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Thoughts? Counter claims?wrote:Who Gets the Solo at Sectionals?: The Conflict of Multiple Writers in the Television Series Glee
Vocal Warmups: Introduction
When the pilot episode first aired in May of 2009, FOX had discovered just how promising the new series Glee could be. The series, set at the fictional McKinley High School and following the students and teachers involved with the school's glee club, was promoted as a post modern musical with teen drama, comedy, and big budgeted musical numbers of current and classic songs. However, the show has its detractors, who criticize the series for meaningless musical numbers, unlikeable and inconsistent characters, and terrible writing.
One of the main facets of the show's criticism is the three writers theory, where the main issues of the show can be traced to the three men responsible for the creation of the series, as they each take turns writing an individual episode of the series. The writers tend to be criticized for their differing ideas on how the show should handle character, story, and themes, while also facing scrutiny for how the show can affect the audience and how certain actions on the show can lead to negative reactions from the audience.
Glee is currently one of the most popular programs on television and due to its appeal with the younger audiences it is important to see how the conflicts these writers have, can affect the audience both positively and negatively. I feel that there is some inconsistency faced with how each writer treats the show, and that many of the issues in the show can be traced to specific people and group. Television writing can be fickle, and while having multiple writers for a series can provide new ideas and clever plots, there can be internal struggles within the writer's room. Some shows like The Office, Adventure Time, and Lost use multiple writers, but most of the time the writers are certain on how the characters would act and can stay within the tone and atmosphere of the series, while Glee has issues due to the inconsistency of the writers.
It is important to look over how issues within the writer's room can translate to problems in the final product, and Glee's notoriety makes it the best series to analyze these issues with. In this essay, I will analyze how Glee's three writers write their episodes, look at how the typical episode writing process occurs, and how people are reacting to the show. This should allow me to see if the problems in the series arise solely from the writers or if they have explainable reasons that can be traced to a variety of sources. In the end, I will probably have a solution to the issues in Glee, as well as any other program with multiple writers, that could lead to better quality programming with strong writing and a better impact on the audience.
Open Auditions: The Three Writers and their Visions for the Show
Glee was originally conceived as a movie written by Ian Brennan in 2005. Brennan, who had been in glee clubs in high school and had been interested in writing scripts, passed the script off to Hollywood. The script was picked up by television veteran Ryan Murphy, who was best known for creating the FX series Nip/Tuck. Murphy brought along fellow Nip/Tuck writer Brad Falchuk, and the three men set about turning Brennan's script into a television series (VanDerWerff, Ian Brennan).
The way the three men write the series is that they each take turns writing a single episode of the series. The order they write their episodes tends to be Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan, with some variations. As they each handle the episode, each of the writers tends to write their episode with a specific idea in mind.
Murphy is said to be trying to write the series as if the show is a satire of afterschool specials while combining teenage drama with larger than life musical numbers (VanDerWerff, Throwdown). Murphy is also known to be the one to handle the special episodes of the series, such as episodes where all the musical numbers are based on one artist in particular like The Power of Madonna or Britney/Brittany, or more emotionally charged episodes like Furt, which addressed the bullying of homosexual students.
Brennan, on the other hand, is more interested in a much darker version of the show. A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff once claimed that Glee is a sad show trying to pass itself off as a happy show (VanDerWerff, Mattress), and Brennan seems to be the one running with that concept in mind. A lot of his episodes examine how miserable the characters of the show are and how they use glee club as an escape from their lives, such as Bad Reputation, which showed how miserable the character Quinn Fabray was since she got pregnant and kicked off the cheerleading squad. Brennan is also known to do more of the comedy based episodes, which are focused more on the black comedy of the series, such as Duets and Blame it on the Alcohol.
Lastly, Falchuck has shown evidence of trying to mix the two elements of Murphy and Brennan. Falchuck episodes tend to have serious topics and scenes, but also carefully mix in comedy and big musical elements, such as Dream On which has glee club leader Rachel Berry acknowledge her longing to meet her birth mother while featuring an incredible duet of Aerosmith's Dream On by glee club director Will Schuester and guest star Neil Patrick Harris. Falchuck also is the one to handle a lot of the conclusive episodes, episodes that tend to air around the time of midseason breaks or season finales. Episodes like Journey and New York are perfect usages of his hybridization of humor and gloom where all the season's plot elements are brought to a conclusion following some really big musical numbers.
Because of all of these elements in play, the show comes off as inconsistent and frustrating to some viewers. Character and story are the biggest elements hurt by the three writers system here. There are times where characters can behave wildly in certain episodes, mostly based on how the writer views the character. This usually occurs in terms of character development, as characters tend to learn lessons only to forget them in later episodes for no discernible reason. The character Quinn, for example, spent the first season learning how to not care about being popular due to her pregnancy and became a nicer character, no longer as manipulative and mean as she used to be. Next season, she rejoins the cheerleading squad and becomes obsessed with popularity, particularly Prom Court, and is just as cruel and manipulative to other characters. Likewise, the villain of the show, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, has time and time again learned to stop hating the glee club so much and simply accept how nice the people are, only to revert to her irrational hatred a few episode later.
With story, this can also reflect issues with character continuity as it looks like the characters are incapable of learning lessons. The episode Hairography teaches the characters the lesson of not relying on gimmicks in their performances as they do not add to the song or make them any better performers, but later that season, in Theatricality, they have the characters spend the episode dressing up like Lady Gaga or KISS and have absolutely no problems with having the characters imitate other artists. The episode Silly Love Songs also carries this with the male characters imitating Justin Bieber with no consequence.
