It can be depressing watching American comedy. My current favourites are 30 Rock and Modern Family that are so good, they sometimes makes me consider giving up since I don't feel I will ever reach those heights and that level of comic perfection.
And therefore it's very heartening and encouraging to watch other American comedies that aren't so good. So scan the cable/freeview channels for shows that don't walk off with all the Emmys.
Recently, I watched Hot in Cleveland and found myself cringing. It had the tempo and feel of Will and Grace (which is a good thing), but the whole show felt like set-ups for jokes and outrageous moments. I believe the show has been unfavourably compared to Golden Girls, which is a show I very happily watched growing up in the days that Channel 4 were happy to show that kind of thing. But the show seems to have found an audience and doing okay in the USA so it's clearly good enough.
But watching these shows is also educational and useful, since one can watch them and wonder what the problem is, or at least why they're not working for you. A Channel Five spin-off channel, bewilderingly called 5* is showing $#*! My Dad Says - a much-hyped sitcom based on a Twitter account in which a guy just tweeted stupid and vaguely offensive stuff that his dad came out with. It's a perfectly decent starting point for a sitcom - and revolves around a larger than life character. But when I watched it - episode 2 about getting the internet connected - I didn't find myself laughing all that much. And I pondered why - and what we can learn.
One problem is that the Dad, played perfectly well by William Shatner, didn't seem to have a reason for his permament state of mild anger or intransigence. I shouldn't have bothered me. I shouldn't have need to ask why - but I was asking because it felt like this character didn't really have anything to do except rant, or complain about his son. What is his quest? What does he want? How do we know when he has that thing?
The other problem is that the other three characters weren't characters but foils, or people talking about stuff. Having watched an entire episode, I couldn't not name a single characteristic of any of the other characters. And this is episode 2, so they really should be hammering this stuff.
My guess is that there was a great deal of worry that the Dad was so brutal and offensive (which he isn't) that the other characters needed to be 'likeable'. But 'likeable' can easily lead to 'bland'. As I've said before in previous posts, characters don't have to be 'likeable' but compelling. And so the episode I saw was three nice characters dancing around one central unlikeable character, trying to get him to do what they wanted him to do.
Two of the characters in the show had clear quests: the daughter-in-law was worried about a rash on her breast which sparked a comment that the other son couldn't shake off... but there was nothing at stake. It didn't really make any difference to anything. It put her husband off-lovemaking. But so what? Surely the stakes could have been raised by this being a particularly good time to try and conceive a baby.
The clearer quest was the son who lived with the dad trying to get his dad to agree to having the internet connect - but because this son was so loosely drawn and a 'writer/blogger' of some kind (urgh. Don't you just hate writers who blog?), I didn't care if he succeeded or not. And his dad simply irrationally stood in his way.
Overall, it was an unsatisfactory experience, but a useful one. When you are setting up a new show, it's always worth asking whether your characters are well-drawn enough, clear enough to be understood quickly. If they're nuanced too much, or make 'likeable', it won't much matter how clear their quest is, because we just won't care.
You want clearly drawn characters? Just watch the opening titles of The Golden Girls - the opening theme of which tells you that it's about friendship. But when you see the characters, you immediately know what drives them and what they are like.