Monday 18 May 2015

How to Make a Bad Sitcom

Some sitcom thoughts occurred to me after listening to another fascinating podcast from Scriptnotes -Ep197 How Do Bad Movies Get Made. Movies and sitcoms are obviously very different from each other, not least because a movie is finished work, rather than an ongoing one. A movie that just doesn't work is unsalvageable, where a sitcom pilot, or even a first season, might be 'good enough' to get a second season in which problems can be fixed.

So how does his happen with sitcoms? I've addressed this before in a post entitled 'How did this rubbish get on my TV?', in response to the howling indignation at Ben Elton's last sitcom, The Wright Way. It mainly deals with the emotional response at seeing a poor show on TV - and that feeling aggrieved doesn't really get you anywhere. We're going to take a different approach this time.

You watch a sitcom. It's bad. You ask how it happened. Surely they realised? How did the producer deliver the show to the channel and not know they’ve delivered a stinker? Here are some responses:

1. It’s Not Bad. You Don’t Like It.
The show may be very popular, but not to your taste. Equally, the show may be critically highly acclaimed but, in your opinion, unwatchable. Every year, there are new sitcoms which I don’t like that get good ratings or win awards. That doesn’t mean they are bad. Sometimes I’m surprised that something I think is technically flawed succeeds, but all that really goes to show is how little any of us really understands comedy. And how important taste is.

There are many different types of comedy. Some are quick, and disposable, like fast food. Others are more like fine dining. Which is best? It depends what you’re in the mood for, how much time you have and what you think food is for. Enjoyment? Or energy? Similarly, what is comedy for? Andrew Marshall has argued comedy should be treated as a utility, like water and gas. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I see the point. We all need to laugh, so let’s not be snobby about where we get our comedy from. Maybe the sitcom isn’t bad. You just don’t like it.

2. It’s Not Bad. It’s Good. Too good.
The show may jar with you in someway, but that’s because it’s doing something different. The tempo, or tone is not like anything else you’ve seen before. In a good way. But you’re experiencing the difference in a bad way.
Lots of people didn’t like Arrested Development. The ratings were never great and it was cancelled after only a few seasons. Critics loved it. Every single comedy writer I know loves it. It’s so densely packed with jokes, and moves so fast, playing with conventions of comedy that it might be a hard watch for some. To them, the show might be bad. Not to me. It's too good.

3. Right Show. Wrong Time.
The show is either way ahead of its time. Or way behind. The latter is more likely, having come about by commissioning that is trying to follow a trend (we need a show like The Office, or Miranda, or Mrs Brown!) – rather than setting trends.

4. Right Show. Wrong Cast.
Remember they wanted Michael J Fox to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future? And they couldn’t get him. So they went ahead with Eric Stoltz. And they shot for five weeks. Fives weeks. They realised it wasn’t working. The comedy was not coming across. So they stopped shooting and waited for Michael J Fox to become available. Ballsy.

In a parallel universe, they didn’t do that, and you’ve never heard of the film. So, maybe the sitcom you don’t like is actually working fine on paper. But it’s horribly miscast. Or the lead turned out to be less funny than expected. They might have even realised that, but they couldn’t change it because in TV, believe me, no-one will let you reshoot five weeks of sitcom.

5. Surely This Show Should Exist?
The show isn't funny because it has no soul. That might be because it was talked into existence by someone – an exec, a commissioner, a writer, an actor, a producer – who felt like a certain kind of show should be made. It didn’t need to be made. It was just possible. And somehow, it felt like the right show at the right time, it was greenlit because it had the right cast, the right look or filled a gap. The result can be a show that maybe isn’t bad. It just isn’t any good.

6. Mission Creep
Mission Creep is what happens when soldiers turn up to keep the peace, and end up getting far more involved in local politics or civilian affairs than they ever intended. The stated goals of the operation subtlely changed, week by week, month by month, until the no-one quite knew why they’d come in the first place.

This can happen with sitcoms. A show is dreamed up by a writer, or actor, or comedian – and is about one thing. One character. One concept. But it ends up being pushed and pulled in various directions, usually in order to get the show commissioned, so that it ends up being about something else – and ultimately nothing. And not in a Seinfeld way.

Mission creep can sometimes be beneficial. Some shows end up being about different characters or relationships from what the original writers intended, like Friends, which was meant to be about Monica and Joey. But they quickly realised the show was about Ross and Rachel. At least at that point it was. Other shows are not so lucky.

7. Two Shows in Two Heads
Or even Three Shows in Three Heads. The show the writer has written, and the show the director is directing and the show the channel has commissioned are not quite the same thing in their minds. In an attempt to marry up these false expectations, compromises are made, and the result is a disparate mess.

8. Blame the Writer

‘Who writes this sh*t’ is a common refrain when a show is deemed to be poor. The writers are often the first to get the blame. I hope I've shown how it's often circumstances beyond the writer's control. But there is, of course, a strong possibility that the show stinks because writer has written a lousy script. It happens. How often? Who can say?

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