So while the three writers each have their own view on how the series should go, they all seem to fall into the same traps as each other. Some might assume that Falchuk would be the best writer because he mixes the elements of spectacle and drama, but even he can find himself writing episodes with forced sentimentality (particularly in Never Been Kissed, where one character gives another character a kiss to make her feel better for being over forty years old and having never kissed a man). It is difficult to assume one writer has a better view of the series than the others because there are many issues with their writing styles. However, it might be best to look at what goes into the making of an episode to see if there are any outside factors that can get in the way of the conception of an episode.
Planning the Set List : The Politics of the Writer's Room
Most of the issues attributed to the writers of Glee can be pointed back towards the circumstances behind a television series and the creation of a single episode. The creation of an episode of Glee is similar to how most modern shows are written, but with a few exceptions. Most television programs tend to have a staff of writers handling an individual episode. There is one person in the group who is considered the showrunner. This person is usually an executive producer or possibly the director, but they usually have the authority on certain developments in a series. The showrunner then has a staff of several men and women tasked to write an episode. Usually, they will assign each person to write a specific episode, sometimes paired with another writer, sometimes alone. The staff will throw out ideas for the plot and the main writer for the episode will write a script based on these ideas (Henderson 147).
As a writer, I usually find myself in trouble if I try to write about a subject I have very little knowledge of, such as how mute people are treated in schools. Television writing isn't as restrictive on how much a writer can know when writing compared to a novelist. For example, nobody will criticize Lost for their understanding on time travel because time travel is a subject that is open to interpretation and reimagining. However, a show like Glee could be criticized for their understanding on much more serious issues such as homosexuality, race, disability, and other hot topic issues that people have to deal with in real life, where there are certain do's and don't's in the subject. Felicia D. Henderson mentioned how during her time as a writer for The CW's The Game, a Jewish writer wanted to put a joke about Jewish people in a black man's episode, but the black man refused because he didn't think it was appropriate for him to make fun of Jewish people since he can't get away with an ethnically insensitive joke like that (147).
The same applies to Glee. Brennan mentioned in an interview with Todd VanDerWerff that Murphy, a homosexual, tends to write scenes between gay teenager Kurt and his father Burt (Ian Brennan). Brennan and Falchuk can write Kurt however they like, but they would have to keep in mind how Murphy might be offended by any inappropriate handling of the character and would have to make sure they don't offend anyone. Likewise, Falchuk is Jewish, and while there are a few Jewish characters on the show, Brennan and Murphy would have to ensure that they don't do anything that could be considered anti-semetic. It's still really good to acknowledge the diversity of the audience, but also to be aware that some people might confuse certain messages, so a writer should ensure that their stance is completely clear and avoids misinterpretation.
Another issue that can face the writers of a television series is the impact of outside sources, namely the executives and censors. Glee is a very commercial show, selling millions with iTunes downloads, CDs, concerts, merchandise, a movie, and more items. Because of this, the show can sometimes be expected to appeal more to their audience. One of the main criticisms of the show's second season was an over usage of musical numbers. The show had already received a three season contract and received more money to put into their musical numbers, so it was natural to see that the numbers would become more extravagant. At the same time, most of the songs performed in the second season were catered towards the young adult audience of the show, featuring songs from current artists like Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Rebecca Black.
However, there are times where the musical numbers can get in the way of the story. For example, the episode Funeral had a plot about Sue Sylvester's sister dying while also having the glee club plan their performances at Nationals with an audition to determine the lead performer. The series chose to stop the former plot and spent half the episode on the auditions themselves, which Van Der Werff noted as an odd structural choice, since it stops the show cold and puts the Jean funeral plotline on hold for no particular reason but to sell iTunes songs (Funeral). Likewise, in the episode Born this Way, the episode stalled for a few acts to wrap up one particular storyline and have two musical numbers featured back to back. Van Der Werff also called the episode's flash mob scene the shows most blatant attempt to just stall for time (Born this Way).
At other times, it is possible that the show is giving certain characters more storylines and songs based on their character's popularity. One of the show's breakout characters is Heather Morris' character Brittany S. Pierce also became popular for her dumb cheerleader character, which earned her her own episode (Britney/Brittany) and given her several more episode plots than other characters like the sassy Mercedes or gothic Tina. At the same time, when Darren Criss' character Blaine was added with an all male glee club called The Warblers, he was given a romantic storyline with Kurt, while also getting several solo performances per episode and a compilation CD for The Warblers. At the end of the season, Blaine had received more solo performances than Mercedes, Tina, and a few other characters who had been more prominent earlier in the show's history.
At the same time, the show does have to adhere to censors at times. The Parent Television Council (PTC) will crack down on a show like Glee for presenting themes such as tolerance of homosexuals and other topics such as teen pregnancy. While Glee has done fairly well at avoiding the ire, there are times where an episode can be heavily altered due to the complaints of groups like the PTC. The Rocky Horror Glee Show is probably the biggest example, as it dealt with teenage characters in undergarments and songs about fornication. This forced the writers to edit the songs in the episode. The song Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me could no longer use the phrase seat wetting, and the song Sweet Transvestite had to change the line Transexual, Transylvania to Sensational, Transylvania, although the derogatory term tranny was still used in the episode (VanDerWerff).
