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Structure and Content of Sitcoms

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To analyse the values and ideas a culture holds dear, studying sitcoms may surprisingly be the place to start – they are a veritable weather vane of popular culture, constantly evolving to reflect the advancement of society. Sometimes a sitcom will set out to challenge and perhaps change to some extent the audience’s perception of these ideas and values – of course, with the ultimate goal being entertainment. A sitcom is defined thus –

A setting and a group of characters providing the opportunity for a comic narrative, usually

resolved in 25-30 minutes (although the ‘situation’ remains open to future disruption), and

broadcast in a series of five or more episodes.1

This is a prime example of the use of Todorov’s theory – that of equilibrium, disequilibrium and new equilibrium. Each episode contains a problem which is usually solved by the end of the episode, and where it isn’t it gives way to ‘cliff-hangers’, where a storyline continues in an arc over more than one episode, sometimes more than one season. This general format of sitcoms allows the audience to become familiar with the programme quickly – relationships with characters are more easily formed when you know that whatever problems they face they will be resolved at the end of the half hour. It’s a comfort blanket of sorts allowing audiences to know what to expect.

Another noticeable characteristic of British sitcoms in particular is the willingness to conform to as well as challenge social ideals. When watching a specific genre such as the sitcom, the audience has certain expectations as to how it is presented, such as the presence of a protagonist and an antagonist. These expectations allow the audience to watch a sitcom and take comfort in the repetition and the knowledge that any disruption to the status quo will be reconciled before the end of the episode. However many sitcoms have prospered from breaking these expectations and therefore challenging the ideas and values of the society at that time.

One of the staples of British sitcoms is the stereotype, an exaggeration of a person intended to provide comedy. Fawlty Towers (1975) was a prime example of this. Basil Fawlty, the proprietor and protagonist of Fawlty Towers, an ailing hotel in Torquay, was essentially a representation of Britain, while the guests of the hotel served as the antagonists, each episode providing a new character in possession of a characteristic that Basil cannot stand, such as being an unmarried couple, working class or foreign. Perhaps the most enduring of these stereotypes was that of Basil’s wife Sybil, the only person whom Basil was truly terrified of. The portrayal of Sybil as a vacuous, self-absorbed battleaxe (she is often on the phone during the busiest times of the hotel) could be considered sexist were it not offset by Polly, a part-time waitress who, through her ability and the need for the extra money, is often dragged into other jobs around the hotel as she is the most competent of the staff. Where Sybil is the primary antagonist, Polly serves as the voice of reason (and often sanity) and is a surprisingly positive representation of a woman for this era, as she is at University studying Art and also speaks Spanish and German.

A reflection of the change in attitude to women is very evident in the early 90’s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, which focused on the mishaps and wrongdoings of Edina Monsoon, 60’s throwback, and her corruptive and seemingly imperishable best friend Patsy Stone. Gone is the traditional family structure, the light-hearted and often tame situations, AbFab was a response to the Girl Power revolution and the empowerment of women in the media. Eddie Monsoon, a self proclaimed PR guru and recognised fashion victim, in her attempts to conquer Mother Nature and regain her youth, most often took on the role of the child, whereas her daughter Saffy, dowdy and serious in response to her mother’s eccentricities, took the role of parent, cleaning up after her mother in more than just the literal sense.

The majority of plotlines in AbFab centre on Eddie’s lack of will and the emotional tug-of-war she often found herself in between Patsy and Saffy. This contrasts social ideals greatly as a daughter should never have to fight for her mother’s love and attention, as it seems Eddie is incapable of giving it to more than one person at a time. However despite her constant derision of her only daughter and her recognition that Saffy serves as her unwelcome conscience, Eddie does show one or two fleeting moments of mothering instincts towards her daughter, most notably when she punches a married, persistent, lecherous professor. This suggests that while Eddie is a representation of a selfish, uncaring mother, she does posses some redeemable qualities which are representative of the social belief in rehabilitation.

