Lately we’ve seen an increase in on-going stories in sitcoms. More than ever before the latest seasons of Parks and Recreation and Community have been driven by an overarching narrative. Leslie Knope’s campaign to become City Councillor has been the basis for many stories in this season’s Parks and Recreation and even in more standalone episodes the arc has been hanging in the background. The Thick of It has a universe that’s expanded and developed over time. And recently Grandma’s House has had many continuing story threads over the course of the season.
There could be a few reasons why story arcs used to be less popular in comedies. Traditionally sitcoms have been about people who are trapped in their situation in life and don’t grow or change. They’re about people who repeatedly try to get out of their circumstances and fail. And that’s something that can be quite relatable to many audiences. A more cynical view of this though could be that people only want familiarity and formula from sitcoms. And it’s also cheaper and easier to have everything located around as few sets as possible.
The other difficulty with serialized storytelling was that TV used to be seen as a more ephemeral medium. (How else can we explain the fact that nobody kept any copies of Fred Emney Picks A Pop.) Obviously in the times before VHS recorders, if people missed an episode then your luck was out and you’d just have to hope for a repeat someday. So it’d be very easy for a series to lose much of the audience over time. In the early 90’s my parents missed the episode of Twin Peaks in which Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed. It wasn’t until I discovered the series and got the DVD’s that they were able to remember this and realized exactly what they’d missed. These days they’re both perfectly capable of catching up on iPlayer if they miss anything. The more savvy of us – the one’s that know how to download an entire 22 episode season of an American show for free by entirely legal means – know that being able to watch as much of something as you want at your own leisure is the best way to watch something. Arguably having a week gap gives you more time to reflect on something, but nonetheless, many shows now seem perfect for the DVD market, since stories can be enjoyed without distraction, particularly with American networks cutting time from shows to make space for more adverts. (I’m not quite sure how anyone can still call an American show a half-hour when it’s actually barely 20 minutes.)
Personally I’m enjoying the move towards serialized stories, it demonstrates how sitcom can do everything drama does but with jokes as well. This is always going to be a circular debate, because it can also lead to stories being driven too much by plot exposition and might move the focus to sentimentality at the expense of humour, but I think if it’s handled right it can work brilliantly, and I think the touching payoffs to the latest seasons of Communty and Parks & Recreation bear that out. Of course not every show would be improved by more emotional depth and a heavier focus on story structure, but for many shows, character depth is what allows them to avoid becoming formulaic. Characters growing and their situations changing have helped Parks and Recreation and Community immensely. I think they would have got boring by now if everything had stayed at square one.
It’s been one of my disappointments with Futurama lately. There have always been slight hints at a larger story to universe and there have been some changes to the status quo, but it’s mostly stayed static and there are times where an episode from season 6 could be pretty much indistinguishable from season 1. Futurama’s shown potential to have a stronger story-arc but hasn’t really committed to it and it’s a shame. After the feature length DVD’s Fry and Leela declared their love for each other, and the returning season seemed to continue on from this. But after this some episodes seemed to suggest they weren’t together or it was just left completely ambiguous. I’ve never know a sitcom where the writers seemingly don’t know or can’t decide whether the main two characters are in a relationship or not.
It’s largely why The Venture Brothers has made me look down on it retrospect. (It might not be fair to compare them, but they are both animated sci-fi comedies, so I think it’s a worthwhile comparison.) Over time It has expanded its universe and deftly handled multiple story-arcs in which the characters grow and develop.
Story arcs aren’t just about characters developing though, it’s allows running jokes to build and develop over time. Seinfeld of course was a much earlier show to play with serialized stories, particularly in season 4 and 7. But more than just stories it was just jokes and lines of dialogues and turns of phrases that evolved over time to the point the show had developed its own style of dialogue.
So as I said, it’s not needed for every show, but a sense of continuity and consequence can add a lot to a series.