Love to hate, hate to love: On contemporary comedy’s reliance on bickering

Yesterday during the ABC Wednesday comedy showrunners panel at the Television Critics Association gathering, Modern Family honcho Steve Levitan made a comment about how he would like to see the “far right” to not like his series’ two gay characters, Mitchell and Cameron. The implication from Levitan’s statement being that everyone has to love Mitchell and Cameron and if far right nuts got past the whole gay thing, they’d love them to. I subsequently tweeted that it’s going to be pretty hard for the right to like Mitchell and Cameron when they don’t even like each other.

One of the biggest problems I have with Modern Family is that the characters bicker and argue (and get into car accidents) so often throughout much of an individual episode’s running time that it is difficult to buy the final, already pandering and cheesy voiceovers or hug-centric resolutions.* I understand that family members drive each other nuts and that leads to verbal barbs and yelling, but the consistent nature at which Family engages in that storytelling is both embarrassing from a story perspective and legitimately awful in a larger sense.

* I’ve talked about this subject before, but Levitan’s comment spurred me on to think about it constantly last night.

As I have said before, I never expected Modern Family to depict a gritty, realistic portrayal of family life in contemporary society, but at least the first season had episodes that took that charge seriously somewhat. The series has been overrun by the other of the initial premise, that being the traditional wacky family sitcom shtick. Family just happens to be gussied up with the multi-camera mockumentary style, but it could fit in with all sorts of broad comedy blocks of yesteryear.  

The impact of the transition from smart comedy that mixes the old with the new to this simplistic, loud and bicker-y formula has been particularly damaging to Mitchell and Cameron. These days, the two rarely have a story that doesn’t eventually lead to the other screaming like a shrill or pouting like a baby. Their lack of physical affection towards one another is troubling enough, but these days, it is hard to really see why Mitchell and Cameron even enjoy one another’s company.

The strenuous ways that the series’ writers get the two of them into spats on a consistent basis has turned two compelling and contemporary characters into basic, stereotypical one-note argue machines. The series’ failed writing applies to all the adult pairings, but I would argue that Modern Family’s typical rhythms are most harmful for Mitchell and Cameron. Phil and Claire’s issues are almost always based on the former’s lack of self-awareness, a trope that requires less outward bickering and more of Claire looking exasperated. Meanwhile, the tension between Jay and Gloria is still mostly powered by “He’s old! And she’s young, and foreign!” gags, but again, there’s an inherent lack of overt pettiness between them. Jay’s old, Gloria can be crazy. Clearly, the series’ typical structure is already stale and staid and it is severely disappointing that these actors are wasted in such a basic manner just as Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are.

However, the tension-template for Mitchell and Cameron is the one most reliant on yelling and childish emotional reactions to said yelling. And again, because it happens on such a consistent basis, it makes it hard for me to care about each week’s reconciliation or the relationship as a whole. Right now, Mitchell and Cameron are considering adopting a second child. To me, that sounds like the worst idea ever. I want to call CPS and the adoption agencies and warn them.

Of course, Modern Family isn’t the only big comedy on the air right now that embraces the bickering and the borderline hatred. In fact, four of the five most popular comedies on the air right now – Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and Half Men, 2 Broke Girls – are all based around people saying awful things to one another in hopes of getting the audience to laugh. Sometimes, like in Modern Family’s case, the series then tries to tell us that it’s just all part of the familial or group bond, which is obviously patronizing and false. But even a series like Big Bang, which doesn’t take that kind of middling approach most weeks, still rings false to me because the characters are so awful to one another I don’t even understand why they’d continue to live in the same spaces, eat together at  lunch or do anything together.

And this is nothing new for mainstream broadcast network television comedy. Many of the medium’s most popular sitcoms of all-time were centered on this “people being awful to one another” premise. Obvious candidates like All in the Family and Everybody Loves Raymond come to mind first, but Ricky treated Lucy like crap on I Love Lucy, the crew on Seinfeld hated everyone and everything, all anyone did on Will & Grace was bicker, etc. There are probably a dozen other examples I’m not thinking of right now.

However, on the flip side two of the biggest comedies of all time are Friends, where the togetherness is backed up IN THE NAME OF THE SERIES, and Cheers, where the theme song is all about togetherness and friendship. Obviously, both of these comedies featured hundreds of moments where characters verbally attacked one another and argued, but what made them so beloved and so great is that for the most part, the attacks and arguments didn’t betray relationships just to get a laugh. Friends might have struggled with this in its later years, but they kept it under control generally.

In contemporary television though, the sitcoms that follow the Friends and Cheers patterns aren’t breaking through and becoming audience favorites. Will & Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond might have filled the airwaves with hate, but at least Friends was there to sort of negate it a bit. Now though? Not so much. How I Met Your Mother is the fifth biggest comedy on television and while it does have a whole lot of heart, in its older age, the series is no longer capable or seemingly interested in keeping the group relationships together. Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings are the most deserving candidates of that kind of mainstream recognition and celebration, but the former is stuck on NBC and the latter is more or less a timeslot hit. These two series, along with things like Up All Night, Cougar Town and Raising Hope, keep the annoying bickering to a certain minimum level and basically none of them are hits. Today, more than ever, we like comedies where people scream and yell.

The point is that we as a culture love to embrace comedies where everyone says they love each other but spends 20 minutes each week proving why that kind of “love” is awful, skewed or both. I understand the overreliance by writers to use jokes that rely on personal barbs, but I’m curious as to why we love characters who hate each other. Does it make us feel better about our lives? Does the last-act reconciliation each week make us believe that love and friendship conquers all, no matter how often we yell and scream at each other? Are we, at the core, just miserable people who like to see others miserable? I don’t really have an answer for this. I know I personally prefer comedies that actually make an effort to show me how and why the characters get along. 

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2 thoughts on “Love to hate, hate to love: On contemporary comedy’s reliance on bickering

  1. What about Community, a show where everybody is mean to each other, yes, but it’s because they’re all broken human beings, and their meanness is actually the flip side of the compassion they have for one another? Is that the kind of dynamic that you find believable? And if so, should other show be using that formula?

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