Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time - Importance vs. Greatness

Before I finish my list of greatest sitcoms of all time, I thought it was appropriate to visit the issue of importance vs. greatness.

Some of my friends have been taken aback by some of the absences so far from the list and have been surprised by some of my more obscure choices.  But when reading this list it is important to remember:

Importance ≠ Greatness.

First, we have to understand what we mean by importance.  Usually it means that the show has a strong impact either on the medium or on society as a whole.  But that does not mean that the work is therefore of a high or good quality.

The example I like to use is Star Trek vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As Wayne said, "like Star Trek: The Next Generation. In many ways it's superior but will never be as recognized as the original."

No on can deny the influence Star Trek has had on not only televised science fiction but also on science in the real world.  How many people were inspired to pursue science because of the wonder they felt at watching Kirk and his crew go where no man had gone before.

But if you look at it in terms of pure quality of acting, spectacle, directing, etc, I believe many would say that The Next Generation is a better show, though less important.

For this list, I am looking at the best sitcoms of ALL TIME.  One of the big drawbacks of a show if it is cutting edge and modern.  That is because the modern becomes dated very quickly.  As CS Lewis said something akin to: nothing is so quickly out of fashion that that which is in fashion.

One sitcom that is not on my list, to the chagrin of more than a few, is All in the Family.

There is no doubt that this is an important show.  It brought up subjects that were taboo in that day like racial strife and sexual assault.  It spawned many imitators and spinoffs.  To this day, many shows still use the Bunkers as a model of sitcom success.  And to be sure there are many admirable qualities to this show, not the least of which is Carol O'Connor's amazing performance as Archie Bunker.  It is a further testament to its impact that Archie's chair is currently residing in the Smithsonian Institute.

But in its overwhelming desire to be cutting edge, the show firmly planted itself in its own era.  The show is dated in a way that works against it.  Most shows are set in a very specific time or place, but All in the Family wanted to say something about "today."  But now, "today" is "yesterday" and it doesn't speak as strongly as it once did.  The urgency of topics such as the ERA and interracial dating don't have the same impact because the ERA is dead and most people don't care about two people of different races dating.

The way a show sidesteps this problem is to make the show more universal.  Yes, hairstyles and pop culture references will pin it down in the timeline somewhat.  But if the humor and themes are universal, then it can transcend its place and time.

The difficulty with any judgment of how well a current show will hold up in the future is that none of us knows.  We can only guess.  There are always things that used to make us laugh that we simply outgrow or move on from.  This list is constantly open to revision, as it should be as I grow and (hopefully) mature.  But from my vantage point here at the tail end of 2014, this is how I see things.

Now, even though I respect popular opinion, I am not a pure populist.  Just because a show is revered or successful does not make it great.  Full House was awful but had high ratings.  Freaks and Geeks was cancelled after only 10 episodes, but I defy anyone not to watch it and be in awe of the fact that they managed to make every character three-dimensional and real.

But I strive not to fall into the hipster trap of elevating things because they are obscure.  I don't dislike something because it many people like it.  I remember someone once said to me that they refused to see Titanic in the theaters because everyone else they know had seen it.  It was their way of showing that they couldn't be influenced.  But they didn't see the irony that other people did make the decision for them, it was only a negative decision: a decision not to see it.

I know that some of my choice have been a bit off the beaten path (I am still catching flack about Clerks).  But it is only because I truly believe that they are still funny, regardless of how popular or unpopular they were.

So as we get down to the final five, keep in mind that there are many important shows that have not and will not show up on this list.

If they do, it will only be because they are great.

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