Rise of the Sitdrama: On New Girl, Michael Jordan, and Sitcom Evolution

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February 2, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

*Pretty major New Girl spoilers follow.


I think about sitcoms a lot. About the best ones, how each influences another, how comedy changes, etc. But my favorite of these debates is trying to identify the sitcom of a given generation. It seems uncanny the way certain sitcoms lead perfectly into one another, as if passing the torch through the years.

From 1972 to 1983 we had M*A*S*H changing how we saw comedy, showing us that a sitcom could both entertain and capture issues of social importance.[1] Then from 1982 to 1993 Cheers gave us stability, it gave us drinking buddies, a weekly escape to the bar with Sam and Norm and Coach. They were our friends, every week. Friends takes the torch from 1994 to 2004, furthering the “friend” formula, but expanding it. We’re in apartments, offices, coffee shops. But the heart of the show remains simply hanging out. Friends combined the day-to-day nothingness of Seinfeld[2] with the likability of Cheers, all while playing by the rules of the traditional sitcom. How I Met Your Mother came in immediately following Friends, in 2005. HIMYM blew up the formula: unreliable narrator, tightly constructed episodes revolving around plot devices like showing different perspectives of the same story. It was the show this generation needed, a self-aware sitcom for a self-aware world.

But then came New Girl. And since then, all of my musings have been shot to hell. It’s a single camera comedy, so I feel uncomfortable even calling it a sitcom. No laugh track, less restrictions for settings, less pressure to pander and use broad comedy at every turn. It makes it difficult to determine how to judge the merits of New Girl. Do we compare it to Cheers and HIMYM, or do we measure it by other single-camera greats like Arrested Development and Community?

After Tuesday’s episode, wherein in Nick and Jess make their long-awaited first kiss, I think I have my answer. There hasn’t been a show like this since the first few seasons of HIMYM, with Ted over-thinking his emotions and flip-flopping between happiness and misery. The lives of Ted Mosby and Nick Miller perfectly capture what makes life so chaotic and dramatic, and simultaneously what makes that chaos so damn funny sometimes. On New Girl, the show is blessed with rich supporting characters like Schmidt, Cece, and Winston, who are all phenomenal and elevate the show to heights currently unparalleled on a weekly basis. Yet on top of that, we still have Nick and Jess.

There’s a moment in the Season 1 episode “Backslide,” where Nick is discussing why he wants to get back together with an ex-girlfriend: “Caroline is way hotter than that voice in my head who sounds like Tom Waits and tells me I’m a failure and that I look bad in hats.”

It’s that sort of line that makes me love this show. Relatable in its emotion, and then made even further relatable through a pin-point reference to Tom Waits. Then the part about the hats takes the concept into the absurd, to the point where anybody at all would be amused.

We end up with a formula like this:

real-life emotion + pop culture reference + broader comedy = sitcom success

It’s what Community did so well in its prime (which I sadly feel may be over), and it’s what New Girl does perfectly now on a weekly basis. I turn to New Girl to laugh, to cry, and to understand my own life better. It’s a sitcom that works on every level: it provides the laughter of catharsis and of escapism, and thus becomes relatable from its character moments and its jokes. The line between comedy and drama becomes constantly blurred, with comedy always winning out in the end. After all, these are sitcoms.

Now, I need to briefly digress.

My father’s taste in movies is one of the strangest entities I’ve ever encountered. And it’s indeed an entity, detached from the man himself.  For a man born in the 1950s, one would expect his taste in comedy to have developed alongside the films of his generation. The Chevy Chases and Bill Murrays, the Blues Brothers and the Jerks. But a few months ago I asked him the movies he’s laughed the hardest at in his entire life. After a few moments of silent pondering, he finally came to a conclusion: Billy Madison and Anchorman, with subsequent mentions of Ben Stiller and Mike Myers.

It struck me as an odd answer. That a man’s personal golden age of comedy would occur in his 40s, so far past his youth. That he would associate more with the absurd, “stupid” comedy of the ‘90s and ‘00s, from Austin Powers to Talladega Nights.

