I have no clue when my favorite television shows are on. Despite loyally following five or six different half-hour comedies over the past season, I have never actually turned on a television to do so. In fact, I don’t even own a TV — like many of my manically busy and digitally-incubated young brethren, I am perfectly comfortable catching up with my favorite shows using downloaded episodes or streaming video. For those more traditional than I, DVR and TiVo contraptions allow viewers to easily circumvent the time constraints of live television while keeping close tabs on their darlings of the tube. For audiences, this means less life-planning around TV programming — and it gives TV writers more freedom, too.
My viewing habits are no anomaly, either; according to this 2010 marketing study, only 41% of the television viewing done by 18 – 34 year olds is on live TV. The other 59% is a mish-mash of streaming video and recorded programs, which doesn’t even begin to account for those illegally downloading. This means that dedicated viewers have a variety of ways to catch every episode of the shows they follow, and it means that newly inducted viewers have more than ample opportunities to play catch-up at any given point within a season, allowing them to watch an entire series over the course of a weekend. This fundamental shift in expectation frees the short-form sitcom from the considerable burden of exposition. Writers of long-running comedies can now, more than ever before, realistically assume that their viewership is experienced and informed. They can play to the choir, and the long-term plot lines of short comedies have benefited as a result.
Take Arrested Development, which ran from 2003-2005. Most people I know consider that show’s untimely cancelation a tragedy akin to a dozen sinking Titanics. It is one of the funniest shows ever. I watched the entire series over the course of two college hangovers. So too, probably, did you. This is why Arrested Development’s star has risen so much higher over the past several years than when it was actually on television: we had a chance to watch it all in sequence. Have you ever tried showing an Arrested Development newbie a random episode from the middle of a season? Their pupils literally turn into question marks. It is a show with a complicated plotline with laughs that derive from established truths about its characters. An idle wanderer would be lost. Indeed, especially as the show continued into its late-second and third seasons and viewership waned, the show began to devote large chunks of its already-constrained 22-minute limit to explaining what was going on. It didn’t work, and the show died because it was never able to integrate new viewers. After all, this was 2005 — I probably still used my Encarta CD-Rom — and Hulu was a spectre of the future. Sure, I guess people had TiVo, but as I remember, it was insanely expensive, and not too many people had one. It was much tougher to gain narrative footing mid-season back then. Nowadays, we have the technology necessary to keep a show like Arrested Development alive.
Other shows, though objectively eclipsed by the tragic brilliance of Arrested Development, use the new allowances to the narrative arc to their advantage. How I Met Your Mother, for example, may be accessible to an outside viewer at first glance, but the show indeed asks you to retain a set of facts across episodes and seasons. We are asked, for instance, to recall various details about Narrator Ted’s story, (even though he has been telling it for so long that I am starting to feel for his kids, who have been sitting on the sofa for six years) and the show trusts us to make the visual connection between the mention of ‘your mother’s yellow umbrella’ from Season Four and the sight of one in Seasons Five and Six. The sub-plot of the ‘slap bet,’ a bet between Barney and Marshall that wagered five slaps to be administered at any time, has extended throughout the show since Season Two. While these writing tricks may have left viewers cold a mere six years ago, they have today permeated popular culture. While other comedies have masterfully incorporated ‘recurring characters,’ the ability for a short comedy to have a coherent and ongoing plot is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it's easier than ever before.
As more and more television viewing is done on DVRs and streaming video, the entire experience of absorbing a given comedy show will change. They will be packaged less as single, cohesive episodic pieces and more as installments, which will give writers a degree of freedom that they have not always had. Whereas many sitcoms may have previously stretched themselves thin in search of a set-up, climax, and resolution within less than a half-hour, new viewing methods will continue to encourage writers to situate their comedies in more realistic human spaces. As television comedy writing becomes less shackled by the impossibly canned 23-minute plot model, perhaps laugh tracks will be replaced by real laughs.
Natalie Shure is a Russian-speaking writer who can recite the entire Naked Gun trilogy. She lives and works in Washington, DC. She and a partner in crime blog at Broads of the Beltway.