Television writing tends to have certain standards brought upon it when an episode is presented. Shows like Glee tend to be brought to a certain level due to popularity and accolade. As Johnathan Nichols-Pethick discussed in his article Nobody with a Good Script Needs to Be Justified, when a show deals with a social issue, the challenge for the writer of a series narrative is to 'find a way to tell the story through how it affects these characters emotionally' rather than to treat the narrative as a political tract (155). Glee is often commented on for how the series handles certain topics like the need for artistic freedom and the treatment of homosexual teenagers in school. It is in these fields that the show needs to be careful for how it deals with the subjects.
One of the main complaints of the second season of Glee was the handling of a continuing storyline with the gay student Kurt being harassed by a closeted football player (Weinman, Backlash). VanDerWerff claimed that Kurt is the sole character from season one whos been written with any degree of consistency this season (Born this Way). Kurt has been identified as a role model for gay teenagers, mostly in part because his homosexuality was clear from the first episode (Kessler 144). This was helpful because it established how the character would behave early on in the series, as most shows tend to do so that the audience can relate to the characters on screen, build a connection, and tune in every week to see what they do each episode.
Still, there are times where the character has been looked at negatively for his actions, mostly where he is excused for certain deplorable actions because someone else did something slightly worse than him. I noticed that some episodes have Kurt doing kind things like helping a classmate who's family had to move into a motel, but then hurts his character by pestering a heterosexual crush to where the crush used the word faggy in front of him (Theatricality), or how he derided a gay kid for considering that he might be bisexual (Silly Love Songs). It's times like this where it becomes hard to like a character because their personality can alternate to behaviors that would be inappropriate in most situations.
A common issue with Kurt, as well as other characters on the show, is that the series tends to fail to develop them beyond certain basic character traits. While some characters such as Santana have exhibited multiple behaviors and reactions to situations, ranging from being a sassy vamp to a conflicted lesbian, other characters tend to stick to one facet. Kurt, for example, is rarely defined on the show as anything beyond being gay. Even though the show will have the character demonstrate other personality traits such as a habit of manipulation and a reliability as a secret-keeper, most episodes about Kurt revolve around the fact that he is gay and either doesn't deserve the treatment he gets or should be looked in a certain way, free of prejudice. Because of this, I think that sometimes Kurt can become less like a character and more of an author tract.
Likewise, characters like Mercedes, Tina, and Mike are based solely on their race so the writers can make jokes about race (VanDerWerff). Doing this removes any dimension to the characters, to the point where they will have very few lines in an episode. One episode, A Night of Neglect was to highlight how Mercedes was just as good a singer as Rachel, but for some reason got less solos than Rachel. This should highlight the character's low self-esteem and target possible issues with the structure of the club, but tends to fail because, as guest writer Myles McNutt said in the A.V. Club review of the episode, she is a prop, someone who can be carried out in an egg whenever they need someone to give a particularly diva-esque musical performance...I can't think of a single musical performance from Mercedes this season that has been something that she was driven to sing for reasons unrelated to an overarching episode structure... (A Night of Neglect).
Tina and Mike, on the other hand, are identified mostly by their Asian heritage. The first season had Mike at one point referred to as Other Asian (Ballad), and it wasn't until the episode Asian F that we got more of an idea on Mike's character. Tina was one of the original characters who was known for being a goth and having a stutter. In the second season, she was paired up with Mike, and from that point, she was simply a prop character. None of her solo performances in the season (Silly Love Songs, A Night of Neglect) were complete songs and usually were to carry some sort of joke or message, and she was reduced to a backup singer, usually sharing the stage with someone, but not standing out in any way.
Other times, the show will introduce characters but even deny them the chance to have even the simplest character traits such as names. Rachel, for example, apparently has two gay dads. As of the eighth episode of the third season, neither of her dads have appeared on the show. Most of the time, they are mentioned when someone asks Rachel something about her family and she has to inform them that she has to gay dads. As a result, this trivializes the chance to explore her family and give an idea of her home life. Her dads are simply jokes, but in a show that tries to show tolerance of homosexuality, they should be more than ghosts. The most likely reason I have found as to why her parents haven't appeared in the series is because it would require the show to find two actors to play her fathers and then pay them to be used in the show. It's one thing to have a character who only exists off screen as a joke and have a character not exist because the writers can't find any reason to work them into an episode or a cameo appearance.
Another example would be the rival glee club The Warblers, an all male group from a local private school. Kurt joined the group in season two and started dating member Blaine. They are the only members of the group to have solos in the entire season. It became jarring when it was mentioned that Blaine was always getting the solos because he was the best singer in the group (Original Song), but really, this makes the group more of a plot device and fails to even add to the world. Because the show wants to focus on Kurt and Blaine's relationship, it means we don't get to learn about other members of the group, even when The Warblers received their own album.
There are several possible explanations for the reasons the series chooses to present subjects and characters in the way they choose to. It's possible that most of the one dimensionality of characters like the jocks and the exaggeration of other characters like Sue Sylvester and the competition judges is that the show is supposed to be viewed as how the kids of a certain group see the world. Since they are on the bottom of the school hierarchy of popularity, they would show an inability to understand people from outside their group and mind set, mostly since we learn about the characters from their internal monologues. Still, while the show is showing a world as defined by unpopular theater geeks, the problem is that the show doesn't give the chance to show the situation from the other side. They will have one or two characters see the club differently if given the chance to develop their characters, but we never get a sense of why the club would be hated for such exaggerated reasons, like a school teacher throwing a shoe at them for performing in her class (A Very Glee Christmas) or being told that having glee club on their college application would be a detriment to getting into Harvard (Asian F). It might give a better sense of the world of Glee to isolate the glee club haters and give an honest depiction as to why they might have irrational hatred for an extracurricular activity.
