Saturday, June 14, 2008

Scott on the missing Gimmick Sit-Com

[Guest blogger Scott asks some questions, and I make a brief comment below.]

Back in the fall, ABC had a short-lived sit-com featuring the GEICO cavemen. When I first heard that they were doing this my initial reaction was, "How could they possibly think that this could work?" Then I remembered that TV has a long history of gimmicky sit-coms; the sixties was absolutely lousy with them: My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Giligan's Island, Green Acres, Mr. Ed etc. In the 80's we had Mork and Mindy and Alf and there's the most recent success I can think of, Third Rock From the Sun.

Geoff likes to argue about quality but, with pop-culture studies, it is sometimes equally interesting to argue about why something was popular despite it's quality or lack thereof. For example, when we discuss pop-culture studies in my classes, we read a Chuck Klosterman essay entitled "Being Zack Morris" where, from the start, he amidts that it was a terrible show but then proceeds to examine why it was popular. So, that being said, what's going on with Gimmick Sit-Coms?

It seems as though there were a LOT of successful examples in the sixties, the most simple explanation for this is, "It was a more innocent time." Most of the shows are either pre-Vietnam or, at least, pre-height-of-vietnam. I don't really have a clue why they weren't popular in the seventies since it was such an all around silly decade (well, the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate in the first half of the decade probably put a damper on things). The eighties, however, while it was not 'innocent' it was perhaps a very superficial time where, while some pretty heinous shit was going down, we tended to turn a blind eye to it (this was a time, after all, when Saddam Hussein was our ally) so maybe we can chalk the success of ALF up to rose colored glasses. As for the lone successful example (I seem to remember several unsuccessful examples) from the nineties, Third Rock, it might be the only example here where quality comes into play; it at least had a really brilliant cast and some pretty smart... ok, clever... writing.

So, why the decline? Have animated shows like Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons, with their more flexible realms of reality, allowed us fill our fix of zaniness that used to be filled by these kinds of shows? Thoughts on this?

[At least one thing worth considering is the recent success of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm (though I may not have seen enough of Curb to make this comment) -- two shows in which the pendulum of the gimmick has completely swung the other way, and it is the total lack of a gimmick. The shows go out of their way to avoid artificiality as much as possible. It is not just that I can think of very few gimmick sit-com, it is that I can see these shows as reactions against such gimmicks. As far as the animated stuff goes, let's not forget that Adult Swim gave us a hilarious show about a milkshake, a hunk of meat and a floating box of fries.]


sara d. reiss said...

Don't forget this one...

pla said...

Interesting post, but you clearly didn't have younger siblings that made you watch some of the TGIF lineup in the late 90's, which was pretty largely made up of gimmick sitcoms: Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Teen Angel, You Wish, Aliens in the Family. I guess only Sabrina would be considered successful, but the format was certainly tried regularly in the 90's. This decade's had a pretty significant drop in sitcoms overall on network television, so I think that's probably why there's less "same schtick with a gimmick" than we used to see.

Scene -- said...

Does That 70s Show count?

scott91777 said...


You're totally right! I forgot about Sabrina (I must admit it's a guilty plesure of mine... the talking cat always tickled me to no end)!


I actually wondered if That 70s show counted or not... I'm not sure, I think it's more like Happy Days... a sort of nostalgia show... it's more quirky than gimmicky.