Searching For Seinfeld

The situation comedy has always been one of the cornerstones of network broadcasting. As variety shows, Westerns and big-money quizzes came and went, the sitcom endured. And to this day, nothing reruns like a sitcom. This simple yet enduring form has been central to the business and art of broadcast entertainment, but it is now, many claim, on the verge of generic extinction. Critics and commentators are coming out in droves not to praise the situation comedy, but to bury it.

But wait. We’ve been here before. During the 1983-84 season, only one sitcom, Kate & Allie, made Nielsen’s list of the 10 highest- rated TV series. Then, as now, hundreds of “death of the sitcom” features ran in newspapers across the country, speculating that a new programming innovation was edging out the old reliable one. The prime-time soap was the culprit back then, with Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest all in the top 10 and Knots Landing at No. 11.

Then along came The Cosby Show. On the back of this one hit, NBC built its must-see Thursday night dynasty, and situation comedies settled into two decades of spectacular success on network television. By the end of the 1987-88 season, the seven highest-rated shows on the air, and eight of the top 10, were sitcoms.

Yes, prime-time soaps pulled in impressive audiences in the early ’80s, as reality shows have been doing so far in the 21st century. We shouldn’t assume, however, that audiences will reject all other programming forms in favor of a hot new genre. (Just because you’ve discovered nouvelle cuisine doesn’t mean you never again feel like ordering a pizza.) And those who argue that sitcoms have become irrelevant in the multichannel universe—that Americans just aren’t interested in them anymore—should remember that just last season those same Americans were still making Friends a huge hit after a decade on the air. Put on a good sitcom and people—lots of people—will watch.

So what accounts for this latest arid spell? Less aggressive comedy development, in light of the reality TV frenzy, certainly has something to do with it, but it’s not as if the networks haven’t been trying. The real problem is that the bar has been raised pretty high over the past 25 years. Not that long ago, a show like Too Close for Comfort could become a hit on prime-time television. Once you’ve seen Seinfeld, though, it’s hard to go back to Who’s the Boss? The simple fact is that not many people can make sitcoms to the standards we have come to demand, and many of those who can have gone to HBO.

Make no mistake, however. The sitcom will be back. The appetite for what it provides is too great to keep it away for long. When it comes to user-friendliness, nothing beats the sitcom. Try the following experiment:

Watch a minute of Friends (or any sitcom, even if you’ve never seen an episode before), and try to remain confused. You can’t do it. Even if you come in late and leave early, even if you’re distracted by the baby, or the phone, or the kitchen smoke alarm—every minute of a sitcom is self-evident. You can enjoy it if you’re not in the room or if you’re half asleep. Sitcoms get all the blue-chip syndication spots in prime-time access because they’re a lot better suited to the state of the average American home at 7 p.m. than a rerun of CSI.

Let’s face it, a lot of the television we watch, we watch when we’re not paying much attention. Sure, we have our favorite shows—The Sopranos, a playoff game—for which we may take the phone of the hook, turn off the lights and concentrate. But much, maybe most, of the viewing we do is done while engaged in a variety of other activities. For all the futurists’ talk of interactive TV, what we like about television most of the time is the fact that it is so passive. Relationships are interactive, work is interactive, family dynamics are interactive; the joy of television, for over half a century, has been that it isn’t interactive.

Every season, we may make a commitment to a few shows like 24 or Lost or Survivor. But these programs are so needy. They demand a relationship. They require that you call upon them every single week. If you don’t, they retaliate by confusing you. Sitcoms, on the other hand, are easy. They’ll show you a good time whenever you want—whether you’re paying attention or not. That’s why even a modestly competent sitcom such as Two and a Half Men can stay in business, and why a wonderful comedy (not a sitcom) like Arrested Development will never be a blockbuster. In the new culture of niche programming, the sitcom remains one of the most viable tricks that broadcast networks have up their sleeve.

It may not be this season, or even next, but the sitcom will rise again. Science tells us that cockroaches can survive anything. Sitcoms are like that. When everything else is gone, there will always be cockroaches and sitcoms.