Over the years I’ve watched a lot of sitcoms. They are, in my opinion, a great American art form. There are many aspects of my life in which my tastes are not exactly mainstream, but when it comes to sitcoms, I tend to hit the big part of the bell curve. Some of the better sitcoms have died out without a chance to really make an impact on popular culture. Others have lingered on and on and on and on way past their ability to contribute to the cultural landscape. I don’t miss “Friends.” I do miss “The Loop.”
There is a show on Fox now called “‘Til Death.” It stars Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher. Currently in its third season, there is something about this show that grabs me. I appreciate that Garrett has stepped completely away from his character in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the chemistry between him and Fisher is really great. The show has had some difficulties – retooling, moving around the schedule, the writer’s strike. But what we have on the other side is a distillation of the sitcom experience.
The show began as a typical relationship comedy in which Garrett and Fisher play Eddie and Joy Stark a couple married for two decades and comfortable with each other. The new neighbors are newlyweds and the husband is the assistant principal at the high school where Eddie teaches history. Antics ensue.
During the second season JB Smoove was added to the cast as Eddie’s friend. They meet because Eddie joins the Big Brother program and was given a grown man to mentor. Antics ensue.
But now we’re at season three. The neighbors are gone. JB is gone. The daughter and her crunchy husband have moved back home and are living in a trailer behind the Stark’s house. The new principal at the high school is a cute young woman who used to be Eddie’s student and (because of the teasing she received in his class) has sworn revenge on Eddie.
But what has prompted me to write about this show is an interesting b-story that has carried over into a couple of episodes now. The Stark’s son-in-law, Doug, is a tree-hugging, organic fair-trade humus eating wag. Recently, he has gone through an existential crisis – unsure if he is real or part of someone’s dream.
He convinces himself that he is a character in a sitcom because of little things like how no one does or says anything while facing upstage. He claims to hear the laughter of the live studio audience. In one scene, he walks into the kitchen from the back yard and the boom mic is barely in the frame. He reacts to it and panics a little when it disappears out of sight.
When his wife wants to make him an appointment with the doctor, he tells her it won’t do any good because “He’ll just make jokes and his office will only have three walls.” In the most recent episode, he’s practicing different catch phrases to utter while entering the scene. At the end of the show, he tells no one in particular that it’s a wrap and time for lunch before exiting the room.
While it isn’t brilliant writing, per se, it is smart writing. It dances around our expectations of what a sitcom is. It becomes meta. “’til Death” has suffered in its three short seasons plagues visited upon sitcoms with much more success and vintage. We’ve seen actors recast before. When Jeff Foxworthy’s show moved networks, there was even a promo in which Foxworthy and Haley Joel Osment discussed the fact that the mother had been recast. We’ve seen characters disappear before, from “Happy Days” to “King of Queens.” “Ellen” completely changed from one season to the next – half her friends went away and suddenly she owned a bookstore.
We’ve seen characters break the fourth wall before, to address the audience directly or to glance at us to say “You get it, right?” In “Better Off , talks to the audience all the time and only he seems to be able to do it. In “Scrubs” it’s an internal dialog that gets passed from character to character without addressing the fourth wall directly.
This isn’t like that. Doug never looks directly into the camera. He doesn’t talk to us. He believes in us. And if you can get around some of the cheesy jokes (“Doug thinks he’s in a sitcom” “If this were a TV show, it would have been canceled a long time ago”) it’s really kind of cool. Doug is working from the same frame of reference we are. He regularly comments on the threadbare tropes employed by sitcom writers and his frustration at the family’s lack of belief mirrors my own when I encounter people who don’t “get it.”
I don’t know how long “’til Death” has until it is shelved for good, but I’m going to keep watching them. It practically dares me to.
In sadder news, I found out today that a guy I went to college with was killed in the Haiti earthquake. We didn’t talk much back then, he was on the broadcast journalism side and I was print. But I knew who he was and found him to be a nice enough fellow. Keep his family in your thoughts.
About three weeks ago, I went to Greeneville to see the wife and kids. I was greeted at the door by Rozzy who was excited to show me a flyer she had gotten at school. It announced the annual “Daddy/Daughter” dance. I knew there was no way I wasn’t going, so I decided to embrace it. I told Dollie I’d be sure and bring my suit.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “I’m sure a nice shirt and tie will be fine.” I asked Rozzy what I should wear – a suit.
We stood in line and got our photos made, had some cookies and lemonade and waited for things to get rolling. The DJ played a nice mix of music, but seemed to think we dads were much older than we were. I was looking around at a bunch of hunched over dancing 30-40 year olds. The DJ was playing the play list from the Oldies station.
It was fun, though. We sat and talked. Rozzy saw some of her friends and they compared dresses and shoes. When a song came on that she knew, her eyes lit up and she pulled me to the dance floor where she danced and looked to see what everyone else was doing while I tried not to stumble over some big dude’s princess.
It was a great time and I hope whoever is keeping score was watching because I earned some points that night.
Being in Greeneville for the Daddy/Daughter dance meant I was going to have to haul it back to Murfreesboro to make Badger’s annual SuperBowl party. I’ve been to a bunch of these. Some were more successful than others. I figured that this year the attendance would be light due to our friends getting big TVs and wanting to watch the game in comfort. But I don’t much care about football, so I made it to the party and had a good time.
I’m glad I was there, too. Badger is from New Orleans and to be there when the Saints won the SuperBowl in their first appearance there was pretty special.
Max got into the game this year. He was walking around all weekend saying “WhoDat?” Dollie sent me photos of his victory dance when the Saints scored. He told me the kids in his school were giving him a hard time about rooting for the Saints. I hope he yelled “WhoDat” at them on Monday morning.