Absolutely Fabulous was one of the first sitcoms, along with Dinnerladies, to feature a mostly female cast. Previously, as in Fawlty Towers, sitcoms tended to feature leading male characters (for example Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Porridge) while female characters were most often members of an ensemble cast. Even in the most successful sitcoms of this era featuring couples (The Good Life for example) one of the couple is always the more transgressive, which even in today’s society tends to sway towards the male half.2

While sitcoms in the past have tended to rely upon farce and stereotypes to convey plot, modern productions tend to have more rounded characters and explore deeper the contrasting characteristics within roles. This is especially true of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (2001-present). Revolving around five twenty-something’s whose lives are focused on “fags, shags and kebabs” it is not a mere vehicle for crude humour but explores some very thought provoking situations, in particular the end of series 4 cliff-hanger of Jonny being shot. Rather than the principal characters being concerned with political or economical dilemmas, Two Pints focuses on the metaphorical cocoon of Runcorn, seemingly unaffected by the outside world. This in itself is interesting and is perhaps representative of the modern day fear of corruption from foreign sources – for example, Donna goes to ‘That London’ for a job interview and returns a slightly deranged, career driven woman, so concerned with herself and her work that she fails to notice both that one best friend has gone into labour and the other has gone off with Gaz, Donna’s boyfriend. This does however hark back to the values of the pre-90’s sitcoms like Steptoe and Son and The Good Life – that ‘family’ (and in this context this refers to the close knit group of friends) comes first.

A lot of the humour in the traditional British sitcoms is derived from class distinction and the contrasts between these two classes – this is particularly evident in The Good Life, in which Tom and Barbara Good decide to give up working for a living and instead enjoy a self-sustained lifestyle. This is in great contrast to their neighbours and friends, the Leadbetter’s, who are very upper class and disparaging of Tom and Barbara’s new lifestyle choice. The majority of disequilibrium (as relating to Todorov’s theory) came from a problem the Good’s faced in maintaining their self-sufficiency – whether it be a lapse back into middle-class for Barbara or Tom’s pigheadedness causing a minor problem to develop. They are continually challenged by Margot Leadbetter, who is a stereotypical snob with no sense of humour, who tolerates but doesn’t understand their choice at all.

While The Good Life was being produced in the 1970’s, a revival of sorts was taking place concerning self-sufficiency and the growing snobbery of the middle class. The show was hailed as a great support to the cause as it showed it in a very positive light – Tom and Barbara face a great deal of adversity in turning their South London home into a small farm, however they always overcome these issues and equilibrium is restored. Margot’s complete misunderstanding when it comes to self-sufficiency is representative of the snobbery of the middle-class towards those beneath them – why should you do the work by, for example, growing your own food, when you can just drive to the shops and buy it? However Tom and Barbara get a good deal of joy from producing their own goods with varying degrees of success, and despite Margot’s disapproval, they are happy – it’s a very positive message, that you don’t need material worth to have a ‘good life’.

The character of Margot can be seen as a precursor to the character of Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances, a caricature of a middle class social climber. It again employed class distinction as the main source of comedy, that is between Hyacinth and her unemployed sister Daisy, her husband Onslow and younger sister Rose who are an exaggeration of the working class, in that they don’t do any work at all and instead spend all day in front of the television. The driving point of Keeping Up Appearances is that Hyacinth, forever striving to be higher in the community, is never happy, while Daisy, Onslow, Rose and ‘Daddy’ are quite literally happy as pigs in muck. This is further explored in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, where the main cast (with the possible exception of Donna) have no ambition whatsoever and are completely happy to just continue with their working class lifestyle.

British sitcoms tend to be very character driven – a prime example of this is My Family, an exploration of the life of long-suffering dentist Ben Harper and his equally long-suffering family. Propp’s character theory can be applied thus – Ben, the protagonist and hero, his wife Susan, the secondary hero, his son Nick, the idiot who provides comic relief, his daughter Janey the princess, and his son Michael, who acts as the donor, often providing Ben with the means to achieve his goals – at a price. Each family member also periodically acts as the villain, the antagonist to Ben. The sitcom, then, is very formulaic – the hero wants something (usually peace and quiet, in My Family), the antagonist has it or the ability to make it happen. This formula acts as something of a comfort blanket to the audience – they are aware that whatever happens to the characters, it will be resolved and the status quo restored by the end of the episode – these are the audience expectations of the sitcom genre regardless of the era it was produced in, therefore the basic structure of the sitcom has not been changed more than a slight amount to reflect society.