Then I thought of basketball. Basketball always struck me as unique in one fairly peculiar way. The great players are those of the present. Basketball evolves, gets harder. Bill Russell wouldn’t win against Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers, but Shaq could dominate the 1960s Celtics. Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, and he lived and breathed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now basketball fans longingly wait to see if LeBron can become the next great, and such an ascension is entirely possible. In baseball, as a contrast, we’ve already seen the greats. Nobody will ever overtake Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Walter Johnson or Cy Young. While baseball exists in the past, basketball depends on the present.

In film there’s a similar divide. Dramas tend to exist in the past: nothing will ever surpass Vertigo, Citizen Kane, or Godfather on lists chronicling the greatest films of all time.  Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, and Barton Fink be damned.

Comedy, naturally, is a medium of the present, reflecting the needs and tastes of the people in the present. But watching my father laugh at Anchorman, I’m struck by a strange realization. Maybe comedy, like basketball, is not just built upon the present, but actually improves. Maybe Anchorman is the Michael Jordan of comedies, changing the game forever, and maybe we haven’t yet seen our LeBron or Kevin Durant, come to threaten the crown. For drama, others have already done great work, and to many people, it continues to feel like the newest filmmakers are merely expanding on the old. Comedy requires one to constantly outdo everything that came before. So perhaps the newer comedy films and shows, at least the ones that are good, are inherently of a higher quality than the older greats. It only gets harder to make people laugh.

This is the world that these latest TV comedies have entered, from New Girl to Parks and Recreation. The best of the new dramas, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland, often function as escapism. They are some of the best, most cinematic, well-crafted television we’ve ever seen. But there’s something about each that exists outside of the day-to-day. And I’m glad there are shows to provide as much. But these comedies are different: they’re Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Kobe Bryant. They have the benefit of the past and its insights, and they use it to create shows that defy genres. They’re “life” shows, dramatic and funny in all the right and real places.

This week’s episode of New Girl felt different than any of its previous episodes. Looking back, the pop culture references felt unimportant, and Nick’s obsession with wearing a woman’s coat was hilarious, yet irrelevant. All that matters are those moments between Nick and Jess, two friends with obvious attachments and feelings between them. Strong feelings, teetering on the brink of love, but without enough certainty to actually go for it. Fear dominates the whole episode really. Winston’s fear of speaking to attractive women because he hasn’t gotten laid in such a long time, and Nick and Jess’s fear that they actually may feel something for one another. That somehow, if they do kiss, it’ll all be ruined. Which isn’t said explicitly, another example of how the show handles the situation so well, but it’s obvious in every excuse not to kiss, and in every cry for help to Schmidt and Winston on the other side of the door.

The whole situation goes on to play out slowly over the course of the episode, and as subtly and realistic as I’ve ever seen. There’s a particular moment that stands out above the others, when the two are slumped against the door, looking at each other, and it feels so completely genuine. Nick and Jess are flawed, (likably) insane characters with deep issues, and that created a bond between them. They care deeply for one another. And here, in that moment, we see the product of that bond. But they don’t kiss then, as to do so for a drinking game would only cheapen the real emotions between the two. Or as Nick tries with difficulty to explain, while still trying to hide his feelings: “We can’t like that, because that’s not, d’you know? Like, it’s very – like you don’t, that’s not what it…”

Instead, the kiss happens later, when everyone else is asleep. And when it finally happens, everything else is silent, there’s no “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” chant on the other side of the door. It’s just Nick and Jess. It’s the right time.

We’ve seen the birth of the next great sitcom, unbound by laugh tracks, studio audiences, and genre conventions.

Oh, and I still haven’t even talked about Louie. Welcome to the new era of comedy.

[1] Or All in the Family from 1971 to 1979.

[2] The Seinfeld Corollary – I’m not considering Seinfeld the sitcom of the ’90s because I actually think it’s too good, if that even makes sense. Seinfeld broke down so many sitcom conventions, introduced characters who weren’t always likable, and crafted complex plots out of such simple, ordinary life situations. But that elevates it onto some higher plane of TV existence. Basically, you could sit around and watch Seinfeld with the characters from Friends. You’d all hang out and laugh and eat Chinese food. On the flipside though, you wouldn’t be able to hang out with the Seinfeld gang. The show captures the reality of life, but the characters are often secondary to what the show is trying to say. They’re great characters. But they’re still characters. Friends never felt that way, even if Seinfeld is the better show.

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