“Television isn’t going to last. It’s just a fad” – Lucy Ricardo, I Love Lucy
When it comes to television, my favorite type of program is the sitcom. Between sitcoms and superhero movies, I have all the culture of a twelve-year-old boy. I promise I also enjoy some higher-brow stuff and will write about that too – but for now, please indulge my apology for the sitcom genre. The sitcom, perhaps more so than any other form of media, has the power to help America envision itself as more diverse, especially when Hollywood feels it cannot risk it.
The “risk” is, of course, the irrational fear that audiences will spurn any film that does not conform to the white-washed straight-male standard. Incidentally, the return on a film is notoriously hard to predict, even when studios stick to the big-stars-big-budget formula, suggesting the success of a movie is, at least in part, attributable to something more intangible (the quality of the film, perhaps?) and studies have also shown that movies that pass the Bechdel test actually enjoy a higher dollar-for-dollar return.
Television traditionally has been more willing to experiment, and the sitcom genre in particular, which by definition portrays characters in everyday, lighthearted, comedic situations, has a unique freedom to portray diverse people in every-day domestic settings in a way that subversively nudges American public opinion towards the progressive.
In Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes, Saul Austerlitz argues that the sitcom brings the culturally ethnic into the American mainstream. The original example is The Goldbergs, which ran from 1949 – 1956, which “remains remarkable for the loving attention it offers to the details of its Jewish family – the gefilte fish and the kugel, the squabbles over money and schoolwork, the tension between shtetl-bred parents and Americanized children.”
Austerlitz credits I Love Lucy for solidifying this pattern in which the sitcom sought “shelter under the awning of domestic serenity and unchanging order” even as it “persistently drew attention to its newness”. I Love Lucy, of course, presented America with the first interracial couple on television. Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) is Cuban; his wife Lucy (Lucille Ball) the famous American redhead. Offscreen, Ball had to convince reluctant producers to allow the Latino Arnaz, to whom she was actually married, to also portray her husband on TV. Onscreen, however, any hesitation about a marriage between a Latino man and caucasian woman is not evident, and the couple is presented as a typical 1950’s pair embroiled in the usual husband-and-wife squabbles. I Love Lucy, as with its successors, excels at “honoring normalcy while furtively undermining it.”
It is this “loving attention” to domestic themes that can be such a great thing for fiction diversity. Perhaps the best acknowledged modern example of the furtively normal sitcom is Will & Grace, which ran from 1998 (when gay marriage was legal nowhere in the United States) to 2006 (when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage). The show follows a gay man living with his straight female best friend and their various platonic domestic dramas. Here again, a character outside of the mainstream, in this case the homosexual male, is presented by the sitcom as comfortably within the domestic setting, even as the very depiction of “normalcy” works to expand the American notion of what is “normal”.
Among the many groups of people far from satisfactorily represented in mainstream American media are Asian Americans. The current representation of Asian Americans, to the degree that it occurs at all, is often a stereotyped caricature, such as the Han Lee character (Matthew Moy) of CBS’s Two Broke Girls. But overall, progress has been much faster than on the small screen than on the big screen. CBS’s How I Met Your Mother (2005 – 2014), despite some controversy of its own over the depiction of Asian stereotypes in one episode, was nevertheless among the first series to portray a caucasian female character (Cobie Smulders) in a serious romantic relationship with an Asian male (Kal Penn).
ABC’s Selfie (2014) was the first sitcom to feature an Asian male, Henry Higgs (John Cho) in a romantic lead role, opposite Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan). The series, which continues to air the remaining episodes on Hulu (the last episode airs December 30), was axed even as positive critical review continued to rise. A remake of My Fair Lady taking place primarily in an office (which has increasingly become the “domestic” setting of the modern sitcom), the show continues where How I Met Your Mother left off, presenting a potentially viable interracial relationship between a lead Asian male and a lead caucasian female; a first of its kind for the sitcom genre. And it works wonderfully – the chemistry between Cho and Gillan is palpable, and Cho, who was hired when the producers decided to give color-blind casting a try, gives an excellent performance as a marketing executive who happens to be Korean American. While the series was ultimately doomed by the network’s increasingly apparent hesitation to take risk, Cho’s role was nevertheless monumental.
The survival of the traditional format is currently threatened by the changing ways in which we consume television. According to 2013 survey conducted by Verizon, millennials are nearly twice as likely as non-millenials to have an online streaming subscription and are less likely to have a cable subscription. Further, millennials are far less likely to watch live TV (41%) when compared to non-millenials (59%), and the percentage of online TV viewing for millennials is 34%, compared to only 12% for non-millennials. Finally, the millennial preference for a complete series is evident: 39% of millennials indicated that the all-at-once release nature of programs like Netflix’s House of Cards will make them far more likely to watch. If The Interview taught us anything, it’s that even the theater system can be bypassed. No system, no viewing platform is set in stone.
Networks are so desperate for a hit show, to stumble upon the next Big Bang Theory, that they will cut a promising series before giving it time to find its audience. Cancellation decisions are based on the outdated Neilsen ratings system, which still does not incorporate online viewership. The major networks forget that financial return requires risk. By refusing to make a real investment in content, they are increasingly relying on finding a program that will be hugely popular in its assigned time slot from day one.
The implications from the Verizon study suggest that this attitude towards content is likely to push millennial viewers further away. A better approach might be to order shows on a season-by-season basis and to advertise their commitment to make all content available online as episodes air, either on the network’s site or on a pay-for-service website like Netflix or Hulu Plus. The network does not stand to lose its regular TV viewership, but also does not risk alienating millennial viewers, who are far less likely to begin a series they cannot be guaranteed will finish out.
My hope for the future of the genre is two-part. To the producers: keep going, keep experimenting and clearing the way for Hollywood. And to the networks: heads up. The industry is evolving, our culture is diversifying, and you are falling behind.