There are many issues within the writer's room, whether the writers have conflicts with how to handle individual episodes, or if there are some outside issues that can leak into the production, many issues can arise, and it is up to the writers to handle them. The writers of Glee have demonstrated the ability to insert meta humor and reference issues within the series, such as referencing the number of times Will Schuester has performed a rap number (Audition) or pointing out a background character named Brad who is always around to play the piano whenever the characters need a piano player for the song they are going to sing (Theatricality). It's good that the writers are aware of their problems, but the challenge is to handle it all in a way that can properly amend the damage and try to avoid similar issues in the future.
The Judge's Scores are in: The Reactions from the Audience
Being a hit commercial show, Glee is known to have a large fan base comprised mainly of young teenagers and young adults. Since the beginning, the show has been shown to cater to their fans, or gleeks as they tend to be called, and pay heavy attention to what the fans like and don't like about the show. For example, in the second season premiere Audition, the opening sequence mentioned a few of the series complaints, such as Schuester's rapping, or the idea that they would pair the two Asian teenagers together and have them date (Van Der Werff). Of course, Glee isn't without its detractors, no television series is. However, it is about how the show is able to handle it's detractors properly, and is Glee doing that well?
Glee has had controversy from it's early days, when the first episode after the pilot featured the kids in New Directions performing a hypersexualized version of Salt N' Pepa's Push It (Van Der Werff, Showmance). Since then, the PTC and other groups have been looking at Glee with watchful eyes. Even ignoring censorship issues, the show has had its share of noteworthy issues in the series. Ever since the first season, Glee would be put into the news whenever an artist or band would refuse to license their music to the show. When Slash of Guns N' Roses criticized the show, Murphy said that Slash's comments were uneducated and quite stupid (Weinman, Backlash). Murphy has also been known to get into arguments with groups like Kings of Leon, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Foo Fighters over the licensing issues. Jaime J. Weinman also mentioned in his article The Backlash Against 'Glee' that actor Chris Colfer learned of his character's departure from the show following the third season over Twitter, which Murphy blamed the media for confusing the issue.
Aside from how the writer's handle the media, there are other issues they have to face with the show. As mentioned earlier, the writer's have to be careful with how they present certain actions to avoid sending confused messages to the audience. One of the biggest issues is with the act of slushing, where the show's bully characters, mostly jocks, would throw frozen slushie drinks in the faces of the kids in glee club. Weinman reported that there were cited events of slushing in Canadian schools to homosexual students (Slushies).
The show has made it clear that the act of slushing is not a good thing to do, since the characters who do it are remorseless and the act of slushing can physically harm the person hurt by it. However, slushing is still one of the iconic aspects of the show, as it tends to be used in the advertising of the show and on some of the promotional materials. So while the show isn't purposefully trying to encourage bullying by slushing, it shows how people can take something that, while presented as a terrible thing to do, and do it without considering the fallacy in the action.
The reason slushing could even become an act of aggression is because of how influential television is. Since its conception, television has always been a source of desensitization, which is described as becoming immune to the dramas on-screen only one small step from this to becoming indifferent in our relation to our fellow people in real life, too... (Eftimie, 124). Glee has a large fan base, but not everyone in that fan base will agree with a very liberal stance the show has in subjects like homosexuality.
Since the show reaches millions of people all over the world through mass communication, it is presenting a specific view of high school across great distances. The hyper-reality of television means that a certain view is made from the sequence of images presented on screen that the media will present to the masses (Pachef 110). The issue with how the show presents its message is that it might only appeal to a certain group. So while the show may have a stance on treatment of homosexuals, teen sex, and other hot topic issues, the series tends to present this all in a liberal view. The show tends to be praised for the positive portrayal of gay characters while also being criticized for having two male characters kiss for several seconds longer than one would expect (Original Song). Likewise, the show can have characters choose to lose their virginity to their boyfriend/girlfriend under the stance of you are young and don't want to regret not taking that leap with the person you love, which to some conservative groups might be read as do it while you're young because you're high school love interest is certainly the best person to lose your virginity to (The First Time).
Still, the best thing a writer can do with a sort of situation like this is try to listen to the audience complaints and try to find a way to handle the issue in a way that can at least address all the sides of the issue. The internet is probably the best place for writers and producers to find out what the fans think of certain developments on the show. In her analysis of forums dedicated to the Australian Soap Opera Neighbours called Good Neighbours, Rebecca Williams found that fan/producer relationships can be antagonistic when fans and producers expectations of each another are not met. However, many Neighbours fans were happy to continue watching the developing storylines and be deferential and respectful of the creators decisions (287). Glee is a show that has shown a respect for what the fans enjoy, and have been sure to acknowledge certain aspects of the fandom in the show, such as the popularity of the character Brittany earning her more lines and solo numbers, or even having the characters on the show discuss portmanteau couple names fans have made for certain relationships (Rumours).
While it can be good to listen to the audience, there is still the issue of pandering to the audience. Sometimes it becomes obvious when a writer or producer for a series is listening too much to what fans say and is shaping the show to fit specifically to their needs, such as giving a character more prominence or featuring certain types of antics. An example would be how the character of Steve Urkel on Family Matters was originally a one episode character but then was brought in as a regular due to his popularity, to the point where he was all that was remembered from that show.
