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Skepticism

There’s a metaphor upheld in classic situation comedies – sitcoms from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to All in the Family – that may be long forgotten now but the words “filmed before a live studio audience” act as artifacts symbolizing its importance. The metaphor points to a time where comedy was acted out on stages in front of real people who laughed at jokes and digested stories in real time. The metaphor is mostly lost on those of us who’ve never had that experience – where something genuinely funny made the crowd roar and the performance itself would pause for a moment to, in a sense, fan the flame and incite a dynamic relationship between the audience and the performers. But still, the pacing and style and techniques of a traditional sitcom remain firmly embedded in our televised culture. There’s a reason Zack Morris or the Fresh Prince (or more recently, Marty Kaan in House of Lies) speaking directly into the camera, to the audience, evokes a tingling of unconventionality and the understanding that something is amiss.

The longstanding rules of a sitcom (or any of the stuff on television really) are set before the viewer implicitly and accepted unconsciously, to the extent that even if the fourth wall isn’t overtly assessed, we feel it being broken. A laundry list of tropes and methods contribute almost insidiously to the familiarity of a sitcom. But there are those (Tina Fey and Dan Harmon come to mind) that wish to break not only the fourth wall but everything – from superfluous cameras to live studio audience chairs. But to be fair, there tends to be innovation and a rich sort of pleasure that spring forth from broken things, despite the apology given to parents and shopkeepers.

30 Rock on NBC makes funny happen with a single camera setup, no laugh-track, and quick cuts. Modern Family on ABC and Parks and Recreation on NBC throw in the mockumentary stylization, perhaps popularized most prominently in the US by The Office, and garners several laughs too with the ratings to match. Curb Your Enthusiasm utilizes a cinéma vérité style to achieve the true-to-life feel without individual interviews interspersed throughout the episode, and can solicit a guffaw with the best of them. These are the quintessential situational comedies of the day, brazenly challenging what a sitcom has been long established to be. But not only do they challenge tradition, there appears to be an established new status quo for comedic delivery with new techniques and methods, which many view as superior.

Over at Salon, Kartina Richardson, expresses the opinion that “once you’ve grown used to adventurous shows like 30 Rock and Louie, the traditional sitcom feels like a relic.” She meant that in a bad way. Presumably not like a cool Smithsonian leather jacket relic once wormed by one Arthur H. Fonzarelli. Richardson implies that the very form of the sitcom has been upgraded in contemporary hands and those shows that fall behind, clinching onto tradition, appear somehow qualitatively weaker than the new standards. Supposedly, the bar has been raised. But how can the bar truly be raised by those who rely so heavily on the bar itself to stand tall upon and be funny?

30 Rock used Kelsey Grammer this past week as a gag without the need to establish why this should be funny. It just was. There was even a song at the end of the episode about it. It’s no surprise that NBC misses Frasier and its heyday of comedic glory, and refers to it whenever they get the chance. But this represents a fundamental component of the new sitcom world order: a persistent reliance on the old sitcom world order…a quality the old sitcoms surely had themselves. Arrested Development, for all its comedic envelope pushing, offered to the viewer one of the most iconic straightedge voices of the 70s-80s sitcom in Ron Howard, as a narrator. Curb Your Enthusiasm literally exists to quench a desire for a more extensive relationship with Seinfeldian story development. Resisting the lingo of the postmodern, it seems that “the great sitcom divide” as coined by Richardson and perceived by several couch-side theorists, is not necessarily a divide but a matrix yielding various shows all self-referencing the matrix.

Hot in Cleveland is just as funny as Community, if not funnier. (Let the pitchforks burn and a group of readers stop here and log back onto Reddit.) Both are on their third season and both represent modern instances of each school of sitcom-thought – TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland using not only a multi-camera setup but also a laugh track. Community is known to be tremendously clever, armed with parody in one holster, a meta-joke in the other. Hot in Cleveland instead relies on the “granny still got it” gimmick every episode (fueled by the best granny we have in the game, Betty White) and single middle-aged white woman hijinks. But whereas Community has been compared to Arrested Development in its originality (a paradox that seems acceptable among some of the most evangelical fans) and encourages a loyal fan-base to parse its subtleties, Hot in Cleveland can be readily compared to everything from Golden Girls to Just Shoot Me and has fans that were pre-cultivated to enjoy this show, to get these jokes, for the most part by the show’s actresses (and guest stars) themselves. Jane Leeves (from Frasier fame), Wendie Malick (from Just Shoot Me), and Valerie Bertinelli (51 and cute as a button) in a sitcom are inherently intertextual, if that’s what you’re into; they reference their past work outside of this show with every line they recite. And the show is damn funny. In a recent episode, flashing back to the 80s, cliches are shot off in quick succession at the comedic pace of the best “new” sitcom you can think of.

