How has the structure and content of sitcoms been adapted to reflect the changing ideas and values of society? How has the structure and content of sitcoms been adapted to reflect the changing ideas and values of society? To analyse the values and ideas a culture holds dear, studying sitcoms may surprisingly be the place to start – they are a veritable weather vane of popular culture, constantly evolving to reflect the advancement of society. Sometimes a sitcom will set out to challenge and perhaps change to some extent the audience’s perception of these ideas and values – of course, with the ultimate goal being entertainment.
A sitcom is defined thus – A setting and a group of characters providing the opportunity for a comic narrative, usually resolved in 25-30 minutes (although the ‘situation’ remains open to future disruption), and broadcast in a series of five or more episodes. 1 This is a prime example of the use of Todorov’s theory – that of equilibrium, disequilibrium and new equilibrium. Each episode contains a problem which is usually solved by the end of the episode, and where it isn’t it gives way to ‘cliff-hangers’, where a storyline continues in an arc over more than one episode, sometimes more than one season.
This general format of sitcoms allows the audience to become familiar with the programme quickly – relationships with characters are more easily formed when you know that whatever problems they face they will be resolved at the end of the half hour. It’s a comfort blanket of sorts allowing audiences to know what to expect. Another noticeable characteristic of British sitcoms in particular is the willingness to conform to as well as challenge social ideals.
When watching a specific genre such as the sitcom, the audience has certain expectations as to how it is presented, such as the presence of a protagonist and an antagonist. These expectations allow the audience to watch a sitcom and take comfort in the repetition and the knowledge that any disruption to the status quo will be reconciled before the end of the episode. However many sitcoms have prospered from breaking these expectations and therefore challenging the ideas and values of the society at that time.
One of the staples of British sitcoms is the stereotype, an exaggeration of a person intended to provide comedy. Fawlty Towers (1975) was a prime example of this. Basil Fawlty, the proprietor and protagonist of Fawlty Towers, an ailing hotel in Torquay, was essentially a representation of Britain, while the guests of the hotel served as the antagonists, each episode providing a new character in possession of a characteristic that Basil cannot stand, such as being an unmarried couple, working class or foreign.
Perhaps the most enduring of these stereotypes was that of Basil’s wife Sybil, the only person whom Basil was truly terrified of. The portrayal of Sybil as a vacuous, self-absorbed battleaxe (she is often on the phone during the busiest times of the hotel) could be considered sexist were it not offset by Polly, a part-time waitress who, through her ability and the need for the extra money, is often dragged into other jobs around the hotel as she is the most competent of the staff.
Where Sybil is the primary antagonist, Polly serves as the voice of reason (and often sanity) and is a surprisingly positive representation of a woman for this era, as she is at University studying Art and also speaks Spanish and German. A reflection of the change in attitude to women is very evident in the early 90’s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, which focused on the mishaps and wrongdoings of Edina Monsoon, 60’s throwback, and her corruptive and seemingly imperishable best friend Patsy Stone.
Gone is the traditional family structure, the light-hearted and often tame situations, AbFab was a response to the Girl Power revolution and the empowerment of women in the media. Eddie Monsoon, a self proclaimed PR guru and recognised fashion victim, in her attempts to conquer Mother Nature and regain her youth, most often took on the role of the child, whereas her daughter Saffy, dowdy and serious in response to her mother’s eccentricities, took the role of parent, cleaning up after her mother in more than just the literal sense.
The majority of plotlines in AbFab centre on Eddie’s lack of will and the emotional tug-of-war she often found herself in between Patsy and Saffy. This contrasts social ideals greatly as a daughter should never have to fight for her mother’s love and attention, as it seems Eddie is incapable of giving it to more than one person at a time. However despite her constant derision of her only daughter and her recognition that Saffy serves as her unwelcome conscience, Eddie does show one or two fleeting moments of mothering instincts towards her daughter, most notably when she punches a married, persistent, lecherous professor.
This suggests that while Eddie is a representation of a selfish, uncaring mother, she does posses some redeemable qualities which are representative of the social belief in rehabilitation. Absolutely Fabulous was one of the first sitcoms, along with Dinnerladies, to feature a mostly female cast. Previously, as in Fawlty Towers, sitcoms tended to feature leading male characters (for example Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Porridge) while female characters were most often members of an ensemble cast.
Even in the most successful sitcoms of this era featuring couples (The Good Life for example) one of the couple is always the more transgressive, which even in today’s society tends to sway towards the male half. 2 While sitcoms in the past have tended to rely upon farce and stereotypes to convey plot, modern productions tend to have more rounded characters and explore deeper the contrasting characteristics within roles. This is especially true of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (2001-present).
Revolving around five twenty-something’s whose lives are focused on “fags, shags and kebabs” it is not a mere vehicle for crude humour but explores some very thought provoking situations, in particular the end of series 4 cliff-hanger of Jonny being shot. Rather than the principal characters being concerned with political or economical dilemmas, Two Pints focuses on the metaphorical cocoon of Runcorn, seemingly unaffected by the outside world.