In Glee, pandering can come in many forms. In the first season, it was clear that the musical numbers were what really drew people in, so the second season had more money put into the numbers, where they became more extravagant, even allowing them to do music video recreations. However, this did lead to problems of overindulgence, such as in the episode Britney/Brittany, where they had three music video recreations in a row to the point where they became boring.
Glee also had issues with character popularity. Sue Sylvester was considered the breakout character in the first season, so she got more story lines and monologues because they knew the people liked them. However, there came times where the writers had no idea what to do with her and had to have her get involved in nonsensical story lines like her congressional campaign in season three. VanDerWerff even has a theory that the best episodes of Glee are the ones without Sue in them, such as Duets, Silly Love Songs, and Asian F. Most of the Sue issues arise because the show has trouble with developing her as a character and having an antagonist for the club. They twice already have had her decide to go easy on them only to try and take the club down a few episodes later, all because they can't find an actual use for her in the show without being an antagonist. They know people want to watch the show to see the Emmy Award winning actress, but they have trouble keeping her relevant.
Essentially, every artistic endeavor is going to face positive and negative criticism in some way. For a television show like Glee, it's a balance of understanding your faults and trying to grow from them. To mend the issues, the three writers would have to collaborate and try to get an idea on how they can avoid the prat falls they continuously fall into and try to figure out a future plan. For example, if some people are annoyed with Sue constantly being the villain, they could try to write a story where a more believable threat appears and Sue empathizes with the group enough to help them. If some people find the musical numbers too over the top, they could build the episode up to one or two very important numbers and have the emotion of the singers and the tone of the scene matter more than the song, which the show has done before in their performance of Rumor Has It/Someone Like You from the episode Mash-Off. Overall, the writers just need to plan ahead and then decide what would work better in the rules of the show's universe.
Final Song: Conclusion
In conclusion, a television program that uses multiple writers does face many problems along the way, but it is up to the writers and the others involved in production to handle how to fix these issues so that the final product is the best it possibly can. In Glee's case, it mostly is about being able to sort through all the ideas Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan have about the series and trying to plot a future for the series. This might stifle some of the creativity of the series, but it will allow them to focus on long term factors such as seasonal arcs, character development, and ultimately the scope of the series.
As previously mentioned the series is good at listening to its critics and trying to remedy the problems. One of the ideas that was suggested was the inclusion of a writing staff, bringing on additional writers to handle the scriptwriting process and present new ideas and elements to the show. Brennan mentioned that they would adapt this in their third season (VanDerWerff, Ian Brennan), and it came to fruition in the episode Pot O' Gold with Ali Adler writing the episode. Following episodes would be written by new writers such as Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Michael Hitchcock, Matthew Hodgson, and Ross Maxwell. At the time of this writing, it is unknown if any additional writers have been added to the series, but having eight writers present would allow new interpretation to the series and possibly force them to decide on how certain characters should behave and how certain events should play out.
For the series to be properly saved, I feel that adding new writers might not be enough. I feel that Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, and the new writers are going to have to really plan the future of the series. With most of the students leaving at the end of the third season and all of the original students gone after the fourth season, the writers are responsible for planning the stories of these characters and ensuring that the show can survive without these kids. Most of the actors leaving the series after the third season are the kids the show tends to focus on such as Rachel, Finn, Kurt, Quinn, and others. This will leave characters like Tina and Mercedes behind to carry the show. The writers not only have to plan for the farewells of the graduating characters but develop the remaining characters so the show can survive. Other than that, I feel that if the show is aware of the ramifications of their inconsistency and works to ensure that every character, plot, and message is perfected, then the show will last better in the long run and be one of the most beloved programs ever.
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Thoughts? Counterclaims?wrote:Cue Laugh Track: Why Traditional Sitcoms are Not as Meaningful as Experimental Comedy Series
In November 2011, NBC decided to take the comedy series Community off of the spring schedule. This in turn led to a massive campaign on the internet to save the television series. The campaign, with the tag line Six Seasons and a Movie, people on the internet began to write appeals to NBC and sign petitions in an attempt to ensure that the sitcom about a study group at a community college would stay on the air. Fortunately, the show was only on a brief hiatus, having been declared to return March 15, 2012, although issues about the show's future are still in the air.
Like many of the people on the internet, I tweeted and posted on my Tumblr account with desperate pleas to save the television series. Part of my reasoning behind joining the campaign was a love of the series, first of all, but also a bit of frustration with the network. At the same time, NBC premiered a new television sitcom called Whitney, a comedy starring Whitney Cummings in a fictionalized version of her life. I found Whitney to be insulting to my intelligence. The show had the traditional four-camera sitcom set up, a laugh track, and some fairly unfunny jokes. Yet somehow Whitney was getting better ratings than Community; most likely because Whitney would air after NBC ratings powerhouse The Office, and yet Whitney was renewed with no issues while Community was nearly canceled.
This got me thinking about the success of comedy series on television. How could something as generic and non-threatening as Whitney somehow do better than something experimental and artistic like Community? Why do the sitcoms on channels like CBS seem to be more familiar with the public than the much more engaging series on NBC? How can a show like Arrested Development last less seasons than According to Jim when Arrested Development is considered more of a cultural landmark?