The idea of a nuclear family in sitcoms is not a new one, in recent years however it has become more common to challenge this view – Jam and Jerusalem is one such example. In the first episode the village doctor Mike Vine dies and leaves his wife Sal as a single parent. Sal’s children are grown up but her nature and role as village nurse, along with her inception into the village chapter of the Women’s Institute, means she effectively acts as a parent to much of the community. Jam and Jerusalem also challenges social ideals by including a character afflicted by a mental illness – Rosie Bales, a middle aged woman with the mentality of a child, has an angry and violent alter ego known as Margaret. This inclusion is an attempt to challenge the stigma of mental illness as a weakness and presents Rosie as a functioning member of society, even holding down a job at the local cheese factory and being a member of the WI.

Jam and Jerusalem is considered a very down to earth sitcom, in that it doesn’t utilise situations unusual to the surroundings – it doesn’t attempt to ‘jump the shark’, a phrase coined to describe the growing desperation of the producers of the sitcom Happy Days who created ever more bizarre plotlines in an attempt to eke out further profits. Set in the rural Cornish town of Clatterford, disequilibrium is caused by everyday situations such as the death of a family member or a bad harvest affecting the income of farmers. By doing so the producers have appealed to a wider audience, not merely interested in watching a programme which is, in effect, the same format every episode, but realistic situations and a life they can relate to. This is a reflection of the growing maturity of sitcom audiences and the need to approach the genre in a more sensitive manner.

The strength of Sal Vine as a single mother is a response to the feministic values explored in AbFab – however Eddie failed as a single mother, leaving her daughter to her own devices and even, in effect, becoming the child in the relationship herself. These views are challenged by My Family, in that My Family represents the nuclear family – both parents are shown to be a part of the upbringing of the children, however with various degrees of success showing the strengths and weaknesses of both the mother and father. Class distinction is also explored in Jam and Jerusalem, with Sal’s daughter Tash being a hippy and living on a commune with her illegitimate son at the beginning of the programme. Tash’s alternative lifestyle is a focal point in the second series with her impending wedding to Spike – a ‘traditional’ wedding proves too expensive and complicated so the whole village, including the other members of the WI, pull together to create a home-grown gypsy wedding, showing that the differences between classes can be overcome by a common goal.

Each sitcom studied reflects some aspect of society – the class distinction and its associated friction in Fawlty Towers, family life in My Family and lifestyle choices in The Good Life and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Ultimately the sitcoms that we see today are echoes of the ones that have gone before. Whilst their setting and even content may have changed the underlying structure remains the same – whilst the traditional family may have been replaced in such programmes as Two Pints, the essential format has remained the same. The reason for this development and renewal is that sitcoms need to change and evolve as society does – a perfect family such as The Brady Bunch holds no real appeal to a modern audience as Two Pints or My Family because dysfunctional families are commonplace in modern life, and make plotlines about family life much easier to write. Sitcoms have a close link with the social and economic milieu from which they emerge, however, they are ultimately about people, and people do not change.


1) http://www.mediaculture-online.de/fileadmin/bibliothek/stafford_sitcoms/stafford_sitcoms.pdf

2) Image and Representation – Key Concepts in Media Studies

Nick Lacey 1998

3) Narrative and Genre – Key Concepts in Media Studies

Nick Lacey 2000

4) The Media Studies Reader

Tim O’Sullivan and Yvonne Jewkes 1997

5) Exploring the Media – Text, Industry, Audience

Barbara Connell 2008

6) Media Studies AS and A2

Jacquie Bennett 2005

7) Media Studies – Second Edition

Stuart Price 1998

1 http://www.mediaculture-online.de/fileadmin/bibliothek/stafford_sitcoms/stafford_sitcoms.pdf

2 http://www.mediaculture-online.de/fileadmin/bibliothek/stafford_sitcoms/stafford_sitcoms.pdf

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