Borders Line: It’s Time To Surrender The Multi-Camera Sitcom

CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL > THE BIG BANG THEORY in quality, humor, originality…in everything except viewers and Emmy nominations.

I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.

You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.

Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.

On the other hand, we have the delightful Children’s Hospital, recently renewed for its fourth season on Adult Swim. That utterly original, hilarious, savvy show is not nominated for any Emmys, I should note. Rob Corddry originally created the show as five-minute webisodes for before it was picked up by Adult Swim. Comedy Central made a competing offer but wanted to transform the show into traditional half-hour episodes, and I appreciate that Corddry wanted to stick with the shorter format that works so well for Children’s Hospital. (The show is now expanded to the usual Adult Swim fifteen-minute time slot.) I love the webisode format. I know it’s not a big money-maker, but it allows for so much more freedom and creativity. I hope more people will turn to this platform as a viable option for getting out entertainment that might not play well to the established masses, such as Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

I know that the manic pace, irreverent humor and surrealism of Children’s Hospital won’t work for everyone, and the audience for CBS and Adult Swim are miles (well, more like decades) apart. But I keep thinking that we’ve all moved past this multi-camera sitcom platform, only to be shocked when I discover that it’s still flailing around out there. How I Met Your Mother is a show that I really want to like. It has three actors that I adore (Alyson Hannigan, Jason Segel and Neil Patrick Harris), and the few times that I’ve seen it, I laughed. But I could never convince myself to watch it regularly because I find the format so incredibly grating. Laugh tracks, man. I know, it’s been said plenty but it always bears repeating: laugh tracks are of the devil.

For me, Arrested Development put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom. Watching the pilot as it aired, I instantly felt that something had changed within me and I could never go back. I still love Seinfeld and—although this will be an unpopular opinion—Friends, and I can watch and enjoy those shows in syndication, but never without cringing as the audience “woo!“s at Kramer’s entrance or Joey’s flirting. I’ll never fully enjoy them, allowing myself to be completely immersed in the humor, again.

They don’t all have to be quirky webisodes or traditional multi-camera sitcoms. In the middle we have plenty of great television like Parks and Recreation, Louie and Community, which frequently winks and nudges at conventional TV tropes. FX, along with Adult Swim and Comedy Central and to a lesser extent NBC, seem committed to bringing unconventional, quality shows to our televisions or laptops. I’m hoping that with Netflix’s entering the TV series arena, more opportunities to shake things up will abound. I’d love for the U.S. to grow toward a television landscape like Britain’s, where they play looser and easier with TV formats, airing seasons and episodes of varying lengths depending on the story and the abundance of material. I hope that as some of the older sitcoms on CBS and similar networks die out, we won’t lock ourselves into yet another unyielding formula.

Then again, who the hell am I? The Big Bang Theory averages 14 million viewers weekly and is nominated for five Emmys. People must like it, although for the life of me, I can’t understand why.