Sitcom are like vegetables. No matter how tightly you seal the Tupperware bowl, no matter the technology of your crisper drawer, after seven or eight seasons, they end up slimy, soggy, and a fraction as delicious as they were when they were fresh.
That comes to mind when watching The Office, which is now only watchable for the James Spader moments.
And it comes especially to mind with last night’s How I Met Your Mother. The show finally followed up a plot thread introduced way back in Season One — the identity of the women in the “Slutty Pumpkin” Halloween costume — and the payoff was, well, non-existent. In fact, the entire episode, in a bit of meta-commentary, was about disappointing payoffs. It only highlighted how far Mother has fallen over seven seasons. The jokes no longer land. The gags become painful. The character quirks become cartoons.
It’s the path almost every sitcom takes, with time. Even animated sitcoms, like The Simpsons, which was still stellar even in its eighth season, have become uncomfortably unfunny. (Dramas get awful in a different way.)
My question is: why? Why do good sitcoms go bad? I’m no industry expert, but here are a few theories:
1. Plot retread
This is so common that an entire episode of South Park was devoted to it: “The Simpsons did it." Over 23 seasons, any plot, they’ve done it. So the repeats begin. Lisa is intimidated by a smarter student. Homer is fired and takes up a new job. The family gets a new dog or cat or horse or elephant.
It’s difficult to come up with new plots. And when the same plot is recycled time and time again, for longtime fans, shows lose their creative spark.
2. The lack of growth
There’s a secondary problem with plot retread. Many a sitcom episode ends, for example, with the jerk dad learning to put aside his selfish desires and care about his wife and family. But what happens, when, for literally the 100th time, he goes back to being a jerk dad? What happens when Community’s study group comes to the same realization about their group dynamic that they've reached five times before? What happens when the same conflict between roommates crops up again and again? The characters become unlikeable. The show becomes predictable.
Each character, from the beginning, is drawn with certain quirks. Yet, as time continues, the writers must find ways to continually draw on those quirks. To top themselves. To become more outrageous. In most cases, the quirk begins to swallow the characters whole. On Mother, Ted becomes fully pretentious, Barney gets sleazy to the point of losing all sympathy, Robin turns. In The Simpsons, Homer gets all the more cruel and stupid, and eventually, famously, gets raped by a panda.
4. Going-through-the-motions acting
Any actor knows the danger of performing the same scene hundreds of times. If they’re not careful, all the soul is sapped out of it, and it just becomes a rote recitation of lines, blocking, and vocal variation. There’s a tendency to play every line at the same zany pitch.
For the best example, watch a Simpsons episode from Season Three and one from Season 23. Despite the considerable talent of the voice actors, Marge’s voice has become a constant high-pitched grumble and Homer’s either a shriek, a whine, or a cocky punchline. Both of them rarely have that lovable kindness that marked the earlier seasons.
5. The Writer Exodus
Here’s the thing about TV writers: Eventually, they leave. Sometimes they leave because they, like many writers, dream of running their own shows. Maybe they’re running a spin-off. Or maybe they’re just burnt out. The most creative sitcoms — the ones that really try to create surprising, iconic episodes — also put their writers through hell.
A staff for a sitcom like Community also tends to have high turnover. Yet, some of those writers may have understood, better than anyone else, what makes the show work.
This trend is even stronger for dramas. When the show’s strong-handed showrunner, like Aaron Sorkin on the West Wing, leaves, the show has trouble finding the same direction.
Of course, for the writers that do stay, the problem might be even worse. Few professions can say they bring the same passion and ingenuity to the job in the seventh year. So as the difficulty of the job increases — the challenge of constantly creating new plots, new jokes, and new discoveries for the same old characters — the motivation decreases. No wonder decline isn’t just common, it’s nearly inevitable.
If you love a show, pray for cancellation.
7. The deconstruction of the fourth wall
The final bad sign. The characters begin to reference, specifically, all of the problems above. They do it jokingly, winkingly, as if recognizing the show’s flaws fixes them. It doesn’t. It just makes them more obvious.