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. (I now have a stockpile!)
Track has a question… What is your favorite sitcom performance?
There are too many that I enjoy and would have to weigh against each other to answer this accurately, but here are five masterful regular performances that come to mind, one for each of the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s: Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy), Don Knotts’ Barney Fife (The Andy Griffith Show), Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker (All In The Family), Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers (Cheers), and David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Crane (Frasier).
Paul D. says… Ralph Kramden lost on “The $99,000 Answer,” Laura Petrie let the cat out of the bag playing “Pay As You Go.,” while Oscar M. & Felix U. competed on “Password”, and finally the Harpers were on “Family Feud.” How about a writing a feature about what circumstances when sitcom characters go on a game show, either real or made up, will work or won’t work.
I’ve had several suggestions over the years for posts discussing common sitcom stories or gimmicks — characters who are played by different actors, characters who are talked about but never seen, real-time episodes, etc. — but outside of a few holiday-themed lists, I’ve not found a subject that interests me enough to shape a piece around it. Frankly, I’m only concerned with how I can determine whether a series, or an episode, has value in our broad look at the sitcom genre, so outside of being asked which is my favorite episodic use of these various templates, I’m not sure I have much to say. As for the game show trope specifically, remember that almost all narrative fiction involves somebody who wants something but has a hard time getting it. The sitcom employs this structure religiously, prolonging every character’s achievement of desired goals, not only to sustain a long run, but also because comedy thrives on conflict. Week to week then, failure is more common than success. Remember that this is also how characters reveal flaws — either by motivating a drama or by reacting to it — so the more unhappy and miserable they are, the more exploitable they are for story (and comedy). Therefore, most of the time, sitcom characters on game shows are going to lose. If they win, it’s usually to surprise the audience or reach a different comic climax, often with the characters ultimately discontented.
Mark Kirby writes in… Loved the PETTICOAT JUNCTION piece! There are lots of series that don’t merit a weekly column on Tuesdays but deserve to be mentioned. PJ was a fine example. It’s an innocuous series anchored and bolstered by a likeable and talented lead. To this end will we ever see a one-time column on HAZEL or THE DORIS DAY SHOW? I value both series because their leads (especially Booth) didn’t have that many films […] so it’s wonderful seeing them in even lesser vehicles. Their talent still shines through. Anyway, you might disagree but I think both shows deserve the Jackson Upperco treatment […] with your keen insight!
Thanks for the kind words. I offered a Wildcard essay on Petticoat Junction only because I watched all of the show to aid my full Sitcom Tuesday coverage of The Beverly Hillbillies, which in turn got added nuance. I wouldn’t have watched Petticoat so studiously without this larger purpose, and I wouldn’t have written about it if I didn’t have said larger purpose propelling me to study it in the first place. I’m afraid it’s not feasible for me to review multiple seasons of mediocre series — several weeks of material — for just a single post; that’s wasteful, just as it’d be wasteful to stretch out their analyses on Sitcom Tuesdays, which is reserved for stronger efforts… As for the other series you mentioned, my disinterest in Hazel has been noted in a previous Q&A entry, while The Doris Day Show appeals to me only as a study in the changing trends of its era… although not enough to commit to five weeks of work for it, as I’m not sure there’s anything to say about it that must be said or can’t be discussed in relation to something better. But thanks again for the compliment — hopefully there’ll be more shows you love up here soon!
Ian V. mentions… You wrote this year about the slump in sit-com favorability and quality in the late 1950’s. Do you think that slump is comparable to the one in the early 1980’s (before Cosby)?
Keep in mind that there were over twice as many sitcoms on the air during the 1983-’84 season as there were in 1958-’59. The early ’80s had more of everything: more gems, more middlers, more failures, more stinkers that were nevertheless hits, etc. And the late ’50s had fewer of everything — including gems. Now, simply accounting for quality, I’d call the inferior shows from the early ’80s more inferior and the superior shows from the early ’80s more superior — with a greater disparity between the best and the worst. At the same time, I’d also call the early ’80s more disappointing because we were coming off a two-decade high: the classic-filled ’60s and the quality-elevating ’70s. In contrast, the comedy peak of the middle 1950s that quickly came and went hadn’t yet created a belief in the genre’s primacy. So, ultimately, the ’80s slump compares unfavorably to the ’50s slump by having more duds and not meeting expectations, but it also compares favorably for nevertheless providing more good shows to enjoy.
Charlie asks… What would you say are the best sitcoms per season from 1990-2000?
There are a couple of ways to go about this question, but we’ll start with setting some necessary parameters: only shows I’ve studied and discussed here are up for consideration. With that settled, the first way to answer this is to focus on episodic results, comparing a series’ ten finest samples from one specific season to another series’ finest samples from the same season — ignoring everything but which collection is stronger. Another way is to focus on the shows themselves — which is better? In this, there are two considerations: (A) the overall quality of each series relative to each other (i.e. Cheers is better than Night Court) and (B) the fluctuations in their annual qualities as a result of being in peaks, depressions, etc. (i.e. All In The Family is better than WKRP In Cincinnati, but you couldn’t look at them in 1978-’79 and say the same). (A) rewards long-term performance, while (B) factors in the individual standards to which each series holds itself. Yet, together they still give preference to foundational success over episodic results. So, here’s my list — using the second series-based method (with A&B considered), followed after the slash by the episodic-based results, when divergent.
Have a question for me? Submit your queries at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link in the menu bar above. If I get enough responses, this could become a regular feature.
Come back next week for a special double-header Sitcom Tuesday!