The Office left a clear mark on the US sitcom landscape–one of my the most successful US sitcoms on right now, Modern Family, continues to ape its talking head style (not that The Office invented that, but it certainly popularized it in modern American sitcoms). It has lead to a significant rise in the success and popularity of single-camera sitcoms. And it has resulted in multiple shows that aren’t afraid to go for heart, for extended periods of time with no laughs, just genuine emotion expressed between characters who have earned, through their comedy, the affection and emotional investment of their audience.
The other sitcom leaving the air this TV season is 30 Rock, the show that absolutely defined NBC as a channel willing to give a unique comedy show a chance. 30 Rock has never been a great performer ratings-wise but has been a critical darling and an award-winning machine since it started in 2006. It made Tina Fey the face of women in comedy in the US. It’s been easily one of my favorite shows for the past six years. And it has one thing a lot of other US sitcoms don’t have:
It isn’t particularly sentimental.
A lot of shows get more sentimental as they go along–characters get fleshed out, we begin to care about their lives and relationships. The later seasons of Friends were frequently accused of being soap operas with occasional jokes. Parks and Recreation‘s relentless optimism makes it an easy candidate for sincere relationship moments amongst beloved characters. But over its seven seasons, 30 Rock just got weirder and weirder.
30 Rock‘s characters aren’t without feeling–Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy has ended almost every season deciding whether or not to break off an engagement with a woman that he loves and Liz Lemon’s desire for love and family have been core features of her character. In fact, the only moment that comes to mind as something not overtly played for laughs and the closest to purely emotional comes from a moment at the end of a sixth season episode in which Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), in the midst of a break from her long-term boyfriend, realizes that she truly loves him and wants to marry him. When she goes to tell him, she spots him through a window, sharing an intimate moment with another woman, looking happy. Jenna realizes she’s too late and leaves, heartbroken.
It’s worth noting that the man Jenna is in love with, Paul (Will Forte), works in a drag bar as a Jenna Maroney impersonator and a man in an anthropomorphic couch costume is also sharing the intimate moment Paul shares with this other woman.
Absurd Characters: Ron Swanson and Tracy Jordan
Parks and Recreation serves well as a comparison here, if only because in its own way, it’s a show that inhabits a pretty weird world–Pawnee has gotten more than its fair share of comparisons to Springfield. In its early stages, Parks and Rec‘s strangest character was easily the show’s breakout character and handsomest man on TV (sitcom category) Ron Swanson.
Ron began (and, off and on, continues to be) as an absurd combination of what many people possibly actually believe goes on in local government–someone is actively working against any sort of useful work being done within it–and an over-the-top rugged outdoorsman. Ron served as a bit of a weird enigma with an ever-expanding collection of hobbies and personality traits–my favorite being the consistently remembered fact that Ron began working–as in actual jobs–when he was a child. When he goes through his photo album of every time he’s visited JJ’s Steakhouse, his earliest photo from when he is “just a boy” looks identical to current Ron. He aged and became the Man with a capital M he is today very early.
This is an absurd characteristic, used multiple times to communicate sincere sentimentality via speeches he gives to Leslie when she’s at the end of her rope (“Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”). More absurd traits that are less useful to emotional storylines, like Ron’s alter-ego Duke Silver, seem to be all but dropped. Over time Ron becomes more seemingly sensible, more realistic, less outlandish.
30 Rock‘s most absurd character, Tracy Jordan, had one of the most sincere moments in the show in its first episode when, in the midst of driving Liz Lemon back to her show’s set, he stops to look at the building her grew up in. Liz increduously asks, “The Jordan Family Estate?” He responds, “foster care.” This connection clearly prompts some empathy in Liz, who eventually welcomes him to her show and becomes his friend.
This is pretty much the last time Tracy’s rough upbringing is treated with sincerity, despite the fact that it at least in part seems to draw from actor Tracy Morgan’s actual life. For the most part, Tracy Jordan is very distant from the world he lived in before his excessive wealth and fame. When, in one episode, memories of his horrible upbringing suddenly come back to him, his descriptions begin silly/horrifying (“I slept on an old dog bed stuffed with wigs. I watched a prostitute stab a clown!”) and very rapidly become insane (“A pack of wild dogs took over and successfully ran a Wendy’s!”). In recent episodes, Tracy has been exposed as theoretically the most stable character on the show: married to the same woman who he clearly loves for 22 years with a very successful career, an Oscar, and three children. This is no coincidence. This is a bold comedic statement, an insistence on a lack of sensible characters; the most stable, stereotypically successful character on the show is someone described multiple times as mentally ill.
Doing away with moments of pure sincerity and The Jerk
Moreso than just in these two examples, American comedy has begun to trend towards stories “with heart.” This isn’t inherently bad–in general, I think it grounds narratives in film and television, making comedies more likely to be considered legitimate artistic works than pure entertainment. There was a time when film comedies came standard with a portion of drama and it was not unprecedented for one to win an Oscar.
But even the silliest of comedies tend to have something heartfelt driving the plot. One of my favorite comedies of all time, The Jerk, manages to be about an hour and a half of nothing but solid jokes. It has about three moments where things get serious, all surrounding the love story between Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters’s characters and they are all, from the romantic to the heartbreaking, undercut by something ridiculous. Even the most baldly romantic scene features Marie pulling a coronet out of nowhere and Navin ending a sweet sentiment with “I didn’t want to get spit on me.”
It’s a bit rare to see something like this, just a solid block of laughs with little time to come up for air. It’s a spirit carried on the 30 Rock and something that, when 30 Rock ends once and for all in a few weeks’ time, will be sorely missed on American television.