It appears that most television channels have strange rules when looking at how to handle the subject of cancellation and renewals. As described above, a show that has more effort and is willing to take more risks like Community is nearly canceled while a generic and mundane series like Whitney gets to stay on the air without any issues. Why does the public seem more responsive to television series that are less challenging to them? Why do shows that seem to be more interested in playing with their genre seem to either end early or fall to the wayside?
Looking over the subject, it seems clear that there are many causes as to why a series can face issues in the long run. For starters, there is the issue of looking at how a series appeals to the public. As discussed in the article Why are Most Sitcom Pilots Not Funny? most sitcom pilot episodes lack the appeal of character-based comedy (Heisler 1). This makes a lot of sense when trying to think about what a series does in its first episode.
In essence, the pilot of a television series is to appeal to the network heads and say why the show deserves to be put on the air. If the network likes the episode then it must try to draw an audience by showing the elements of the series the audience can expect from the first episode. The first episode of Arrested Development told you details about everyone in the Bluth family, from Michael's loyalty, to GOB's flair for the dramatic, even to Lucille's admitted dislike of gay people. The episode also made use of some of the show's recurring elements, from the blunt and opinionated narrator to jokes about Tobias' possible homosexuality. This pilot episode tells you exactly what a viewer would need to know about a series like Arrested Development, where you can get an early impression of the characters and the type of stories the characters will be put through.
Another factor that can play into the development and success of comedy series is cost. Studios have to pay a lot of money for the use of sets and actors, as well as paying people involved in the production such as camera people and lighting crew. For some networks it can be easier to do a four-camera sitcom simply because of long term usage. Most sitcoms have the family room where the characters watch TV along with a kitchen area and a few bedrooms as the homes for the characters, with a few choice places to have characters act outside of the home, such as restaurants or workplaces.
In a show that is more experimental in its approach to storytelling it can get pretty expensive to go to various locations and use many costume changes. Community is a series that has had this issue arise a few times in its run. One episode, Paradigms of Human Memory, featured the characters remembering various events that happened that the audience never saw, which would include many shots of characters in places like Mexico or an insane asylum. These locations would be used for one shot and then never used again, and this ended up being one of the most expensive episodes of the series (VanDerWerff, Community 1).
In a strange inverse, a later episode of Community, Remedial Chaos Theory, featured seven alternate timelines set in one apartment. The episode had to have its production order switched due to a fear of getting the episode finished on time. Even with the single location, called a bottle episode, they ran into money and time issues because of how many shots they would have to take and how much time was spent on editing (VanDerWerff, Community 1).
Probably one of the biggest causes for this disparage of style and taste in television comedies is the issue of familiarity. It seems like people are very comfortable with the idea of simply watching something that they have seen plenty of times. The article "Does Father Still Know Best? An Inductive Thematic Analysis Of Popular TV Sitcoms" looks at many sitcoms created during the last fifteen years. The article looks at the race of the characters, their ages, the family make up, and the descriptions of the show.
In the chart, most of the shows have a very common description. Most of the shows discussed are about a man and his interactions with his family and friends. There are a few differences, such as Everybody Loves Raymond focusing less on Raymond's interactions with his children and Malcolm in the Middle being more about the life of one of five children. Most of the series are described simply as man deals with life, his job, and his kids. This includes series such as The George Lopez Show, Grounded for Life, My Wife and Kids, and more.
Part of what is said to make these series popular is the simple addition of the laugh track and studio audience. As discussed in the article Do Sitcoms Taped Before a Live Studio Audience Have a Future? most four-camera sitcom series like Friends and Seinfeld are dependent on the implementation of a live studio audience to help the viewer feel a sense of community. People like to watch a television series and get an idea that they can relate to the people in the series, which is why most television series will relate common tropes like the bratty teenage daughter and the father jumping through hoops to get a promotion (VanDerWerff 1).
The article also discusses how a show's community can grow over time through saturation. With the progress in the internet, people are able to connect to each other over vast distances to discuss various aspects of a series and interact with people they will never meet. This instant community allows for the sharing of opinions, and with the aid of companies like Netflix and Hulu, people are able to open up to new series. This is how a person born in 1996 can be a fan of a series like Twin Peaks despite being born after the series aired on television (VanDerWerff, Taped 1).
Still, all of these series enjoyed a successful cable run and are now enjoying syndication on several channels such as ABC Family and Nick at Nite, despite the generic premises and characters. To the public, these shows were simple family sitcoms. There wasn't anything challenging or different to them, making them much easier for the fans to open up to and get involved in. Because of this, it is suggested that a show can reach success if it handles all of its details in an extremely banal and simple fashion.
The consequences of these actions are a pretty bad look for television as a cultural art form. Television comedies that stick to very basic and unexciting premises and characters may possibly succeed in holding a half hour of television before eventually finding a safety net in syndication, where a series airs reruns on a different channel. Even though not every show can last at least four seasons before airing on syndication, there are a few issues that can arise from this type of television making.
The first is the issues of cancellation. Time and time again, people will complain about a show being cut down in its prime or screwed over by the network. People have complained about shows such as Freaks and Geeks, The IT Crowd, and Party Down being canceled after one season despite the humorous plot lines and characters. Cancellation is a very fickle aspect of television. Shows need to make money for the network. They have to attract a certain number of viewers to justify their existence on the network, and a failure to do so costs the network money.
