Television Writing: The Sitcom Model, and Losing the Plot as a Natural Progression
First off, let me say this: Below, I’ll be exploring a lot of the same concepts as I have in my post on the miniseries. So go check that out if you haven’t seen it already. Done? Okay, good -- here we go.
Consider the sitcom; an often (incredibly) long-running television series, revolving around a small group of people as they go about their daily lives. For the most part, nothing changes episode to episode, and if it does, it’s usually trotted out as a “cliffhanger” at the season finale to ensure that viewers tune in next season.
This “slice of life” method of storytelling rarely involves advancing a plot or developing characters. On the occasion that it does, it’s usually done through simple devices like marriage or pregnancy. When viewed strictly from a writing perspective, the sitcom is an incredibly boring style of show.
There’s nothing wrong with this.
I’m going to use the sitcom Friends as my example (I’m sure there are those who want me to use The Office, but I don’t like that show. Get at me).
Debuting in 1994, Friends follows the lives of six Manhattanites (is that the right word?) who spend an inordinate amount of time in their local coffee shop.
Throughout its decade-long run, loves are loved, babies are had, people are married (and divorce spectacularly), careers are built and a term is coined: “Ross and Rachel” (an axiom for the irritating “will they, won’t they?” trope that so many shows of this type rely on).
To watch any 3 random episodes, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed aside from the fashion of the era and the actors aging. That’s how slowly this show chugged along.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
The sitcom model works because its foundation is the idea of near-homeostasis. Week to week, the characters live out whatever embarrassing situations the writers dream up for them, and there are little to no consequences or conflict beyond that particular episode.
It’s zen, it’s relaxing, it’s bingeable. It’s a tried-and-true method of storytelling that works.
It’s even been applied to cartoon shows. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, South Park; they all function around the basic premise that no matter what horrible shit goes down in any given week, the characters will brush themselves off and forget it happened by the next episode.
Now to the meat and potatoes of this post. This method CANNOT be applied to shows that have conflict as a driving force behind their writing.
Let’s look at one of my favorite TV shows: Chuck. (Let’s be clear here before I proceed to lay into it, I love the majority of this show and the cast did an amazing job with what they had)
It all kicks off with the titular hero having the entirety of the United States’ intelligence database (across all the acronyms, mind you) downloaded directly into his head. I know, we’re already off to a shaky start.
The driving force behind the show is that Chuck wants to get all the secrets out of his head so he can return to a normal life. A reasonable goal, considering the circumstances.
For the first few seasons of its run, Chuck and his team battle rogue agents, criminals, thieves, and terrorists (all the usual suspects). Throughout all of it, there are various powers in play that want to either kill Chuck or capture him for their own ends.
Since we started at the right side of the bell curve in terms of ridiculousness to begin with, the show didn’t really have a lot of wiggle room.
Then it began to ratchet up the already high stakes. “Deep State” personalities and shadow government organizations were ushered in and out on an almost biweekly basis, and before you know it, Chuck has gone from a bumbling member of the Geek Squad (Nerd Herd on the show) to an international super spy capable of literally going anywhere and doing anything.
Every season (almost every episode) upped the stakes and pushed the ridiculousness further, until the show caved in under its own weight.
Eureka, Once Upon a Time, Battlestar Galactica, The Blacklist; all primetime shows (all of them very good in the early seasons) with heavy plot elements that cratered once the writers tried to push the stories beyond their natural conclusions.
The sitcom model is called that for a reason: It works in sitcoms; shows with little to no plot that can get away with doing nothing for a half an hour. It relies on the strength of its actors and the quality of its one-liners to stay in business, not an overarching plot that has to be resolved at some point.
If you’re trying to drive somewhere, you have to get there eventually. Instead of asking “where next?”, maybe just accept the fact that you’ve reached your destination.
Again, check out my post on the miniseries if you’re interested in further expansion of this concept.