10 Things I Hate About (Poorly Written) Sitcoms
First Off: I Don't Necessarily Hate ALL Sitcoms
I want to first preface this by saying there are many I enjoy, and I also appreciate the work that goes into writing good sitcoms. My favorites are the ones that combine social commentary with likeable, multifaceted characters. Some of my favorites include:
- Bob's Burgers
- Sex & the City (More of a dramedy, I'll give you that, but it is a good show.)
- The Simpsons
- Gilligan's Island
- The Golden Girls
- M.A.S.H. (Which also leans towards the dramatic.)
Even something I kind of consider stupid or mediocre, like Spin City, Family Guy, or My Name is Earl will occasionally make me laugh or brighten my day. I like these kinds of shows when I'm feeling depressed, which is often. Or when I'm sick, which is less often, but when I'm sick I am not really in the mood for serious drama. My body is already supplying the drama, thank you very much.
But, there are serious problems with a lot of, if not the majority, of sitcoms. That's unfortunate, because it means people might end up dismissing the genre as a whole and overlooking the good ones. These criticisms, these things I hate about sitcoms, are not reasons I think everyone should just cancel or quit watching all of them in favor of only watching the really deep and serious shows. Because having only one type of show would suck, and comedy definitely serves an important purpose. But, I feel that many sitcoms aren't serving that purpose well, and it makes their entire genre look bad. It's because of these 10 things that I tend to roll my eyes when I look a new show up on Wikipedia and see the word "sitcom".
Before we get started:
Being comedic does NOT make something immune to criticism. I feel like that needs to be said, because a lot of people seem to think it does. For example, if you look at the discourse surrounding criticism of comedy channels on YouTube, like CinemaSins.
If you're about to comment "it's just COMEDY, dude, chill" or something to that effect, please read these:
- "It was just a joke!" How bullies blame their victims
- "Just Joking" Justification - TV Tropes
The "Just Joking" Justification trope as used in popular culture. When humour is used to excuse behavior that others find offensive and …
10. Exaggerating Small Nitpicks
This is one of the main reasons I couldn't get into Seinfeld. Jerry's self-admitted neuroticism is on full display here, he always makes mountains out of molehills. He escalates things in his head such that an uncomfortable conversation with his girlfriend or a strange interaction with someone on the bus becomes the Titanic. It's played for laughs, but it gets me wondering, should people really be encouraged to think like that? I mean, in therapy, the word for that is "catastrophizing", and it's not healthy thinking. I get people will say, "that's the joke" but um, should it be the joke? Is that a good or satisfying joke? That's the question.
I just don't think this kind of comedy is that interesting, it's trying to escalate an ordinary situation to the point of ridiculousness. The complications and implausible stuff that has to happen for that escalation to occur wouldn't happen in real life. So the humor is just not that satisfying, because it reflects unhealthy ways of thinking, and relies on contrived, unrealistic coincidences to heighten the comedy of the situation, which by itself would just be boring.
For some reason, however, I like this more in anime than in Western shows. For example, Lucky Star, Aggretsuko, and WataMote all make use of the "situation escalates into absurdity in a way that would never happen in real life" thing. And a lot of situations in those shows use the main characters' paranoid fears and anxieties as comedy fodder. Maybe I just think it's cuter when girls do it? There's too many male protagonists in sitcoms, and maybe I just can't relate to them and their anxieties as well as those of women? Or maybe anime is better at this in some way I'm not quite able to articulate? At any rate, I laugh at these kinds of things if I'm watching them sparingly. But if I marathon a show, and see a lot of the same thing like this happening in every episode, it gets repetitive and dull fast.
I also do not like when the main character's whining over nitpick-y things they do not like is validated by the show. This is made fun of in Bojack Horseman with his constant self-indulgent whining about things like, for example, how he hates honeydew melons. But other than Princess Caroline happening to agree with Bojack on this one, other characters are not as willing to commiserate about his fruit-hate. Because it's a small thing that doesn't really matter. And sitcoms should not validate people complaining for the fun of complaining. That's annoying behavior in real life, and I think shows should be aware of the behavior they either normalize or encourage. And if a character is constantly whining about little things, I will probably end up not liking that character very much, unless they have other strongly redeeming qualities.
Writers have to have characters nit-pick, they have to have characters who whine, and they have to escalate realistic situations into the realm of the unrealistic. Why? Because real life is not in and of itself particularly entertaining. And we as an audience are tuning in to a show because we want it to offer us something extra, something bigger and better than just dumb plain old reality.
