That laff-track, studio-audience sitcoms still exist in a post-30 Rock / –Office / –Scrubs / –Malcolm in the Middle era is as confounding to me as the length of hockey season. What’s the allure, exactly? Sitcoms have always been my favorite genre of TV—and I say this as a fan of Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks, and the Sopranos—but one of the difficult things about admitting that you love sitcoms is how unbearably formulaic and plodding they can be.
For, oh, fifty years, every sitcom was built of scenes the dialogue to which fell into a nice rhythm. Line-line-line-laff. Line-line-laff. Line-line-line-line-big laff. It got depressing. Even at their funniest, your laughter was always supplanted by recorded laughter, and always met with the hammy patience of the actor waiting to proceed. And now there are sitcoms that don’t do this. There’s no waiting for laughter sounds to diminish, and so rhythm—i.e. timing, that which any comic will tell you is key to a good joke—is so much more loose and interesting. A belabored analogy: whereas Everybody Loves Raymond is a waltz, 30 Rock is jazz.
It doesn’t take an Alessandra Stanley to know that sitcoms are America’s least favorite genre of television. We’d much rather watch reality television—American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, specifically—or one hour dramas, preferably in a multi-program franchise, definitely about crime and the solving thereof. In the top 20 Nielsen-rated shows for the 2008-2009 season, there’s only one sitcom listed, and it’s currently tied for the number 11 spot with a show named Criminal Minds that I’ve never heard of. That sitcom is Two and a Half Men.