How Sitcoms Made a Comeback By Becoming Political
A reigning “nice” comedy, Ted Lasso has tapped into some rare TV magic. Whether you binge-watch it, hate-watch it, or have simply heard about it – you can’t help but be intrigued by it. Ted Lasso’s Season 3 has yet again proved that the show is not simply about comic relief but rather an intrusion of reality into a utopian landscape, with episode 7 providing a not-so-subtle dig at the stringent immigration policies of Britain, through the fictional Home Secretary’s statement: “To anyone attempting to enter our country illegally, I say this. Go home. Britain is closed.”
A sitcom that invariably takes a vocal stance on the state of affairs, Ted Lasso has been hailed as bi-partisan in its approach. Sitcoms now no longer operate from a vantage point of mind-numbing humor, they actively participate in the politics of their time. Situated conveniently between daily late night television, and the long form film medium, sitcoms leverage comedy to address significant social and societal concerns, without coming across as too preachy. In the wake of Covid19, and the Black Lives Matter protests, sitcoms began to confront politics rather than avoid them.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Jason Sudeikis from Ted Lasso, thinks back to the conception of this titular character, and the conscious choice to mold him in a way that is less ‘belligerent’ than the role fleshed out for the NBC sports skit. He speaks of how Donald Trump’s term and the binary divide between people influenced him to create a world that’s rooted in kindness.
Ted Lasso is an overly optimistic show, and has been flagged for advocating toxic positivity, yet there is something to be learnt from the way the series tackles sensitive issues without resorting to a moralistic undertone. Giving its two cents on racism in sports, immigration policies, dirty politics, corporate greed and sexism – the sitcom has not evaded difficult conversations. The Ted Lasso universe does not only indulge the real life football teams, but also the politics of sports – which are inherently interlinked in a world where power supersedes all. TV comedies and sitcoms now know they’re dealing with a more self-aware and socially conscious audience than the older generations, and they have adapted themselves to suit its sensibilities. Psychology Today says Ted Lasso “scatters lessons like confetti: lessons for men on how to be men; for countries on how to organize their government; for the whole world on how to bear up gracefully in crappy circumstances.”
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The rise and fall of the socially conscious sitcom can be traced back to the downward trajectory of Friends, one of the most beloved and timeless sitcoms of all time. A show that definitely did not age well, Friends depicts a life that is inherently deceptive, with its cast of all-white, all-cis, conventionally attractive group of friends with lavish lifestyles and relationship problems – who are blind to, or unaffected by the political upheavals in 20th century America. With personalities compartmentalized into digestible character traits, Friends defined a generation of youngsters, but according to critics – it also signaled the ruin of television comedy – incentivizing copycats of copycats due to its mega success, and thus, killing originality. The very many clones of this template – How I Met Your Mother, New Girl and more, suggest a disproportionate amount of focus on one type of overdone conflictless comedy, which almost never pushes its characters beyond cursory tensions.
However, the recent brand of humor tackles things slightly differently. Sitcoms such as Superstore, Schitt’s Creek, Abbott Elementary have paved the way for palatable political discourse. Following Moliere’s adage ‘The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them,’ several cognitive psychologists have studied the effects of humor and satire in making political information more accessible. A study collecting behavioral data and testing the retention capacity of individuals through humorous and non-humorous clips concluded that “Humor increases your attention because you have to follow the thread of the joke. Anything that demands your attention also increases your likelihood of remembering. The reward response to humor comprehension, “getting the joke” also helps make information more memorable.”
Each of the above mentioned examples have their own method of relaying the message to its audience – not by undermining their intelligence, but rather acknowledging their importance in creating tangible change. NBC’s Superstore is a textbook example of getting progressive politics right. Within the setting of a big box retail store, where issues such as healthcare, unionization, immigration, and job security are everyday aspects of the characters’ lives, the politics are blended into the narrative rather than coming across as performative. An article in The Nation speaks of how the writers and creators of this sitcom – Justin Spitzer and his team, “have built a series in which the audience’s sympathies lie with those who reside beneath the corporate boot as they struggle to eke out an equitable life within a system of inequality.”
Following a similar thread, Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary set in a downtrodden school in West Philadelphia, amid a chronic lack of resources and underfunded education. Pulling away the curtains, its audience (mostly liberal, mostly middle and upper middle class) is left to face themselves – and their lip-service that hardly ever translates into actions. Teachers paying out of pocket to supply basic essentials to their students, having to resort to petty tricks such as emotional baiting for donations, and a barely functional school – all of these events denote the basic needs of society being outsourced to the kindness of others’ hearts, rather than structural changes. In the midst of all the strife, however, the kids at Abbott are allowed to be just kids.
Although delving mainly into USA politics, these sitcoms represent the ground realities of our society, and address the flaws in our system. Ted Lasso can be anything to anybody, but at its core it strives to visualize a kinder world. But by yielding to this narrative, these sitcoms also deconstruct the appeal of American exceptionalism. Pinpointing the cracks in the armor, these sitcoms subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) break the glorified image of Western civilization. We may never be able to wake up in the world that Ted Lasso inhabits, but we can hope to mold ours on a similar template.
“The aphorism is that TV doesn’t tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about,” says Philip Scepanski, a professor of media arts at Marist College and the author of Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy. Television is a medium influenced constantly by other shows that are picking momentum and doing well – because new shows rework the template that has achieved success, and thus the air of political sitcoms creates an environment where scripts are written consciously, and reflect real change in society.
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