21 minutes and done: In praise of the classic sitcom

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it a little hard to concentrate this year.

I’ve got a hefty 600-page novel I’ve been working on for weeks now that’s really good, yet I keep getting distracted. I have plans and projects. Yet I keep “doomscrolling” (a fantastic phrase) and worry I’ve missed the latest catastrophe.

Thus, for solace, I turn to the essence of distraction: the classic sitcom. I think it might just be the perfect tonic for the befuddled mind. To me, despite all the great dramas out there, the platonic ideal of television is still the 21-minute sitcom. 

A good episode of Frasier or Seinfeld or Brooklyn Nine-Nine has all the energy of a terrific one-act play. A familiar cast of characters, a story that unfolds conflict and resolution in just a score or so of minutes, and a few jokes you can laugh at. I’m easy to please. 

Not all sitcoms are created equal. Seinfeld still holds up brilliantly, but I simply don’t get the belated critical elevation of Friends, an amiable show that I watched while it aired but feel no need to ever revisit again. I can watch episodes of Frasier until the sun grows cold and dark, but maybe thanks to my son’s youthful addiction to it, my tolerance for all but the most classic episodes of The Simpsons is kinda low now. 

It doesn’t all have to be old stuff from the pre-internet days, although the nostalgic kick of an old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or M*A*S*H still holds up for me. I fondly remember watching many of these shows after school in an era where streaming was something you did while fishing. I’ve also been rewatching all of the brilliant Community, or newer stuff like the terrific The Good Place, Fleabag or Schitt’s Creek.

A good comedy can take a simple plot – two brothers open a restaurant together; a television clown dies; a group of friends can’t find their parking spot; a cool dude in a leather jacket jumps over a shark – and make it sing. 

There’s an endless ocean of content streaming out there, and it seems like there’s a new hot show every week. Yet I have to admit I’m giving most of it a miss. There’s a million classic movies to watch if I feel the urge for something longer, but the bloated storytelling of many streaming shows turns me off. 

Looking back, commercial television kind of sucked – I don’t miss the adverts much. Like many of us now, the times I actually watch “live” TV with commercials and everything are pretty rare.  

Without commercial restraints a single episode can stretch on as long as it wants, often without really earning that running time. Shows that merit 21 or 40 minutes turn into 60, 70 minutes. They lack the Oscar Wildean economy of wit that tight 21 minutes forced a sitcom to be. 

An awful lot of so-called “classic” weren’t all that great either, to be fair. But it also forced creatives to work within those tight parameters. Twenty-one, 22 minutes, tell a story and get out, and for those 21 minutes, all the blues are chased away. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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