Typing Faster

December 2, 2009

The Secret to a Great Sitcom: Modern Family, Parks & Recreation and Better Off Ted

Filed under: Better Off Ted, Craft, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation — petertypingfaster @ 6:09 pm

The Boston Globe has an interesting article about the secret behind making a great sitcom. Of course the secret isn’t really much of a secret.

It all comes down to great characters.

It’s a simple idea, but what makes the article worth a read is the analysis of the three shows, and the camps they fall into. In the eyes of the Boston Globe, Modern Family had great characters from the get go. Parks & Rec, while initially troubled, made some key adjustments and is now firing on all cylinders. And Better Off Ted still has some adjustments to make.

The analysis doesn’t stop there though, but goes into detail for each respective show.

Modern Family is a rare pleasure. The family dynamic among the large collection feels thoroughly established, as if their histories are genuinely interwoven…When the three families interact, you can see all the casual intimacy, resentment, stubbornness, and forgiveness of an extended family in play.

Within the group chemistry, each character is finely etched. Among the most vivid are Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), a queeny gay man who once played football, and Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who unwittingly torments her husband with stories of her early sex life. And, of course, there’s Manny (Rico Rodriguez), the little guy who swoons over older girls and fences like a royal prince. These characters are already beautifully established, and yet you can detect the actors’ pleasure as they discover more and more about their roles with each episode.

The effortless tone of the show…is also remarkable. There’s certainly something to be said for punchy, absurdist family comedy; Arrested Development proved that. But Modern Family has immediately established itself as a more conventional vehicle that doesn’t brazenly send up family neuroses so much as heighten them. It proceeds stealthily, pushing Phil’s need to be the “cool dad” just over the line into parody; it makes Mitchell’s anxiety as a new father to an adopted infant easy to identify with and yet ridiculous. The writers make fun of the characters, but they always instill them with heart, backbone, and dignity. We’re laughing at these people, but we’re not kicking them in the gut. It’s affectionate teasing.

It’s that last bit that really sells Modern Family for me. Too often I find big, American sitcoms to be a little too mean spirited for my liking. I don’t really want to spend a lot of time laughing at people, but as long as the ribbing is good natured, and the show has heart, I can get behind it.

And that’s pretty much the adjustment that Parks & Recreation made between its first and second seasons. The show found some heart.

Amy Poehler’s character…

…Leslie was such a profound loser in the first six episodes last spring, it was hard to laugh at her. She didn’t have what the characters in Modern Family have: self-knowledge and a grounded quality that makes them worth rooting for. She was painfully deluded about her own importance as a woman in government.

When Parks and Recreation returned in September, Poehler hd clearly rethought her portrayal. Not only does she now let more of her own playful personality emerge through Leslie…but she gives Leslie a more heroic stance. Along with the writers, she has endowed Leslie with a degree of ingenuity…She is no longer the butt of every joke.

And really that’s the reason for Parks & Recreations creative resurgence. The change in approach to Poehler’s character saved the show, moving it from a terrible cringe comedy, into a truly funny half-hour of television.

Better Off Ted has a slightly different problem than Parks & Recreation. Rather than one weak link dragging the show down, Ted has a decent character ensemble, but no one character to anchor the entire show.

[Better Off Ted] is five supporting characters in search of more depth and heart…Sitcom viewers need to care about the characters and their relationships to one another; we need something to identify with…[Better Off Ted needs a human axis on which to spin.

And really that’s what it comes down. The human axis. That’s the secret to writing a great sitcom.

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