40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Social Sitcom

Situation comedies have been on television for a long time, and a lot has changed since the early days of Ricky and Lucy. In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, sitcoms started to become instruments of social commentary. Or, you could say, they started to reflect the reality that started with the civil rights movement and continued through to the conflict in Vietnam.

Norman Lear was the creator and producer of many ground-breaking shows of the 1970s. One of the most popular was All In The Family. It Starred Carrol O'Connor as the "lovable bigot" and blue-collar archetype (as well as stereotypical conservative) Archie Bunker; Jean Stapleton as his wife, Edith; Sally Struthers as daughter Gloria; and liberal son-in-law Mike "Meathead" Stivic, portrayed by Rob Reiner.

The show tackled social issues like race relations, bigotry, women's rights, and other hot-button issues, delivered as comedy. It's hard to imagine a show like All In The Family being produced today.

In addition to All In The Family, Lear produced The Jeffersons (a spin-off of All In The Family); Maude; Good Times; Sanford and Son; and One Day At A Time. Each dealt in their own way with social issues.

Not produced by Lear was MASH, a show with a laugh track that dealt with broad comedy and intense drama, sometimes in the same episode.

Towards the end of the 1970s, social commentary gave way to the broad slapstick of shows like Three's Company. In the mid-1980s, Bill Cosby re-invigorated the sitcom, which at the time was struggling, with The Cosby Show.

For the 21st century, sitcoms have changed a bit, and programs like Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development show that it's possible to have a quirky, funny show without a laugh track. And, of course, we have The Simpsons, not only one of the longest-running shows on television today, but the longest-running cartoon ever. All are on Fox, incidentally. Apparently, the big-three networks aren't capable of such acts of creativity -- at least, not right now.

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