Community is great, but it doesn’t seem necessary to make a widespread qualitative distinction to separate it and its ilk from the more traditional sitcoms. The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret can be better than Two and a Half Men without attacking the latter’s set production, like the first season of Happy Days didn’t use a single-camera. C’mon! The tactic seems to cheapen more than enrich an argument. Tradition isn’t stifling creativity despite what some may believe. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that a pre-recorded audience causes a sitcom to feel stale or unfunny. And the reverse logic makes even less sense. 2 Broke Girls wouldn’t be any funnier or any better with less cameras on set. (Many people do however suggest a 0-camera setup would be optimal but remember, no Neilsen no cry.) The sitcom landscape looks a bit different today and some of us clamor for the new and cool like children not fully understanding the shape of it all, but remember all television still fits in a box fairly well. Outstanding traditional sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland still fit fairly well.

Yup. There’s an intentional pun in that title. And it refers dutifully to Wednesday nights of yore, way back in 2004 when committed sci-fi fanatics and casual remote control wielding Americans alike were first introduced to the ABC ratings goliath choreographed by J.J. Abrams and company, set on some island somewhere. It follows then that déjà vu abounds when J.J. Abrams stamps his name on a new series for FOX focused on another island that may be more infamous than the one where viewers first fell in love the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors, if in name alone. In its two-hour series premiere, Alcatraz makes it abundantly clear that it aims to aggressively court the viewers with a keen eye for nerd-bait as well as the regular chums with expendable incomes and Nielsen boxes – the bread and butter of the once resplendent Lost fandom.

Jorge Garcia fundamentally reprises perhaps the most iconically uncontroversial character in recent television history without even bothering to get a haircut. New Hurley does and says old Hurley things as he obsesses over this new old island and explores this new 50 year-old mystery (about supposedly old inmates turned new.) He’s a bit taken aback by the possibility of supernatural time-traveling crooks, but only a bit because he’s the protector of the Island now, or that’s what we’re meant to infer. On occasion you may even catch him mid-soliloquy, discussing how familiar he is with the Island and some but not all of its secrets.
There’s certainly other Lost easter eggs here and there but just like its titlecard font, Alcatraz is reminiscent of but clearly not Lost. In fact, Alcatraz is J.J. Abrams’ new sci-fi police procedural hybrid darling on FOX. A series for those in need of a serving of smart, intuitive, young blonde detective with a problematic history that she somehow uses to fuel an ambition to solve unconventional cases. Maybe she’s an FBI agent. Maybe her partner’s dead. Maybe give her a specialist/consultant/expert as a partner in his stead. She uses unorthodox methodologies anyway and kicks enough ass for the both of them. Right?

When Fringe first premiered on FOX in the fall of 2008, during the fourth season of Lost, Lance Reddick seemed to carry intrigue and enigma from one universe to another – along with strong acting chops exercised on the Wire. Fringe enjoys a bit of the Lost-but-not treatment as well, subtly for the most part (an Oceanic boarding pass here or there), but has developed into something wholly independent with some of the most ambitious and original storytelling on television today, in its fourth season. But alas, the numbers, as they’re wont to do, fall short in supporting this fact. In fact, besides ratings, Fringe is getting increasingly more expensive to produce as time progresses, an unattractive position to be in.

