2020 has been a year. I think we can all agree on that! We’ve all tried to get through a collective trauma (actually several collective traumas) in our own ways. Mine has been rather unexpected. 2020 gave me an appreciation for sitcoms that I’ve never had before. To be clear, I’ve always liked sitcoms. There have always been 1-2 that I’d watch regularly. Then there were the ones that I have on as background noise while I write (yes, I write to sitcoms in the background). But this year, I’ve found unexpected comfort in half hour formats, and even the canned studio laughter.
A sitcom doesn’t demand much of the viewer. We’re not asked to invest huge chunks of time. We can just dip in for a half hour if we want. We’re not asked to follow a complicated plot, or long character histories. Most of these shows don’t even have a villain really. Antagonists? Sure. But we don’t really see characters who are fundamentally evil at their core. We can turn off our brain as we watch, and enter into a world where nothing is so bad that it can’t be solved in a half hour, where people make conversation filled with witty one liners. Yes, too much of that is probably a bad thing, but I think this year it was very necessary.
Some shows that really helped me through this trying time:
I think I discovered The Good Place in it’s third season. I think I first described it as a combination of Parks and Rec and Sartre’s No Exit) I binged the first two seasons and then I tried to check out the new episodes as they aired. Most aired pre-2020, but the show concluded in January 2020. Just before the pandemic. Fortunately that means we have the entirety of the series to help us through the year. The main character isn’t likeable at first. She’s sort of an anti-heroine. But when she dies, she finds herself in The Good Place, due to some sort of error. Over the first season (there’s a twist at the end of season one) we watch as Eleanor tries to learn to be good. It’s a sitcom that actually discusses moral philosophy, and how to live a good life. It asks what kind of reward is appropriate for lifelong good behavior. And what should happen to those who are bad, but for good reasons? Some heavy ideas for a sitcom!
I also discovered Schitt’s Creek in pre-2020 times. It starts off as a more or less standard fish out of water comedy. When the ultra-wealthy Rose family go broke suddenly, they move to the small, depressing title town, and live in the motel there. But from that beginning, the show builds beautiful characters. We come to root for the Roses as they learn to live on less, and discover how to be happy without money. We come to care about the residents of Schitt’s Creek as the Roses involvement goes from necessity to choice. I think that each main character had a complete arc in this series, they grew and changed in a fundamental way. It ended in April 2020, in the pandemic’s early days. But again, that means we have the whole series to watch as reruns and help us through the rest of year.
Both shows have a positive outlook on life, which is something that I found I needed this year. In The Good Place, even when the characters weren’t in such a good place, they attempted to improve it. Their response to a broken, rigged system was to fix the problems and build something better. In Schitt’s Creek, the Roses lose their money and their lifestyle, but they find connection as a family that they lacked when they were rich. They explore their passions and embark on a new chapter of their lives. I think that’s a narrative that I needed to see this year. Maybe there will someday be some positive that can come out of what’s happened. I hope so.
Another new sitcom that I’ve recently discovered is The Unicorn, which premiered in 2019 and is currently in its second season. It’s about a widower with two tweenage daughters, who decides he’s ready to start dating again, about a year after his wife’s death. It’s an emotionally loaded proposition, but his friends have his back. Maybe too much. Wade and his wife had been part of a trio of couples that formed a close friend group. They all have a lot to say about the type of woman Wade should be with.
I think that part of what appeals to me about this show is that it’s about moving on after grief. It begins a year after Wade’s wife’s death, so his family has been through the initial grieving, and the funeral. But as time goes on, the kids find that they’re trying to find ways for Wade to do the things their mother used to do. They’re also trying to give tasks that his wife did to other members of the friend group. No matter how well intentioned, it’s not the same. It’s awkward. It’s a little sad the first time. But it’s ultimately how life moves on. I’m less interested in Wade’s romantic life (though some of his dating misadventures make me chuckle), than I am in his friendships. It’s clear that after losing his wife, Wade looked to his friends for support. And they gave it. And are giving it.
All of these shows seem to have strong themes of friendship, family, and community. I think that’s been one of the biggest casualties of 2020: the ability to physically be together as a community. Yes, we’ve found alternatives via zoom chats. But we’ve also missed the experience of sitting in a theater with an audience, all watching the same show and feeling the same thing. We’ve missed scoring a great table in a crowded restaurant. We’ve missed in person game nights with friends, and family dinners with crowded tables. I think some of my sitcom viewing preferences are speaking to that absence.
These are the most recent shows I’ve liked, but when I’ll also binge Friends, Frasier, or The Big Bang Theory. Friends are like my friends. Like the song says “they’ve been there for me.” A lot of these I’ve seen so many times that it’s like background noise at this point. But having them on in the background while I write does help me work. There are some British sitcoms I enjoy as well: The Vicar of Dibley, and As Time Goes By and though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, Coupling, I’ll write with those on in the background too, sometimes. I recently discovered I like The Golden Girls, so I’ve added that to my favorites list as well.
Have I forgotten anything I should definitely check out? What kind of TV has helped you through this year? Have you found comfort in anything that seems kind of strange at first?