (Jones, 208)."

The history of the sitcom has been characterized by a reluctance to show the darker side of the American dream. Even the exceptions to the rule, like The Honeymooners in the fifties and All in the Family in the seventies, have an underlyng optimistic point of view.

Another popular seventies sitcom, the Mary Tyler Moore show, also reflected the changing society within the workings of the sitcom's group mentality. Moore plays a woman who enters the work world after her marriage plans don't work out. Unmarried and divorced women, who were becoming increasingly more common, could identify with her. Even though the character was unusual, she still conformed to her workplace group. "Mary Tyler Moore, in fine sitcom tradition, dealt with none of this directly but offered a sweeping reassurance (Jones, 200) " But it was the beginning of a relatively more realistic look at American society.


Sitcoms as Folklore | The Rules of the Road | Recent Trends | How the Simpsons Fit In | Conclusions |