Then comes Alcatraz. Plainly put, Alcatraz is Fringe with less. Less cost. Less plot. Less science. Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), the lead detective closely following the supernatural events surrounding Alcatraz island, even has significantly less blonde hair than Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the lead FBI agent of the Fringe division. There’s a leanness to Alcatraz that positions it in opposition to Fringe, even while on the same network. Fringe has been on cancellation watch since nearly its onset because of attributes that simultaneously limit its viewership yet contribute to its remarkably consistent quality – almost everyone now plays two characters in two parallel universes just for kicks. And sadly, the old tricks to save both worlds, like Warner Bros finding lucrative licensing deals, may not work this time around.

In a very real way, Alcatraz represents a faith worst than death for Fringe and its loyal fanbase: the knowledge that in an alternate universe where Fringe wasn’t as creative and Anna Torv’s hair wasn’t as long and Joshua Jackson wasn’t as fit, things might be different. It’s important to know this if Fringe doesn’t make it and the Others on the island somehow thrive. Alcatraz is a series with promise that may or may not meet expectations, but Fringe is undeniably in the company of Alias and Lost when it comes to Abrams productions that contributed greatly to sci-fi action dramas on primetime.

So when asked what they died for (the Lost pun game isn’t easy), be sure to tell them that. The End.

P.S. Did you know J.J. Abrams created Felicity? And in other news that you don’t necessarily want or need, here’s a map of Fringe ratings throughout the US courtesy of tvbythenumbers. That is all

Meagan Good (pictured above) is featured prominently in these early episodes of the new season of Californication and her presence solicits certain questions as to the direction of the series. On the surface she provides eye candy akin to many of the past guest features in this series – Carla Gugino and Addison Timlin made appearances just last season. But this season, Good’s accompanied by a plot line that invokes the main protagonist’s understanding of Black people or lack thereof.

For the most part, it’s a familiar plot: There’s a career opportunity on the line and Hank’s a bit reluctant to accept; whether because of artistic integrity or personal conflict or simply a predisposition to being as difficult as Showtime needs him to be. Either way Hank Moody doesn’t want to write (read: do) what is expected of him and this leads to conflict – the punch to the face kind and the socio-metaphysical identity crisis sort. Par far course with the show.

What’s different this season is not that the main characters have to acknowledge race – when Michael Ealy was making the sex with Moody’s baby’s mother we were reminded often that he was black, just as when Hank and his best friend Charlie Runkle say “nigga” we’re forcibly reminded that they’re not – the difference now is that the show seems to be flirting with the notion of doing more, perhaps being more than just a pale image of Bukowski’s magnum opus Women, with solid laughs and the once-improbable Agent Mulder as the face.

The series, Californication is still very much like the novel, Women, in that despite how it may seem, these two works are unabashedly about masculinity, men. Not LA life. Not being a writer. Not women. Not gender relations, adulthood, parenting, or sex. But men, and everything else only inasmuch it relates to masculinity. Hank Moody like David Duchovny like Chinaski like Buckowski exists comfortably in the space of masculinity etched out by the successes of feminism and the rise of more developed and varying roles for women in society. The novelty of all this is that he actively keeps fucking them, (and fucking with society, man.) He has sex with lawyers and actresses and teachers and students and wives and mothers and daughters. And through living this kind of superficial man’s fantasy, we’re exposed to what real men experience and endure: being a father, being in love, dealing with work, being a friend, failing – like a man.

But back to Ms. Good. Meagan Good is the type of actress you wish read more bell hooks when you see the sort of roles she subsists on but somehow you suspect that she’s intimately familiar with the tragedies of Toni Morrison with how she carries herself on screen, enigmatically seductive. She’s a black woman and plays them on television without hesitation. What she does for Californication is force a show that’s been about men to be more explicitly about white men. Race like the word “nigga” has been the punchline to a joke for Hank Moody and company since the series premiere in August 2007. Now in season 5, the show-runners want to see where this can go. Bukowski didn’t. He stayed tucked away in Los Angeles until his death in 1994, a time where race relations were boiling over most vehemently but a locale where ignoring it is most persistent, and he remained a curmudgeonly old white man until the end, a literary Archie Bunker. What gives Hank Moody the right to live in 2012, compliment a sexy Black woman on the fullness of her lips, have sincere conversations with brothas about their contrasting world views, and still maintain the mystique of a brash, intellectual non-conformist drunkard? It’s a tall older surely for a show past this far into its run. The RZA’s brick-like performance alone would leave anyone a bit skeptical.