Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sitcom entropy and plot overload

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2012 at 4:30 PM

It’s a law of nature, like gravity or thermodynamics. Usually after the fifth season – but probably sooner – even the funniest sitcoms will start to show signs of fading. The fading will grow increasingly more rapid, until its powered only by a covenant between Chuck Lorre and the Devil. A lot of reasons are given for the odd decline of these once great-shows – one of the biggest is the way characters become more exaggerated, more cartoony, as time progresses.

But one thing not as commonly cited, is the interesting changes in the style of storytelling that begin to occur. At first the show limits itself to two plots per episode – the best episodes often have only one plot.

Yet, that changes. Increasingly, as a show gets older, the plot becomes more packed – you don’t just have an “A” story and a “B” story, you have a “C” story and “D” story as well. Many of these stories never get satisfying endings. A latter-day Simpsons plot veers, ADHD-like, between a dozen different scenes, ideas and worlds. A chili cooking contest catalyzed the entire plot of a (relatively) early Simpsons episode, but in a latter-day episode a chili-cookoff would just be a place where the Simpsons meet a crazy Texas businessman, who takes him to his ranch in the second half, which then turns into a quest where Marge and Homer race against each other to find a mysterious treasure (with a cameo by the Black Eyed Peas!)

The result are discordant largely incoherent episodes. (The best episodes of Community, almost always, have one large plot – or two intersecting – where the worst episodes have up to three.) A plot-packed sitcom becomes hit-and-run comedy, visit a premise, make five jokes, and then leave. The plots go from something that aids the rhythm and buildup of the jokes, to something that hinders any sort of connection with the plot.

The big question, of course, is why. On Twitter, MacClean’s TV critic Jaime Weinman guesses that it’s because, in their later years, Sitcoms have covered their basic episode-long plots already. Fat Husband can only realize he’s forgotten Hot Sarcastic Wife’s anniversary so many times before the writers have to find another plot.

But to me, that doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. If a show has already used so many different plots or setting, why blow through three or four more ideas in a single episode? I think there’s bigger problems at hand. The first is character-service. Shows, sometimes contractually, feel the need to have plots featuring every single one of their characters. Thus, the sub-five-minute subplot where Abed attends a “Who’s the Boss” class.

The bigger problem, I think, is confidence: My theory is that a showrunner thinks a writer’s pitch doesn’t have enough plot to fill up an episode, so she forces several half-baked pitches into one episode. The longer a show goes on, the more appeal comes in using those pitches that the showrunner doesn’t have confidence could deserve an entire episode. Instead of spending weeks refining that pitch, making the “Who’s the Boss” episode or the chili-cookoff episode last an entire 21 minutes (much shorter than sitcoms used to last.) So she takes the easy way out, cramming several disconnected ideas into one episode. Characters don’t need to have movement, after all, if the plot moves fast enough.

It’s sad, really. It gets tougher to maintain strongly-defined nuanced characters the longer a show goes on – and it becomes almost impossible if the plot drowns out character moments.

Aging sitcoms need to  slow down. Pick one story per episode. And write that story, and only that story.

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