If You Will Permit a Thought on TV
Throughout the nineties and for the first half of the past decade, there were two dominant strains of sitcom: the blue-collar/white-collar family sitcom (Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Frasier, etc.), and the five-or-so-friends-hanging-out-in-a-city sitcom (Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers, etc.). The former culminated and withered with the end of Everybody Loves Raymond–now most often reiterated ironically by The Simpsons (which was far ahead of its time in that respect) and Family Guy–while the latter still persists in a way, only disguised or retooled as the workplace sitcom (30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Party Down), a formula which began in part with Murphy Brown and, in its current mode, with Scrubs and the British Office.
Why this paradigm, and why now? The reasons appear innumerable, and are precisely why these shows are so sparse and, until they disappear entirely, will remain an endangered trend. Roseanne, which arguably perfected the family sitcom dynamic, permitted one to escape into the escape of the Conners, offering a sort of “metaescapism” which no show since has been able to replicate. In Seinfeld, the merit of the characters was also their curse; we watched a family–a family without sharing, stripped of the execrable and redundant “family lesson” moments of the family sitcom–a family of children mishandle the responsibilities of adults. Seinfeld let the children inside of us laugh at the adults we’d so complacently become, and vice versa.
But the workplace sitcom shoves a mirror into the ass of our day-to-day, into the moments at which, whatever we do, we cannot relax, and finds some light there where ressentiment would find its home. It aestheticizes, twists and binds, an oppressive socio-economic reality; instead of fleeing from the bare life, from “mere life,” from what must be done, the workplace sitcom wants to transform it, not save us from bare life but deliver us to it in all the plenitude of its possibility. Not save us from danger but save us in the time of danger: the 9-5, or whatever you’d like. This is a welcome inversion of the reality show formula, which stupidifies and numbs us to whatever measure of the “good life” we’ve acquired.
So what do we do with this new form of sitcom? It’s a unique moment in television history that should not be written off; if reality television is self-consciously stupid programming throwing off the mask of high culture which the Food Network still condescendingly dons, then the workplace sitcom–equipped with the omission of commercials made possible by internet TV–is television not only embracing but reshaping its potential as a medium, as an aesthetic weapon: not an escape from one’s life, but an escape back into it.