There were sitcoms, like Seinfeld and Friends, that I couldn't get into because the characters were too ordinary. I generally like speculative fiction, fiction that imagines something new and adds that to reality, showing how the addition of that element complicates reality. For example, the existence of witches in Sabrina the Teenage Witch makes that show a lot less dull than if it was just about an ordinary teenage girl. I feel this way about anime too. If an anime takes place entirely within reality and nothing paranormal happens, I feel almost cheated, because at that point why bother using animation as a medium? Why not just film it in live action?
It's not even necessarily that we need every character to be able to conjure fireballs and fight demons. But a good show has something interesting and memorable about a character that makes them stand out. For example, in dramatic television, House, M.D. House is not just an ordinary doctor, but a diagnostics genius who can solve mysterious illness cases other doctors cannot, changing the course of incorrect treatments (usually) in time to save patients' lives. Patients who would not be saved in the hands of an ordinary doctor. In contrast, though I enjoy it, Scrubs is a less entertaining medical comedy, because of how ridiculously average everyone is.
TV is becoming so saturated to the point of it being exhausting to follow all of it anymore. So I need a gimmick. I need something that sticks out. The best shows, I think, are the ones that aren't afraid to be different.
8. I Hate all the Misogyny, and Misandry!
People who point out the misogyny in sitcoms are often shouted down by people who hate the misandry in them, but both are awful.
As far as misogyny goes, a lot of sitcoms, if not nearly all of them, are written and directed by men. Most of the jokes, then, are from a male perspective. That's not bad in and of itself, but it means that a lot of the humor is aimed at the women in the male protagonist's life: wives, girlfriends, mothers, female bosses, female coworkers, and the dreaded, mothers-in-law. If water cooler rants about "my wife is so awful", or those weird single-page comics implying that it's normal to want to kill your wife, make you uncomfortable, most sitcoms will as well.
When a protagonist in a sitcom, like say, Everybody Loves Raymond, makes humor that does nothing but relentlessly insult his wife and wife's family, you wonder why they even stay married. Maybe we could just have less stigma on divorce? And maybe it's not funny that a stigma against divorce keeps people trapped with spouses they hate?
Then there's the misandry and the "bumbling dad" trope. This is a misandric trope, portraying men as stupid, at least when it comes to childcare and household chores. But the implication is misogynistic also, that women are especially suited to domestic tasks and childcare. And men are inherently ill-suited to such tasks, in a comedic way. This perception is deeply ingrained in American culture.
But it's not just used as a thin excuse for traditional gender roles. In a lot of sitcoms, men are idiots, and women are the ones with common sense - albeit, they rarely have traditional academic intelligence, or say, competence in a STEM field. I think it's because they're afraid to be accused of misogyny if they make the women dumb and shallow, and they might actually think they're being progressive by making a man dumb and shallow instead. Like Ashton Kutcher's character in That 70s Show. I kind of like ditzy characters, especially when there are characters who misread social cues or misunderstand verbal conversations. Since I believe I'm autistic, and have had issues like that myself before, I find that relatable and charming.
But the "women are wiser" trope is interesting to me because it imbues women with folksy wisdom, kind of like the "magical Negro" trope does for black people. But the implication is that women have common sense or practical sense, but not as I said above, academic intelligence. And women with academic intelligence are usually shown to lack this common sense or social wisdom of women, and are therefore portrayed as less feminine. For example, Amy from The Big Bang Theory, as contrasted with her less academic, but more feminine and more common-sense-having, female peers, Penny and Bernadette.
I don't like that because I can't fit into that. If you can either be social, outgoing, charming, and street-smart, OR you can be academically gifted, but not both, I think that dichotomy sucks. I can't see myself as either extreme. Women are not either brains or bimbos. I prefer shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Steven Universe, and Sex & The City, which despite all being very different shows, make an effort to show that women can actually have a wide range of talents, skills, and personalities.
And on the other side of the coin, let's have more competent domestic dads! Thanks Puella Magi Madoka Magica for having a rare positive example of a stay-at-home dad! If women shouldn't be put into stereotyped boxes and confined to specific gendered behavior, men shouldn't be subject to that either.
7. They Don't Reflect the Real World
Okay so, first I say they're too ordinary and now they're not ordinary enough? Well kind of. Being comedies means that they have restrictions on what can and can't happen, that the real world doesn't have. Meaning, nothing majorly bad will happen to any major characters. A season finale or rare special episode is the exception. But typically the characters' problems are trivial, and resolved in 30 minutes. After which the show is back to the same old status quo.
