Monday, February 10, 2014

Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, by Saul Austerlitz

A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community
Author: Saul Austerlitz
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: March 1, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

This was such a comforting book to read, like junk food in book form. It didn't hurt that I read it while I was sick in bed for a few days. It was like having a marathon of all my favourite TV shows in one easy read. Even though Austerlitz chose episodes from 24 different TV shows to illustrate the history of American sitcoms, he mentions many more throughout the book. And don't worry, he did remember to exclude your favourites, just to annoy you. Or as he puts it: "Like any mix tape worth its salt, there will be grounds for complaint over what is left off as much as what is included." I think the mixed metaphor bothered me more than the missing TV shows.

The episodes he chose are arranged chronologically according to when the series first aired and there aren't a lot of surprises, in that all of the shows represented are TV classics in their own right (except The Phil Silvers Show. Does anybody remember that show?). He seems to have chosen the shows for their impact on television history, but the individual episodes for how much they exemplify the state of the medium itself. So a lot of the episodes he discusses are ones that are increasingly self-reflexive and self-referential.

The story Austerlitz is telling is that of sitcoms as an American art form that has increased in self-awareness as it becomes more and more a part of its viewers lives. When discussing The Honeymooners, for instance, he mentions that in a scene in which Ralph Kramden is supposed to be painting a wall, the paper-thin set wall shakes when he touches it because "they hadn't learned to hide those imperfections from us yet." Fast forward a few decades and Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock are so aware of television conventions and viewer expectations that they deliberately subvert them as part of the joke. "Remember all those times..." they muse, prompting the viewers to wait for the inevitable flashback sequence. Instead the characters stare off blankly for a few beats, remembering.

Of course some of the author's choices are no doubt informed by his own personal tastes. Was Sex and the City REALLY a sitcom or did he want to include it because he liked the show? Was Friends REALLY the "last sitcom to be so hold the splintering masses together--or to want to"? Is Modern Family such a " deeply conservative reimagining of the classical sitcom decorated with contemporary touches"? And could he not find it in his heart to include an episode of Three's Company in the list? Or Maude? Or The Facts of Life? Or Good Times? Or anything starring Bob Newhart? And has he seen Archer? But I digress.

And sure, there are times when I wanted to nitpick and say, "But wait! That's not so!" His claims about the post-sitcom lives of the stars of Seinfeld and Friends, for instance, seems to include Julia Louis-Dreyfus' brilliant turn on Veep but ignore Lisa Kudrow's tour-de-force series Web Therapy. All right, I really am being nitpicky. But that's what television does to us. It turns us all into furious experts, arguing over how many episodes there were of Star Trek or whether we ever accepted the "new Becky."

I may not agree with Austerlitz's assertion that the sitcom is a uniquely American art form (he doesn't include any British shows, though he does mention a few) nor that it's in its last stages of decline. But I do agree that it is a uniquely unifying art form. Even though more than half of the shows he talks about in the book aired before I was born, I can attest that I have seen every single one of the 24 episodes he lists (except The Phil Silvers Show. Seriously, what was that?)

If you're dying to know, here are the episodes that make up the twenty-four chapters of the book:

  1. I Love Lucy: "Lucy Does a TV Commercial"
  2. The Honeymooners: "Better Living Through TV"
  3. The Phil Silvers Show: "Doberman's Sister"
  4. Leave It to Beaver: "Beaver Gets 'Spelled"
  5. The Dick Van Dyke Show: "Forty-Four Tickets"
  6. Gilligan's Island: "St. Gilligan and the Dragon"
  7. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: "Chuckles Bites the Dust"
  8. All in the Family: "The First and Last Supper"
  9. M*A*S*H: "Yankee Doodle Doctor"
  10. Taxi: "Latka the Playboy"
  11. Cheers: "Strange Bedfellows, Pt. 2"
  12. The Cosby Show: "Pilot"
  13. Roseanne: "Terms of Estrangement Part 1"
  14. The Simpsons: "22 Short Films About Springfield"
  15. Seinfeld: "The Pitch"
  16. The Larry Sanders Show: "The Mr. Sharon Stone Show"
  17. Friends: "The One with the Embryos"
  18. Sex and the City: "My Motherboard, My Self"
  19. Freaks and Geeks: "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers"
  20. Curb Your Enthusiasm: "Seinfeld"
  21. Arrested Development: "S.O.B.s"
  22. The Office: "Casino Night"
  23. 30 Rock: "Rosemary's Baby"
  24. Community: "Modern Warfare"

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