What is the appeal of the sitcom? Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why people watch and enjoy them, and asserting one grand unified theory for why we’re drawn to them would be a fool’s errand. However, there are some generalizations that can be made. People like “hanging out” with these characters. They enjoy them, they root for them, they want them to be happy. Perhaps there’s even an aspirational element for the viewer at home. It’s a whole different world to get lost in, but it’s comprehensible, unlike, say, Game of Thrones, where the appeal comes from the fantastical other-worldliness. (Well, that, nudity and, apparently, violence toward women.)
Considering how much we seem to enjoy these people, it’s odd that, when you take a step back and really think about the lives of these characters, they are pretty awful, and supremely unlucky. This does not just apply to characters like Milhouse van Houten from The Simpsons—characters who are defined within the world due to their unlucky lot in life. This is also true for main characters, title characters, and characters who are not specifically defined by how lousy their lives are.
Think about how many bad dates sitcom characters go out on. These aren’t just run of the mill, real world, bad dates, either. They are disasters. Think about Liz Lemon’s dating life, or Frasier Crane’s. How many girlfriends did Jerry go through? Granted, a lot of those breakups were his fault—and that’s a distinction that should probably be made. George Costanza had a rotten life, by and large, but it was almost always of his own making. That was the nature of his character. He suffered due to his hubris and his pettiness, although, on many occasions, he was the victim of cruel twists of fate. However, as Seinfeld’s series finale made painfully clear, you were never supposed to like those characters anyway.
The bad dates are just the tip of an iceberg of suffering and incessant bad luck. Sometimes, we witness characters go through unbelievably bad relationships. They lose their jobs, they deal with awful family members, awful neighbors, and a litany of crazy, frustrating situations. Sometimes—like with a Ross and Rachel situation—it’s clear that the show is trying to tug on your heartstrings a bit. Other times, though, it feels like the characters are forced to put up with a bunch of awful situations for humor, for our entertainment. We ostensibly like these characters, but we are really being asked to laugh at their pain.
Of course, none of this (presumably) occurs in a sadistic sense. The show remains on the side of its characters, and the hope is that we do too. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sitcom characters go through an inordinate, near ludicrous amount of hassles and frustrations and negative life events. If the viewer at home lived a similar life, it would be unbearable. That’s even more true for TV dramas, granted, but dramas are, you know dramatic. Sitcoms are designed, by and large, to be more positive, happier, more chipper.
It’s true that television shows exist in a heightened world. They aren’t necessarily supposed to be realistic, although even the realistic ones, such as the British version of The Office, still lay an unusual amount of problems at the feet of its characters. Why? It generates conflict, and raises the stakes and all that good stuff. And it’s easier to write stories and craft jokes around a bad date than a good date. If somebody loses a job, it shakes up the show, and makes everything that much crazier within this world. Then, in the end, we get the spate of marriages in the forest, more often than not, where the characters do achieve their happiness. Liz Lemon gets James Marsden. Frasier Crane gets Laura Linney. Michelle gets over her amnesia and everybody in the Tanner family is happy. It provides delayed gratification for the viewer, who does want the character to be happy. You keep us waiting for that, and then when it happens, it represents a triumph for the character, and for the viewer.
While all of this is true, it doesn’t change anything about the overarching premise of this piece—sitcom characters live lives of unrelatable stress and strain, to the point where these storylines are becoming complete tropes. Decades of television would argue that this isn’t necessarily a major issue. Plus, if you go too far the other way, you end up with Entourage, which is largely terrible. This point really works as nothing more than an amusing novelty, a chance to step back and really scrutinize the television universe and to come away with a laugh, kind of like when somebody points out that Indiana Jones is useless in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, I’d like to think there is a bit of something real and tangible here. If television wants to be relatable, as a lot of sitcoms do, shouldn’t the characters live in something more approaching the real world? Shouldn’t we feel like the lives of these characters are plausible? People scoff at the size of Rachel and Monica’s apartment. Shouldn’t they also scoff at the sheer number of sticky situations they get into? Where is the line of plausibility we are drawing in the sand?
Maybe showrunners need to go to the usual wells less often. If so many of these shows devolve, for better or worse, into hangout shows, maybe they can just hang out, be funny and likeable characters, and have something approaching a realistic life—is that too much (or too little) to ask? Every sitcom character doesn’t need to go through the wringer episode in and episode out. Their luck doesn’t need to be improbably poor. If a show’s goal is to make the viewer want the characters to find happiness, perhaps it makes sense for them to actually be happy every now and again? As things stand, sitcoms almost serve as low grade science fiction. They exist in a world we can comprehend and understand, but also one where 99 percent of dates end in disaster and every single mother-in-law is a monster.
Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)