The best shows break that up. I like shows that explore the range of emotions, blending comedy and drama. It's good to have something extra, on top of ordinary reality. But that's like the coat of paint on a car, it's not worth a whole lot if the car underneath the paint - the reality underlying the show's premise, does not work.
The 'Friends Rent Control' thing is just one example of a show where it's lack of connection to reality ruins it because, as ordinary (in a bad way) those Friends characters are, they never feel quite real. You feel like you're watching a show, not watching real people. Anything that breaks immersion creates a feeling of disconnect because, the more we're led to notice the artificiality of the show, the harder it is to get and stay emotionally invested in the characters' lives.
Roseanne, on the other hand, does a better job of portraying characters with real economic struggles, real jobs, and real pain and suffering caused by those jobs. And it comes across as inspiring, rather than boring or painful to watch. You see how they kept going through their struggles, and it makes you feel like you can also keep going through yours. But when I see the word 'sitcom', I imagine a light, fluffy story, taking place in a light, fluffy version of the real world, with no resemblance to my own. And that makes me mentally tune out.
6. They Either Can't Talk About Serious Topics, Or Don't Handle Them Well
It's not that I can't laugh, or that I think the world is so screwed up that it's become immoral to laugh. But a lot of shows don't interest me because they're too afraid to talk about things I consider important. Politics. Animal rights. Philosophy. Psychology. What I would call 'adult' content, if that didn't tend to be taken to mean pornographic content. Most of them are immature. That was the problem I had with The Big Bang Theory, it wanted to use the dumbest and most superficial references to 'nerd culture', without talking much about the philosophy, the science, the stuff that they probably feared would be too smart for the lowest common denominator. They scratch the surface, but to appeal to the masses, they never move beyond it.
Now comes the time to talk about 'very special episodes'. When a sitcom wants to tackle a serious issue, usually drugs, alcohol, reckless teenage behavior, or even sexual assault, it happens on a special, serious episode. This is usually a jarring break from the usual tone of the show, and an exploitative way of handling the topic in question, because it's so often a move to grab awards and get critical acclaim. And then the special episode, or special two-parter, is over, and things are more or less back to the way they were before.
I prefer more serialized works, because then something that happens in one episode will have lasting consequences in later episodes. But most sitcoms are episodic, not serialized. So the story begins and ends in each episode, not really being allowed to continue forward. The Simpsons gave its main characters a multiple-choice past, to upgrade their ages, making it so that Homer and Marge met in the 90s instead of the 70s. That's because continuity isn't really the point of a show like that, each episode is its own self-contained short story, or a mashup of three or more even shorter stories. One problem with this is that when something new is established, or something heartbreaking or devastating happens to a main character, they don't get to heal from it realistically. Sometimes they won't even mention it ever again.
It's because of the constraint of comedy as a genre - you want to make your audience feel good. Not bummed out. But that makes most comedy boring for me, because it means there are many adult topics that are either completely out of reach, or that will be handled badly and in an obvious ploy for higher ratings, awards, nods from critics, or just to be the first to tackle the issue on prime time TV. But it betrays what I'm tuning in for, if I want comedy, and it's not a great way to handle the serious topic, if I'm in the mood for that.
Can you really say your favorite episode of All in the Family is the one where Edith is raped? Didn't think so. The 'very special episode', like I said, is a jarring break from any otherwise funny show. Then there are shows like Ellen, whose handling of a serious topic (Ellen coming out, both as her character and in real life) overshadowed all other memories of the show. So they aren't great at handling serious topics, when they do there are problems. If all you want is comedy, which is presumably why you're watching a sit-com, the show trying to handle a serious topic, even if they do it well, will end up feeling like they fumbled. But knowing the genre is constrained in such a way makes me more keen on avoiding the genre entirely.
These excursions into rougher areas were all the more jarring because of the setting, where viewers used to cackling audiences wooing over the appearances of the wacky neighbor suddenly found themselves faced with sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, and death by drunk-driving, all played out in front of a live studio hush...
It was like having your wacky uncle interrupt an armpit fart to tell you about the time he saw a dead body and that's why he drinks.— Stuart Millard, on 'Saved by the Bell'
5. Family is Either Elevated or Scorned to an Unrealistic Degree
The family "dom com" or domestic comedy, heavily revolves around creating a tension between the ideal, romanticized ideal of family as a concept, and the reality of a particular family who all seem to hate each other. I guess since I grew up in the 90s, I got sick of both extremes. The sappy ones that romanticized love between family members as an antidote to all the madness of the outside world, and the more cynical "everyone in this family wants to rip at everyone else's throats" deconstructions of that were both equally tiresome for me. The former doesn't resonate with me because it's not very realistic, it's sappy, and too wholesome. The latter doesn't interest me because a bunch of people who hate each other being mean to each other isn't funny to me, or particularly interesting. I think the best sitcoms balanced warmth and cynicism, nobody did that in my mind better than Daria. Though the protagonist is moody and cynical, and her family clashes internally more often than they work together, sometimes when they are on the same page, it's very touching. Inspiring, even. Because it's not about "these people like to insult each other", it's about how they can learn to live and work together, despite their differences and getting on each other's nerves.
