Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (And keep them coming — any related topic on which you want my opinion and/or a little research? Just let me know!)
Gary K. wants to know… What other blogs do you regularly read?
I have been reading Ken Levine’s blog for over a decade, and I’m still in the habit of visiting every morning, just to see if he has something interesting to say about sitcoms, in particular. I really enjoy his Friday Questions and I admit I “borrowed” that idea for this series of posts — which I started in 2020 and have very much enjoyed, as it’s allowed me to share thoughts on subjects that directly interest you and on which I otherwise would not have crafted full essays.
Scott RA says… What do you think is the single best year in Broadway musical theatre history?
It’s perhaps a clichéd answer, but I think 1964 is pretty spectacular — it exists on the cusp of The Golden Age and the transitional era that followed, with big hits in Hello Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler On The Roof, along with solid second-tier scores like What Makes Sammy Run?, High Spirits, Fade Out–Fade In, Golden Boy, and Stephen Sondheim’s fascinating Anyone Can Whistle. Also, I’m a sucker for the flop fun of Foxy and especially want to single out the underrated Ben Franklin In Paris. And those are just the highlights! In terms of other great years, I’ve also always been dazzled by 1927, 1947, 1956, and 1959 — they all produced many gems.
Hartford, CT has a request… I was born in 1984 and I would like to know what you think are the five best sitcom episodes of that year are. Thank you!
Well, I’m afraid there’s not much variety. Cheers is so brilliant in this era that there’s little room for competition, aside from the best ever episode of the year’s breakout hit, The Cosby Show…
CHEERS (S2): “Fortune And Men’s Weight” (02/02/84)
CHEERS (S2): “I’ll Be Seeing You (II)” (05/10/84)
THE COSBY SHOW (S1): “Pilot” [a.k.a. “Theo’s Economic Lesson”] (09/20/84)
CHEERS (S3): “Diane Meets Mom” (11/22/84)
CHEERS (S3): “Diane’s Allergy” (12/06/84)
Jon is curious… What changed your mind about wanting to feature “Empty Nest” here?
I got a decent amount of requests for the series in my 2021 survey, and since I’m such a fan of The Golden Girls (it’s one of the shows I can still regularly watch for recreation after having gone through the long, toiling process of covering it here — a process that always elevates my appreciation of a series, but sometimes zaps me of a desire to merely view it just for fun thereafter), I decided that I could easily live in a similar world for seven more weeks, even if I also know that Empty Nest is never going to be more than amiable mediocrity in comparison. (And, trust me, if that sounds like faint praise, don’t worry — it’ll be a pleasure to cover!)
Lastly, although this was not in answer to a question, reader David Kelly left a comment last month about the difference between characters who are naïve vs. stupid, and I provided a response that I enjoyed so much that I’d like to share it here with you…
Yes, I agree with your distinction between naïve and stupid: a motivated/explained lack of awareness vs. an unmotivated/unexplained lack of awareness. (This was a point of contention for some with regard to my adjudication of Jeannie’s characterization on I Dream Of Jeannie — you can check out the comments on my controversial Bewitched vs. Jeannie post for more.) As for dumb characters on the sitcom, they’re commonplace because they’re a stock type that allows for easy jokes of which there will never be a shortage, so there’s seldom a need to supplement the kind of humor they can offer, or even an urge to find new usages for them in story — the fool is functionally fruitful for drama as well, and always will be. I think more than anything else, this character has recently become conflated (since the ‘90s) with the bizarre — someone who can say or do anything, untethered to regular logic — because it enables the same kind of comic foolishness, but with more of an element of surprise and less of a straight connection to the overly familiar archetype that modern audiences now find lazy and unoriginal: an insult to their intelligence. As always, motivated, well-defined players are inherently preferable to the random or vague, for adhering to expectations is what makes the situation comedy a unique narrative art form: using the fixed elements of a “situation” for comedy.
Regarding extremes, I think every show has the right to set an aesthetic for logic/realism to which it can then be asked (by us) to adhere; so, if every sitcom creates its own expectations, then exaggeration is corrupting to its textual goals only when those expectations are breached. It’s not “one size fits all” on this metric, and I’m accordingly not bothered by broadly dumb characters if they’re consistently rendered, just as I’m (naturally) not bothered by naïve characters, who, by definition, suggest consistency. The problem with series television, of course, is the ongoing need for story; in order to keep that figurative machine churning, standards tend to gradually loosen on behalf of characters over time — without any direct motivation from said characters. And that’s when the character work (a necessary element for the situation comedy art form) falls short, particularly during eras — and on individual shows — that endeavor to be more literally realistic… like many in the 1990s, where the “sitcom-romcom” has a need for emotional dexterity that explicitly encourages “growth” as a sign of humanity (and a necessity for premise-affirming story). On such series, a dearth of motivated growth is especially jarring and a major source of deserved criticism.
Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Roseanne!