There are a lot of factors that can deal with how a show can cost money, but the most common issue is the salaries of the actors. Before the series ended, the lead actresses of Friends were reported to be paid one million dollars per episode. Shows like Arrested Development and Community require a lot of money to do their style of humor. These shows need funds for multiple cameras, special shooting locations, guest stars, and other rare or uncommon attributes like special effects. Community had to destroy their sets following the season two finale due to the amount of damage they did to them during a campus wide paintball game (VanDerWerff, Community).
Cancellation becomes an issue because it cuts shows down rather easily. Shows like Arrested Development will be moved around the schedule in an attempt to try and save the show, but only confuse the dedicated viewers. Some shows will have a very good air time usually at eight p.m. or Sunday or Thursday evenings, but can be moved to different times and days, such as nine-thirty on Mondays, in an attempt to make room for new shows. When a show like The Big Bang Theory sticks to several sets and spends most of their money on actor's salaries and similar objects the network will not have as many problems with it. This will prompt more advertising to a show they know can easily make the money and keep the network afloat.
Another consequence of this type of programming is the standards it raises for a television show. In an article called Community and Glee are Pretty Much the Same Show, A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff compared two television series, Glee and Community, and explained how the shows were very similar. He noted five reasons why the shows were the same, including the core cast being a makeshift family and the recycling of culture around them. However, one of the main issues with this article was how both shows are shockingly similar but one does better than the other.
VanDerWerff notes how despite how similar the shows are, there is a sharp contrast to their success. Community has a large following of critics and cult fans who watch it weekly to see if the show will parody horror films or romantic comedies. Glee has very few critics who truly enjoy it, but a much larger fan base and more ways to capitalize off the show. This disparage can create issues with how we judge sitcoms; primarily in the elements that can add longevity to the series. Glee is considered a weak show by most critics yet has higher ratings and stays close to a usual format where there are four to seven songs performed as part of a weekly theme with teen drama stories peppered around it. No one knows what Community is going to do each week, yet its characters remain established and easily fit into whatever story they are thrown in. Still, one show is doing better than the other in terms of ratings, money for the company, and a possible future on their network. This raises the question: does a show and its creators have to put aside some personal integrity to stay on the air? My answer is yes, but I think there are shows that are capable of trying to avoid these issues.
To fix this, I think there are a few things that need to change in the system. The first is to educate the masses. As he wrote in his article Why Sitcoms Matter, journalist Jake Martin states that a sitcom must move not only internally within the framework of its context but also externally by cultivating a deep relationship with its audience. This means that a show must invite the audience into its world. The show has to establish the limits and rules of the show's universe, while also introducing us to the characters we are to connect with.
In a bizarre show like Arrested Development where the viewer watches a bunch of awful rich people suffer due to their own greed and idiocy it gets hard to find ways to care about the characters. But, if one were to pay attention, they would realize that the humor is hating the characters. They want you to be glad when bad things happen to the Bluths. However, you come to pity the fools so much that you become interested in seeing them succeed even when the show tells you that the Bluths aren't worth saving. To achieve this, one needs to accept the kind of world the characters live in, one where the public is ready to tear apart rich people when their illicit activities become public.
Part of educating the public on artistic comedy series to watch is to try and curb their interests into series that have been important in some way. As Martin also pointed out, the best sitcoms (examples he listed include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Friends, 30 Rock, All in the Family, and The Office) are able to move between the space of sentimental and disengaged. When one looks back at these past series there are certain elements that can be found to have left an impression on younger programs. All in the Family dared to have the father of the family be a bigot. Shows like Seinfeld made entire episodes about trying to find a car in a parking garage or waiting in line at a restaurant. Current series like 30 Rock are willing to take controversy of the actors (in this case Tracy Morgan's homophobic rants) and use them to create comical situations in the series (Martin).
The point of the shows above is that they all tried new things and found if they worked or not. Essentially, the public needs to learn about why these shows succeeded and are still acclaimed for their stories and characters and why some shows are swiftly forgotten by the public. Some shows like Greg the Bunny, The Pitts, and Sons of Tuscon failed to establish an audience early on in their run, resulting in their cancellation and inability to pick up syndication. The idea would be to work with the public, test their intelligence, and try to create a show that can appeal to everyone but do so without pandering.
But Erik Adams brings a good point up in his article Is Television a Medium Without a Past? In the article he describes how most syndicated networks like Nick at Nite seem to put a cutoff date for certain programs which relegates sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island to channels like TV Land and more. This issue he finds is that this doesn't allow the series to age gracefully in the eyes of the viewers. By moving these series to specific times and channels, the series become dated and begin to lose their appeal.
Still, trying to get people to open up to a classic series or a subversive new series is difficult to accomplish. Smart humor is something that isn't easy to show a wide audience, as it usually sticks to specific demographics or classes. But that doesn't mean that the shows can't at least try to take their audiences seriously. There's an element of comedy called rapid-fire comedy where the idea is that you tell several jokes quickly. This means that the audience will not understand every joke, but the ones they do get will be appreciated even more. Most standard sitcoms have a specific set up for their jokes where some plot is discussed, and then someone says something witty followed by laugh track. In rapid-fire comedy the audience doesn't know when the jokes will come, and thus can be immersed in the show and enjoy the humor when it appears and is understood.
Overall, there is a lot that will be needed to change the standards of comedy series on television. Sure there are shows like Community and Modern Family that can push the boundaries of television sitcoms and try to guide the viewers to a promise land of good writing and characters. There are a few issues along the way though and lots of outside factors to deal with such as ratings, merchandising, and network demands. Still, if enough people show a willingness to try new shows and have higher standards in regards to the entertainment they consume there might be more interest in trying to make memorable programs and play with new ideas of humor and comedy writing.
