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Interchangeable subplots?

The Big Bang Theory is one of my guilty pleasures. Usually, I demand more from a TV show: great writing, careful storytelling, stellar performances. For Big Bang, I make an exception. Sometimes, you just need a mindless chuckle.

Still, if I’m honest, Big Bang Theory is not an innovative or well-written show. It overuses a stale “setup-setup-punchline” recipe for laughs. And when the jokes fall flat, it fills the silence with an aggressive laugh track—a broadcast trick that should have died decades ago.

I can overlook these faults; almost every other sitcom leans on these genre standards, too. Harder to forgive? The Big Bang Theory’s lazy, haphazardly-written plot lines. Too often, Big Bang’s ‘A’ storyline and ‘B’ storyline have literally nothing to do with one another.

Consider one recent episode: October 2015’s “Helium Insufficiency.” Half the show deals with Sheldon and Leonard buying black-market helium to buoy their scientific research. Meanwhile, the other characters help Amy navigate the world of online dating.

The episode cuts back and forth between the two storylines, but never lets them intersect or even overlap. The separate narratives just plod along, the characters oblivious of what’s happening in the other thread. And then, the episode abruptly ends—or really, ends twice (once for each subplot). For contrast, take Seinfeld, which specialized in cleverly interweaving multiple seemingly-unrelated stories.

I’d posit that you could combine almost any set of Big Bang subplots. Splice them together, and you’d end up with a serviceable episode. For all I know, that’s how the writers chart out each season: come up with a few dozen “hilarious” situations, toss them in a hat, and pull out two or three at a time to conjure up an episode.

That makes writing scripts easier, perhaps, but it hardly makes for legendary comedy.

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Parks and Rec: the rewards (and perils) of a fleshed-out sitcom world

NBC’s Parks and Recreation goes out of its way to create a consistent fictional world, with recurring characters and odd local lore. For example, Li’l Sebastian, the beloved mini-horse of Pawnee, Indiana, doesn’t just headline a single funny episode. He comes up again and again, even after his untimely death. He’s the star of the town’s Harvest Festival; his demise is mourned in an elaborate town-wide memorial service. The next season, one character gives another a Li’l Sebastian plush toy. Years afterward, the parks department plans a memorial fountain in the tiny equine’s honor.

Recurrent guest stars also contribute to Parks and Rec’s faux-realism. Take the town’s local media personalities, for example. Rather than just substitute in a generic reporter every time the plot calls for it, the show takes pains to bring back Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo, and Shauna Malway-Tweep, familiar local celebrities (each with their own quirks).

A third example of the show’s fleshed-out imaginary world: Pawnee’s Town Hall is decorated with murals depicting famous scenes from hometown history. Unfortunately, most of these historic episodes are grotesque, shameful, and, therefore, hilarious. For example, one wall-sized masterpiece portrays a traveling magician (and his rabbit) being burned at the stake for witchcraft… in 1973. The murals typically get introduced in a single episode, but as set decoration, they appear again and again as backdrop to scenes set in City Hall.

This self-referential approach gives the show (at least the illusion of) depth, and rewards those fans who pay close enough attention to pick up on the recurring jokes. Not coincidentally, then, the show has earned a dedicated (if small) cult following. And it’s in good company; 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The Simpsons have colored in their own fictional worlds; all three shows enjoy a devoted horde of fans.

There’s a danger to this self-referential approach, however. Layer things too deeply, and your show becomes too obtuse to approach. If a channel-surfer can’t decipher a show’s call-backs and inside jokes, she’s likely to keep on flipping. Shallow, “jokey” sitcoms like Big Bang Theory (which has often shared a timeslot with Parks and Rec) set a far lower bar for entry. Not surprisingly, then, Parks and Rec has flirted with cancellation every spring. The similarly heady Arrested Development got canned after three short seasons.[1]

On the other hand, maybe shows can afford to challenge their viewers these days. The broadcast model, which encouraged episodic plot lines and broad accessibility, is dying. The Netflix era has arrived. Now, an individual episode serves as the bait; capture the new viewer’s attention, then get them to gorge, binging on entire seasons at a time. Before long, they’ve seen every episode, and you’ve added one more cult member, humming along to “5000 Candles in the Wind” (a Li’l Sebastian tribute), or craning their heads to take in Pawnee’s magnificent murals.


  1. Arrested Development doubled down on inscrutability with Season 4, recently released via Netflix. Even devotees of the show have had trouble following the tightly-knotted plot.  ↩

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Why I still watch Seinfeld.

Every night during dinner, my wife and I watch TV. I know that’s bad. Mealtime should be a time for conversation, for connection, for relationships. A sacred, inviolable hour for the young family. So sue us. Our most recent addiction has been classic episodes of Seinfeld, king of the 90s TV charts.

We’ve restarted from the show’s earliest days, enjoying some early episodes for the very first time. Sure, the show stumbles at first. Too many stand-up clips sabotage the pacing, and scenes drag on far too long. In addition, the characters don’t quite seem themselves. George, later hapless and lazy, somehow navigates a successful career. And Michael Richards seems more Stanley Spadowski than Kramer at first. Before long (by season 3), though, the show hits its stride.

Why does the show endure? Clever writing, most of all. While Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal?” routine grates on me as nasal stand-up, it works brilliantly spun out as story. It’s inane and everyday and pedestrian (think “excruciating minutiae”), but it’s familiar and astonishingly funny, too. Funny, especially, because the characters play it so well. They’re quirky, iconic, distinct, and relatable. George Costanza, the neurotic, obsessive societal cast-off. Kosmo Kramer, the lovable, eccentric hipster doofus. Jerry’s conniving failure of a arch-nemesis, Newman. And a long list of one-hit weirdos: the Low Talker. The Soup Nazi. The Wiz.

As these infamous characters prove, Seinfeld created culture, rather than merely imitating it. “Yada, yada, yada.” “A Festivus for the rest of us!” “Man Hands.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The show created touchstones that haven’t yet dislodged from culture. In fact, the show was so influential, it would eventually reference itself. Meta moves were frequent; for example, in one repeating storyline, NBC woos in-show Jerry to write a sitcom based on his stand-up. Another time, Kramer creates a tour based on his own life–just as the real-life inspiration for Kramer did after the show grew popular.

All good things come to an end, of course. Maybe Seinfeld’s reruns will wear on us. Life has changed, after all: cell phones are conspicuously absent from Jerry’s world, and the Internet shows up only as a punch line there. Michael Richards’ unfortunate (and despicable) racist onstage rant certainly tarnished the show’s image–and made Kramer seem more Ku Klux than kooky.

Then again, maybe Seinfeld is something special, something timeless–more akin to I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H than shallow stuff like Friends or Raymond. According to one recent report, Seinfeld has earned $2.7 billion in syndication since it went off the air twelve years ago. That makes it the highest-earning sitcom in TV history. Not too bad for the “Show about Nothing.”