Adieu to the adult sitcom?
Slate’s headline writers teased me with this Dana Stevens essay about the Frasier finale. The headline is, “Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone? The Frasier finale marks the end of situation comedies for adults.” The Stevens essay underscores this point in this graf: Growing up, I watched my parents watch Mary Tyler Moore and Bob ...
Slate's headline writers teased me with this Dana Stevens essay about the Frasier finale. The headline is, "Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone? The Frasier finale marks the end of situation comedies for adults." The Stevens essay underscores this point in this graf:
Slate’s headline writers teased me with this Dana Stevens essay about the Frasier finale. The headline is, “Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone? The Frasier finale marks the end of situation comedies for adults.” The Stevens essay underscores this point in this graf:
Growing up, I watched my parents watch Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart’s eponymous situation comedies: Here were childless professionals in their 30s and 40s who moved in a world that seemed mysteriously complicated and grown-up. Week in and week out, they contended with traffic jams and IRS audits, incompetent colleagues and drunken doormen, and negotiated the intricate dilemmas of bourgeois etiquette: What do you do when a flaky friend asks to borrow a significant sum of money to start a business? Granted, my perception may be skewed by the fact I was 4 feet tall at the time, but even now, revisiting the world of those ’70s sitcoms, the texture of adult life is palpable behind the standard sitcom storylines of marriage and divorce, flirtation and friendship. Frasier was a throwback to that time; more mature than its jejune (but still funny) progenitor, Cheers, it posited a world where a divorced, stocky, balding man in his 40s, who collected African erotic art and noodled on a grand piano in his stark modernist apartment, could be a plausible romantic lead for 11 straight seasons. In the post-Seinfeldian TV landscape of perpetual adolescence, where attractive young slackers were hooking up and trading apartments as casually as if New York City were their personal college dorm, Frasier sided with the grown-ups and won the respect of its audience by treating them as such.
The problem with the rest of the essay is that it doesn’t ever expand on this thesis, turning instead to why Frasier was so good. Left unaddressed is why are there no more sophisticated, adult sitcoms? I actually do have a roundabout theory to explain this — the target demographic of sophisticated adults have morphed into obsessive-compulsive parents. This argument is implicit in David Brooks’ latest book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. One of the themes in the book — which Brooks has previously touched on in myriad articles — is the growing obsession with parenting in this country, to the point where unorganized play has simply ceased to exist in much of the country. Brooks tends to focus on the effect this has on the kids — but what about the parents? All this organizing of their kids’ lives can crowd out other activities, as Brooks points out on p. 139:
[P]arents have gone to extraordinary lengths not to let jobs get in the way of child rearing. They have added work time, but on average, they have not stolen those hours from child-rearing time. The time has come out of housework, relaxation, and adult friendships. (emphasis added)
Whether the tradeoff of more child rearing at the expense of adult relationships is a good thing or a bad thing I will leave to my gentle readers and bloggers I trust on the subject. However, if fewer adults are investing the time in adult friendships, that could translate into less demand for adult situation comedies on network television. Just an idle thought. Closing note — before people start bewailing the decline of the sophisticated sitcome, do bear in mind that for every Frasier there have been a hundred crappy adult sitcoms. Furthermore, it is at least possible to write a sophisticated family-oriented sitcom — go watch an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond and admire Patricia Heaton‘s perfection of the slow burn.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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