Pre-existing Conditions

Why sitcoms are the closest television can get to real life.

A woman walks into a bar. Or a café, or an open-plan office. She’s familiar, but not a close friend. You’d happily have coffee with her, or lend her a food processor, or spend a few hours at a barbeque at her large and improbably expensive share house that you know her wage cannot sustain. 

We know, pretty much, how she is going to react to the gift hamper from her clingy ex, or the new mandate for professionalism in the office, or when her Tinder date looks nothing like his profile picture. She is predictable and we love her for this because familiarity and predictability have been key to humanity’s survival.

Personal change is confronting and risky. On an evolutionary level, we like our friends and family to stay consistent and predictable. Most of all, we enjoy having our lazy assumptions about people confirmed. We love being proved correct.

For a profession whose one job is to reflect the human condition, screenwriting is obsessed with behaviour that rarely happens. If we can show how a character has been objectively altered by the second act to behave differently from what we would expect of them in the first act, we’re at least in the neighbourhood of creating an emotional response in our audience.

But how often do we see evidence of our own growth and development? How often do we see it in the people around us? And how often are those glimpses of revelation lost again amidst the ebb and flow of daily life?

The sitcom’s tidal chart version of character change is a more realistic depiction of growth. We can resolve to be different, we can discover facets of our personality we prefer over others and we can surprise ourselves. But as much as we can aspire to an ideal, more often than not we fall back on what is comfortable and familiar to us. The episode ends, another begins, and the status quo has been re-established.

We feel like we can predict how well-written characters will behave because their traits have been established by previous behaviour. Mare (Of Easttown) is a hard-working, determined detective in a small town who methodically unravels a series of mysteries surrounding missing or dead girls. We keep watching because we want to know the answers to these mysteries but we also want to see how Mare will react and contend with the changes to her status quo.

Gina Linetti of Brooklyn 99 is a selfish and egotistical secretary with a penchant for contemporary dance. She actively works to make life difficult for her colleagues and her character traits would see her very quickly fired in any real-life workplace. Despite the constant conflict this creates and the 22-minute journey she may go on, any lessons she may learn are completely forgotten in the next episode. The status quo reverts, apart from any major life events that may befall her (like being hit by a bus).

So if Gina is practically unemployable how could she possibly represent reality more realistically than Mare? It comes back to the status quo and how desperately we all cling to it.

How many murder cases have you solved recently? How many times have you resolved generational trauma with your mother this week? I’m going to guess zero times. Although Gina may set off a fire alarm or chain herself to her desk or blackmail her boss, she does so with the exact same selfish, fabulous cynicism every time. She’s still there behind her desk, week in, week out. Like us.

Mare grows and develops as a person and that’s a thrilling journey to watch. But this kind of growth (if it ever happens) takes years to achieve and usually does not fall within the three or four act arc required by television. Conversely, the sitcom structure mirrors the Sisyphean reality of our lives. It is endlessly repetitive, largely predictable, and usually comfortable enough for us to maintain the character traits that got us into our status quo in the first place.

We can confront our demons, admit our failures or stand up for ourselves but until we get sent to jail for crimes against humanity, or collectively marry our best friends/roommates or just get unceremoniously cancelled by the network, our special kind of status quo will be there for us, ready to indulge our horrible indulgences and give us a laugh, preferably six per page.