I think the classic sitcoms were a bit silly in glorifying marriage, the nuclear family, and asserting women's domestic roles. But in trying to subvert that, later sitcoms got to be too dysfunctional, which is more depressing to watch than it is fun. This is kind of why I'm not actually a big fan of the "Pickle Rick" episode of Rick and Morty even though public opinion is that it's one of the best, if not the best, episodes. It's actually about the "everyone hates each other" thing I can't stand about the really cynical and bitter shows like Family Guy. It's about how Rick will perform reckless experiments on himself just to avoid going to family therapy, because he hates opening up, but also because he hates his family. Rick and Morty is best when they have those "aw look they can get along and work together" moments. But if I want to watch a family claw the hell out of each other, I could just visit relatives for free. And I don't want to watch a family that is too nice either, in a way that comes across as obviously fake. That's also boring.
One area of comedy cynicism I dislike the most is the "I hate my spouse and that's somehow funny" brand of comedy. Because my question then is, why don't they just get divorced? Why don't they just sleep in separate rooms if it's for the kids? Why is it funny to hate someone you once loved? I find that actually to be tragic, and it is if you think about it. You once stood before God and an Elvis impersonator and declared undying love for each other, love that would endure any sacrifice, temptation, or hardship. Fast forward and you're annoyed by that same very special person. You feel attacked by their very presence in the same room with you. That actually seems sad. Not comedic.
(I will talk about this more in my #2 point, Meanness is Not Comedy.)
4. I Hate Laugh Tracks and Studio Audience Reactions
Nothing could get me to drop a show faster than having either of these. It's like if they flashed an orange light in the corner of the screen whenever you were supposed to laugh, and maybe a blue one when you were supposed to feel sad. I hate it. Vehemently, passionately, and unapologetically hate it. Because I resent that the people who made the show think I can be tricked into laughing at, or reacting to, something I otherwise wouldn't. And because many of the laugh track (or studio audience laughter) jokes are not actually funny. Sometimes, they're not even jokes! They're just laughter when a character comes on stage, or whenever a line is said, regardless of if it's actually funny. I'm not going to be held hostage by peer pressure or social cues, I want to determine on my own what is funny. Sitcom writers need to treat their audience like adults. And humans, not trainable seals.
3. I Hate Catch Phrases and Trademark Quirks
Sitcoms often rely on a character having a trademark phase, a trademark personality quirk, or both. Sometimes for ethnic characters, their ethnicity is their personality quirk, like with Raj on The Big Bang Theory, Fez on That 70s Show, and so on. This is irritating in a show for all the reasons it would be irritating in real life. It basically punishes the binge viewer, because you're going to notice the repetition of the catch phrases and 'quirky' traits gets, well, repetitive. Boring. It also makes the characters feel less real, because they're reduced to something simple and digestible about them, and then they aren't allowed to be other things. It stunts character growth, making the character not like a person, but like an android programmed to spit out the same phrases at what the writers hope will be the funniest moment possible. It makes characters that are one-dimensional stereotypes, which makes them not interesting.
The thing with catch phrases is the repetition of them. I like to binge watch shows, and the repetition of the same joke or the same stock phrase over and over becomes quickly tiresome and unfunny if you're watching say, 10 episodes in a row. The catch phrase is like a child repeating the same knock knock joke to an adult over and over. It was funny the first time, and then they just repeat it until it stops being funny. Particularly atrocious for me is "Bazinga!" because it doesn't mean anything. It's a button the writers of the show push when they can't actually think of anything clever to say.
2. Meanness is Not Comedy
I know I'll get hated for saying this. But like a poorly written Sauron knockoff in a shitty paperback fantasy novel, I feed off your hate. No, actually. But comedy is fraught with political implications. If I like edgy humor, I'm being an asshole to disadvantaged minorities. If I don't like it, I'm a softy leftist snowflake who can't handle, well, anything. I could say I like it sometimes, but making comedy meaner is like making a concert louder; it doesn't make it any better.
