Is The Sitcom Played Out?

This fall's glut of gimmicky, grating new entries suggests it is, but there's nothing wrong with the durable format that a good show wouldn't fix

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Here's a game to play while watching the onslaught of new situation comedies being offered by the networks this fall. Try to imagine the original meeting between the shows' creators and the network executives. For CBS's Princesses, for example, it must have gone something like this:

"O.K., here's the idea. Three single women in New York. All looking for a husband. All living in the same fancy Fifth Avenue apartment."

"Yeah. Sounds like How to Marry a Millionaire. But how do we make it work for the '90s?"

"Lemme tell you the twist. We call the show Princesses. One of the women is a Jewish-American princess. The second is a wholesome, Middle American sweetheart -- sort of a Wasp princess."

"And the third?"

"Are you ready? She's a real princess! The European kind."

"Love it. How about Friday at 8?"

Princesses is far from the worst new comedy of the fall season. After a pilot episode that goes through ludicrous contortions to set up the situation, it may turn out to be a passably entertaining look at manhunting in the Big Apple. But the blatant gimmickry of its premise is symptomatic of the malaise that has descended on TV's most venerable format, the situation comedy.

In terms of numbers, sitcoms are riding higher than ever. By the end of September, no fewer than 17 new ones will have debuted on the Big Three networks and Fox. That fact, combined with the cancellation of such serious- minded dramas as thirtysomething and China Beach, has sparked a cry among critics that the networks are abandoning adventurous programming for safe, frivolous fare.

The charge may be valid, but is it fair to blame the sitcom? In fact, the format is the most durable, supple and, on occasion, artistically perfect one TV has ever invented. That 23-minute package has housed everything from the homey morality plays of Father Knows Best to the antiwar messages of M*A*S*H; from the social incisiveness of All in the Family to the scattershot farce of Police Squad! If the new TV season had another Sergeant Bilko or Mary Tyler Moore Show, critics would be cheering the revival of network TV, not lamenting its demise. No, there's nothing wrong with the sitcom that a good show wouldn't fix.

The genre seems to be suffering from creative exhaustion, and the problem can be blamed, at least partly, on two pernicious developments. One is the tyranny of the gag line. Egged on by live studio audiences and a fear of letting viewers' attention flag even for a second, sitcoms have subordinated well-told stories and plausible characters to a barrage of one-liners. Another is the curse of "high concept." To stand out in this crowd (nearly 50 half- hour comedies will be airing on the networks this fall), you gotta have a gimmick. Typically that means putting together characters who clash in some way: an oddly assembled family, mismatched co-workers, or simply a grouchy guy who throws insults at everyone who crosses his path.

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