Adams, Erik. "For Our Consideration Is Television a Medium without a Past?Â ." Is Television a Medium without a Past?Â . Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/is-television- a-medium-without-a-past,70520/>.
Heisler, Steve. "For Our Consideration Why Are Most Sitcom Pilots Not Very Funny? ." Why Are Most Sitcom Pilots Not Very Funny? . Web. 21 Feb. 2012. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/why-are- most-sitcom-pilots-not-very-funny,62935/>.
Katherine A. Kuvalanka, et al. "Does Father Still Know Best? An Inductive Thematic Analysis Of Popular TV Sitcoms."Fathering: A Journal Of Theory, Research, & Practice About Men As Fathers 7.2 (2009): 114-139. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Feb. 2012.
Martin, Jake. "Why Sitcoms Matter." America 205.15 (2011): 19-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.
"Television." Nielsen. Web. 08 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/t ... ision.html>.
VanDerWerff, Todd. "Community." The A.V. Club. Web. 06 Mar. 2012. <http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/tvshow/community,87/>.
---. "For Our Consideration Do Sitcoms Taped before a Studio Audience Have a Future?" Do Sitcoms Taped before a Studio Audience Have a Future? Web. 21 Feb. 2012. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/do-sitco ... a-f,61711/>.
---. "Community and Glee Are Pretty Much the Same Show | TV | For Our Consideration | The A.V. Club." The A.V. Club. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/communit ... -the-same- show,52311/>.
wrote: I hate you! Let me go!
Those words propelled me out of my delirium. I was in my dorm room, trying to fall asleep. I had spent an uneventful evening watching TV and had decided it was time to go to sleep. I was wrapped up in my blanket and curled up in my double bed, trying to relax my brain and enter dreamworld.
I wouldn't be able to fall asleep anytime soon.
It was nearly midnight. I was in my bed when I heard the girl shout those words. My first instinct was to raise my blinds to see what was going on. It was hard to keep the blinds up from the angle I was at, but I saw an African American girl get pulled into a car parked in the small street next to my building.
I tried to watch the scene below. The glare from the streetlights made it hard to see into the car, but I could still see the girl, with her short hair and glasses visible through the windows. The man who pulled her in was in the driver's seat, so I had no idea what he looked like. But I could see his hands clutching the steering wheel.
I was still lying on my bed, stomach down, looking out the window. I had cracked my window open to try and hear what was going on. My dorm is near a noisy intersection, so it is hard to hear most things outside my window. That girl's scream was loud enough to penetrate the city sounds though.
My Blackberry was charging on the windowsill, so I picked it up. I had no idea what the man was going to do the girl, so for safety, I pre-dialed 911 in case I saw any physical violence. However, I realized that it might be better to call campus police, who might be able to get to the scene before the regular police. However, I didn't have the campus police number on my phone, so I had to jump out of bed and hurry to my laptop.. As I waited to log into my computer, I was worried about what I could miss. Was the girl being hit? Were they fighting?
I soon found the number, and resumed my place on my bed, looking out the window at the car below. This must have been what it was like to be Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, a voyeur looking into the lives of others. There wasn't much going on outside. I could see the light from the girl's cell phone, but not much else.
The man suddenly honked the horn three times, then a clapping sound. I sincerely hoped he was hitting the dashboard.
She tried to get out of the car, but he kept her inside. They needed to air out whatever they were discussing. I remained vigilant, waiting for the right moment to call. What was the right moment though? They were creating a disturbance, but should I wait until there was physical violence? All I could do was sit and watch.
I tried to think of what to say to the campus policeman or woman on the other end. Is it just a domestic disturbance? Am I meddling with a couple's personal issue? Will the police even do anything? All these thoughts entered and exited my mind as I waited patiently for something to happen.
I thought back to a scene from La Dolce Vita, where Marcello and Emma were sitting in his car as Marcello announced his desire to break up with her. Were the two people in that car like the characters in Fellini's movie? Violence seemed present, but would it reach the levels of that film when Emma began repeatedly hitting Marcello before he abandoned her?
All I could do was sit. There wasn't too much else going on below. They were still talking, and I still had my phone in hand, ready to call the campus police as soon as I had a justifiable reason. Nothing happened.
Soon, the girl got out of the car. She stormed down the street, away from the car. The man floored the gas pedal and drove the car onto the busy street, out of my range of sight. I sat there silent. I opened my window as far as I could and leaned out. I could vaguely see the girl walking down the street. Her head was hung low.
Nothing happened. Marcello had left Emma. I was left staring out the window into the noisy evening. Clutching my Blackberry, I was shaking. There was nothing for me to do.
I set my phone down on the windowsill and walked over to my desk. Sitting in the chair, I looked at my laptop in disbelief. Why didn't I call the police? Could I have done anything? Would the police have actually done anything in the situation?
These thoughts meandered in my head as I sat there. With nothing else to do, I turned on my laptop, and began writing. Somehow, tapping away on the keyboard felt really nice. It cleared my head, helped translate what happened into text, and made me ponder everything that just happened to me.
With the document saved, I turned my computer off, turned the lights off, and got back into my bed. Wrapped under the covers, I closed my eyes, relaxed, and tried to drift into slumberland.
I still couldn't fall asleep.