Not only does it not appeal to me if humor is severely transphobic, racist, sexist, or ableist, but it also does not appeal to me if people being mean to each other is treated as funny in and of itself. When mean, insulting, snarky one-liners are the only ways in which the main characters seem to communicate with one another, it makes the audience wonder why they stay friends, or married. I was a victim of bullying, and I did not like it, and I do not think it's funny.
I don't care if you happen to be offended by me not liking that kind of humor. I do like comedy, this is just me expressing a personal preference against certain types of comedy. Plenty of shows I like, like Futurama, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe, are funny without being so mean-spirited. But a lot of sitcoms I don't watch, I chose not to watch them because they too often equate being an asshole/bitch/bully with being actually funny.
1. Stereotypes Aren't Humor
I've talked about that above, about how the "quirks" and catch phrases are not the same as an actual personality, and how I hate the racism, sexism, etc., and generally aggressive, hate-filled tone of a lot of (though certainly not all) sitcoms.
But also, too many sitcoms reinforce stereotypes that have no basis in anything. Seinfeld reinforces stereotypes about Jews, in an attempt to make Jerry seem adorably self-effacing. And he does come off that way. And since he is Jewish, a lot of people give him a pass to make fun of his own culture. Sure.
But since then, you see a bunch of poorly written humor in sitcoms, and comedy movies, standup, sketch comedy, and so on, based on stereotypes that are complete bullshit. And harmful, because stereotype awareness actually causes people to be less confident at things they think they will be bad at because of their race or gender. This is called stereotype threat. And they're not funny, or a good basis for jokes, because they, like catch phrases, get old and repetitive fast. And there are "ethnic characters", gay best friend characters, and so on in sitcoms that are just reduced to one trait, and that trait's associated stereotypes and cliches becomes everything that there is about them. I like humor that mocks how ridiculous stereotypes and biases are, not humor that lazily reinforces them without challenging them.
A good example of this is an episode in season 5 of Bojack Horseman where Diane goes to Vietnam. She's Vietnamese, but was never really that in touch with her cultural roots, and was born and raised in America. So when she goes to Vietnam, even though she superficially resembles a local, she still feels like an outsider, a tourist. She says wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress feels like a costume. If Diane were in a poorly written sitcom, every interaction with her would involve some jokes about her being Vietnamese. She'd have a stereotypical (exaggerated for comedic effect) "Asian" accent. And, they'd probably make a lot of insensitive jokes about "squinty eyes" and the Vietnam war. But Bojack Horseman is a smarter show, that lets Diane be treated like a human being, and not just a collection of cheesy and untrue stereotypes. She has a complete personality, and that exploration of her relationship with her heritage feels a lot more familiar and real. They do use stereotypical humor, but in a way that shows the person conveying such humor is being an asshole, and not condoning it.
I'm nervous about publishing this type of thing, because I got so much hate for my article about why I don't like The Big Bang Theory. My response to many criticisms of that article:
- Yes some of my points about Penny might come across as sexist or sex-negative, and for that I apologize. I find Penny to be an annoying character, but I didn't mean to imply I hate all people who are like her in real life, or that I genuinely hate her for perceived "sluttiness". She just has a really annoying personality.
- Why did I watch it? Well it was on. All the time. It was also hard to get away from the hype surrounding it. It was also promoted pretty heavily as a show for my particular niche, a show for people like me. But it soon became clear that it was a show for outsiders who want to mock people like me. I guess the latter is just way more profitable for a network.
- Why talk about it at all? Well, I mainly felt like I was the only one who didn't like it, like it was this beloved cultural icon (in many ways it still is), and you weren't allowed to say anything about it. For years, I just didn't. But eventually, I broke down and decided to vent.
I kind of take issue with this concept that you're supposed to heap empty praise on everything you watch, and if you hate something, you're just supposed to keep your mouth shut. I'm also baffled that the childish "just joking" defense is taken seriously by any adults. Is "my fist fell into your face" also used as a legal defense in assault cases? Grow up. Criticism is not silenced by the genre of the thing being criticized.
So I don't hate all sitcoms, but I do hate some things that some sitcoms do. And that makes me a bad person, apparently, so I'm ready for your slings and arrows.
Further Reading on the Topic of Hated TV Shows:
What's wrong with the idiot box?
- 21 Sitcom Clichés That Seriously Annoy People
Seriously, why do women often sleep with a full face of makeup on?
- 21 Most Hated TV Shows of All Time
From 'The Brady Bunch Hour' to 'AfterMASH', these are the 21 most hated TV shows in the history of television.
© 2019 Rachael Lefler