Monday, November 14, 2005

when sitcoms go serious

The bar for sitcoms is set pretty low.

Television audiences tune in for a chuckle every week. They watch familiar characters bumble through situations that expose their foibles. The formula is repeated week after week, show after show. The very word "sitcom" is short for situational comedy, so by definition these shows typically do not tackle serious material.

When they do make that rare venture into the serious side of life, wow, what a treat.

Very often, it is a signal the show is approaching the end of its run, or, if you want to use a cliche, "jumping the shark". But there are those episodes where Asaad Kelada's and Alan Thicke's of the world pull off the feat of producing compelling, emotional drama in a half-hour of television. Sometimes they are bad and good in the same episode.

So whether these are merely guilty pleasures of mine or actually good television, I have no idea. Below is a list of the top-five most memorable times that sitcoms have gone serious.

1. All In The Family. "Edith's 50th birthday" episode. Aired Oct. 16, 1977.

It's hard to lump AITF into the sitcom genre, because it did such a good job of exposing the taboos of an old society nonetheless common in everyday life, and showing the societal schism between baby boomers and their parents. But I digress...

Edith Bunker is nearly raped by a man posing as a detective. Aside from the obvious question of who would want to rape television's lovable dingbat, this bold episode is hilarious while, at the same time, probably the first show to address such a sensitive subject. It's hilarious because Edith asks the intruder "Wouldn't you rather have coffee?" after he has made his intentions known. At the end, you can't help but want to cheer when she smashes her burning birthday cake into the phony detective's grill.

2. Family Ties. "My Name Is Alex" episode. Aired March 12, 1987.

It's hard to include a Family Ties episode, because each one really had a heavy-handed moralistic lesson at the end. Nonetheless...

Alex rejects his friend Greg's request that he help him move a friend's piano. Greg is promptly killed in a car accident en route to moving said piano. Alex is racked with guilt because he should have been in the car with his best friend, who strangely, we have never met before this episode.

The scene at the psychiatrist's office clinches this episode's place on the top five, if only for the moment APK deduces that two dimes, a quarter and three pennies have been dropped by the shrink. Even if this show takes a simple-minded look at the "why are we here" question -- the script offers so many cliches, it was probably written by Mallory -- it offers genuine emotion.

This would also be a good time to remember when Tom Hanks made an excellent guest appearance as Elise Keaton's crazy drunk of a brother.

3. WKRP in Cincinnati. "In Concert" episode. Aired Feb. 11, 1980.

Baby, have you ever wondered ... wondered whatever became of those kids trampled at Riverfront Stadium.

WKRP does a tremendous job turning this episode around a little more than two months after 11 kids were stampeded to death during The Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979 in their very own 'Nati.

The first half of this episode shows the excitement and fervor gearing up for the big show. The second half reflects the reactions of the grieving staff, including a somber Johnny Fever, who had given tickets away for this very event. Considering they used a real-life event so effectively, this should probably be higher on my list.

Two random points: 1) Even as a young child when this show aired, I understood that Bailey Quarters was far hotter than Loni Anderson. 2) During this series, WKRP often refers to Mayor Springer, who is none other than Jerry Springer, the honest-to-God, one-time Mayor of the 'Nati.

4. All In The Family. "The Draft Dodger" episode. Aired Dec. 25, 1976.

Another powerful episode from Norman Lear that comes at the height of the nation's angst over the Vietnam War. Gloria and Mike's draft-dodging friend stops by for Christmas dinner. Archie invites Pinky Peterson, who has just lost his son in the 'Nam, for the same meal.

The episode reaches its predictable crescendo with the backgrounds of the two guests exposed during dinner. Carroll O'Conner delivers a fiery performance while skeweing the draft-dodging David, but is stunned into silence when Pinky shakes David's hand.

Nothing on television has come close to summing up Vietnam the way this episode did.

5. The Brady Bunch. "Bobby's Hero" episode. Aired Feb. 2, 1973.

Mike and Carol Brady are called to meet with young Bobby's teacher after it is revealed he has developed a fascination for outlaw Jesse James. In his typical father-knows-best fashion, Mike Brady has Bobby meet with 90-year-old Jethroe Collins (played by Burt Mustin), whose father was killed by Jesse James during a stick-up.

Later that night, Bobby dreams his family's train his hijacked by a vengeful James, who guns down the Brady family using a mint-colored gun and yelling "bang, bang." Bobby wakes up crying, and the lesson has been learned. Root for the good guys, not the bad apples.



At 8:16 PM, Blogger Joependleton said...

Dude, you have me until you got to No. 5. That is the dumbest Brady Bunch ever.

A few to add to the list.
There was a Different Strokes episode where - coincidentally or not - Gordon Jump (aka Mr. "Big Guy" Carlson from WKRP) tries to get it on with Arnold (Gary Coleman) and a friend. I think it ended with Phil Drummond kicking some serious arse.

I mean, you could add plenty of All in the Famlies, but the one I remember is when the transvestite dude/dame Beverly LaSalle gets killed. Pretty intense.

I also remember a Jefferson's episode that dealt with some serious racists and it ended with the dude from the Pathmark commercials refusing a blood transfusion from George Jefferson.

And don't forget that "Small Wonder" episode where Harriett was caught fiddling with Vicki in the garage.

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Pete said...

Yes, the Diff'rent Strokes episode when Arnold and Sam nearly get molested was going to be my No. 5, but yesterday's discussion of the Brady Bunch and Cousin Oliver made me also remember the complete absurdity of the Jesse James show.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Another episode of Diff'rent Strokes (I applaud you, Pete, for the correct spelling of this series) could have easily made this list.

In season six, Kimberly and Arnold hitchhiked and we're kidnapped by a creepy, middle-aged man. At one point, he locks Arnold in a room and ties him up. Just when it's looking increasingly likely that Kimberly is about to be assaulted, Arnold manages to escape. He tracks down a police officer, and after some confusion, Arnold remembers the location of the man's apartment. Kimberly, to the relief of America, is saved.

(While doing my research for this, I learned that in the 16th episode of the series, the writers of Diff'rent Strokes resorted to the use of the retrospective episode. This lame tactic was repeated on many shows throughout the 80s, but most shows did not succumb until the series was at least two years old.)

Another Howard Hesseman show--Head of the Class--also deserves recognition for tackling a series issue. Who can forget the time in which our loveable nerd, Arvid, actually had the opportunity to score? While in the principal's office, one of the school's most popular students--and an obvious troublemaker--flirted with Arvid.

After an awkward condom-buying experience, he went over to her place, where it was expected they would have sex. But the ever-respectful Arvid chose not to sleep with her, teaching us all that we must respect ourselves. It was a lesson whose impact was clearly far-reaching, as teenagers across the country stopped having sex.


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