Mailbag, January 2020

Post-antiheroes, sitcoms, the future of TV

Hi everyone. Sorry I couldn’t answer everyone’s questions, but I hope you enjoy these answers nonetheless. Let’s get on with it!

Grant asks:

“What's going to be the new "rooting for the white male antihero even though they're obviously bad people" trope in TV that'll be done well at first before spawning a thousand piss-poor imitations?”

The white male antihero was obviously most prominently pioneered by The Sopranos, before being explored by that show’s two most obvious successors Mad Men and Breaking Bad and even something more accessible like House. Sopranos was an era defining show, and most of the subsequent stuff that dominated the conversation fell into the same genre.

Breaking Bad, the most anti of classic antihero shows, ended as the most talked about and acclaimed show of 2013. Its replacement for that title couldn’t match it in quality terms, but Game of Thrones blew up in a way nothing of its ilk has for some time. It’s full of characters with deceitful, selfish motives but is too sparse, with too many good people alongside, to call itself an antihero show. Of course, it has now finished.

The frontrunner for the new show that everyone obsesses over is clearly Succession in my eyes. I’ve kind of struggled to fall for it, but it’s definitely hit the zeitgeist in a way that no other currently airing thing quite has. In every surface level way, it couldn’t be more different to Thrones. But it’s a story about squabbling family members, about siblings willing to stab each other in the back in their desire for power, that could be ripped straight out of Westeros. It’s never going to be a Thrones level hit, but if it ends up as culturally significant as Breaking Bad or Mad Men then we’ve really got something.

Most of the prestige copies of Game of Thrones went not for the fantasy elements but the historical aspect. Succession almost feels like it fetishises the present like any period piece does the past. It has the same soapiness in its DNA that Thrones had, a hallmark of any squabbling family members show. Since this is a template that has existed in more low brow shows like Dynasty, it’s easy for even mediocre writers to dress it up.

So yeah, I’m calling it. The next thing is shows about backstabbing family members.

Graham asks:

“Why do you think the world collectively forgot how to make good multi-cam sitcoms?”

Ok, so I have several theories on this, and I’ll put them in order from what I think is very likely to more speculative thoughts. (For anyone unaware, a multicamera sitcom is the sort in front of a live studio audience, with laugher after each punch line, whereas a single camera sitcom is the more filmic style that eschews this.)

  1. The cool kids would rather make single-cams: This one is obvious, I think. In the 90s, the coolest comedies around were Friends and Seinfeld. Everyone wanted their shows to be them, and everyone wanted to work on them. They were winning awards and acclaim and were the shows to emulate if you wanted credibility. As much as Hollywood is a business, it also runs on what’s cool, regardless of ratings. After the turn of the millennium, The Simpsons had led to the British version of The Office, which led to the American version, as well a bunch of “smart” sitcoms. Arrested Development, a show hardly anyone watched, ended up much more influential than Two and a Half Men, which an awful lot of people watched, primarily because it was cool, looking to appeal to insider tastes and more attentive viewers than the broadly appealing Chuck Lorre hues of Men. And so it came to pass that anyone trying to make good TV comedy, with the wittiest writers and a serious desire to appeal to tastemakers as well as the mass viewership, was working in single-cams. The humble multi-cam became hollowed out, only aiming for the broadest possible audience.

  2. The 2000s style of comedy didn’t suit the format: these single-cams brought with them a different style of joke telling. Without the natural breaks to allow audience laughter, many took the opportunity to fill the runtime with more jokes than ever at a breakneck pace (the best example of this, of course, is 30 Rock). Multicam aspects could be transplanted to the single cam format, but as this became the “cool” style of comedy, there wasn’t really a way to make it work in front of a live audience.

  3. Multicams require universal humour: the live studio audience sitcom is an innately populist medium. You’re living laugh for laugh, getting instant feedback on the quality of your material. You can’t just make some people in the audience laugh, you have to make everyone laugh (a big hit will have a pretty self-selecting audience of it-getters over time, but not at the beginning). In 2020, there are fewer and fewer jokes that “everyone” finds funny. People are polarised politically, yes, but also in terms of lives and experiences as technology sends us further and further down the rabbit hole. This is, as I read somewhere, one of the reasons why existing multicams go for crude sex jokes so much, as it’s one of the few remaining broadly universal experiences. Single cams can make insular jokes that appeal only to the specific audience they’re going for. Community’s joke about, say, when Abed couldn’t process that Shirley loved Brett Ratner movies would fall flat in front of a live audience.

  4. TV is a less communal: part of being a populist medium is bringing people together. Multicams, perhaps more than other forms of TV, are designed to invite people to watch in groups, becoming part of the audience that is heard rather than implied. Modern technology, with most viewing now done over streaming services, turns the medium into a solitary experience more akin to reading books.

  5. Larger TV screens: the multicam is, by its limits, not the most visually dynamic of formats. In the space where the genre has typically thrived, the traditional TV, screens have gotten bigger and bigger, showing more and more detail. The case for visual complexity has never been stronger, and multicams just don’t have a lot to offer here.

Sarah asks:

“I'd be really interested on your thoughts on ~the future of television~, either broadly or specifically”

Ok, so moving past the obvious stuff, like “streaming services are going to take even more prominence over linear viewing”, here are a few things I think we might see over the next decade or so:

  1. The procedural becomes cool again: everything old becomes new. There’s no innate reason why its a lesser format than the hyper-serialised ten hour movie or whatever. It’s been associated with mediocrity for a long time, but the right show could get everyone excited again.

  2. Reality TV gets taken (more) seriously: we’ve been on this path for a while with shows like Bake Off and Drag Race (and even then, those are praised for being unusually serene and a more comedic take on the genre, respectively), but I think this could really accelerate. We’re three decades removed from the start of the genre and it’s not going anywhere. They won. It might feel a little poptimist for some, but there’s nothing innately less valuable about reality TV than comedies or dramas. Now that we accept it exists and isn’t the end of civilisation, we can discuss the ways good reality TV is different from bad reality TV. We’re heading for a world in which the Emmy award for outstanding reality competition program is as coveted as any other. 

  3. The soap opera format keeps getting ripped off for prestige ends: it’s the easiest lift of all time and everyone keeps doing it. All your favourite serialised shows are borrowing the soap opera structure. But I think it will become more explicit. It’s already come with Game of Thrones and Succession, and my hunch is that in a few years the show we’re all obsessed with will be even more explicitly a soap opera.

Thanks for reading, everyone! See you all next Monday.