How Today’s Sitcoms Are Bringing Back the ’70s TV Ethos
It’s safe to say that we’re in a golden age of scripted comedy on television. If you’re looking for auteur-driven, boundary-pushing comedies, you can find them in places such as Broad City and Lady Dynamite. If you’re looking for great animated series, there are boundless options, from Bojack Horseman to Rick & Morty. If you’re looking for excellent family-style sitcoms, ABC has you covered with its killer family comedy line-up. What’s particularly notable about this wave of great new comedies, though, is how nearly all of them feel comfortable tackling various social issues, from race to class to feminism and even to issues like mental illness and substance abuse.
Comedies today feel like they have something to say, more than they have in quite some time. And while the term “socially conscious comedy” first brings to mind shows like The Carmichael Show or Inside Amy Schumer (which have made social commentary part of the DNA of their shows), it’s become evident even in comedies where you generally might not expect it. Broad City may mostly be a silly stoner comedy about two slackers in NYC, but it’s also a show with overt themes of feminism in nearly every episode. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may primarily be an absurdist joke machine, but it’s also seriously dealt with issues such as feminism, social class, gentrification, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcoholism. And even major network family sitcoms, such as black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, are incorporating issues of race and diversity alongside more traditional network sitcom plots, furthering the idea that social consciousness has become a normalized part of TV comedy.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that TV comedy has taken a hard turn towards social commentary. This current crop of socially-aware sitcoms bears a lot of similarities to the sitcom slate of the 1970s, which was dominated by comedies that did the then-unthinkable act of using what was currently happening in American society and applying it to their storylines. This was spearheaded by Norman Lear’s All in the Family, a breakout hit in 1970 centered around old, bigoted loudmouth Archie Bunker and his constant bumping of heads with his liberal daughter and son-in-law. All in the Family took much of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s — from counter-culture to racial, social, and feminist issues — and brought it into Americans’ homes every night, something that was nearly unheard of up to that point. And perhaps thanks to the success of All in the Family (it was an instant hit in the ratings), an entire wave of socially conscious sitcoms — many of which were also produced by Lear — cropped up, setting a trend for the decade.
From the outwardly feminist perspective of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the issues of race and class presented on Good Times to the working class and labor-centric tribulations of Taxi to the wartime dramedy of M*A*S*H, the 1970s were full of sitcoms that used laughs (and sometimes drama) to address social issues that challenged Americans in their everyday lives. These sitcoms would often cover topics that would still be considered taboo even today — the noted abortion episode of All in the Family spin-off Maude still remains one of TV’s most in-depth looks into the subject — and, while not every topic was necessarily covered well, TV sitcoms digging so deeply into social issues was, and remains, a noble task. This rise of social consciousness in the ‘70s could be seen, in part, as a challenge to the sitcoms of the 1960s, which dealt with the turbulence of the era by gleefully ignoring them and taking them into fantasy worlds (whether it was the literal fantasy worlds of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched or the perhaps even more unrealistic world of The Brady Bunch.) It’s understandable why people might gravitate toward escapism during tough times, but the success of the Norman Lear-produced and similarly-minded shows of the 1970s proved that sometimes, maybe seeing these issues presented to us on a wide scale could be helpful.
That same turning of the tides has arguably occurred once again. After shows like Seinfeld and Friends popularized the “cool young people living generally carefree urban lives” formula, the sitcoms of the ‘90s and ‘00s generally didn’t concern themselves with any sorts of real-world issues. The Seinfeld-esque “show about nothing” ideal was highly sought after by most sitcoms, both as an attempt to recreate the wild success of Seinfeld as well as an attempt to separate themselves from the much-maligned “family sitcoms” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which often bastardized legitimate issues into easy “very special episodes” (think Jessie’s caffeine pill addiction on Saved By the Bell). For the most part, the sitcoms of the late ‘90s/’00s were big, broad, full of slapstick, and also coated in layers and layers of irony, so even if a serious issue was addressed in some form, it was devoid of any sort of deep-seated care or purpose. The closest this era got to sitcoms that dealt with hot-button issues was in shows like Will & Grace (which deserves credit for being one of the first sitcoms to have prominent gay characters but rarely delved deep into issues that actually faced the LGBT community at the time) or in irony-clad, tongue-in-cheek animated sitcoms like South Park or Family Guy. (Family Guy’s political humor rarely digs deeper than “isn’t it crazy that we’re talking about this?”, and while South Park certainly made a name for itself by addressing hot button issues, its cynical “everyone sucks” approach to them didn’t dig quite as deeply as the ‘70s-era sitcom’s analysis of such issues.)
For the most part, though, shows of this era were happy to leave serious issues out of their worldviews. Looking back at shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond¸ it’s somewhat astonishing how little real-world issues seem to affect the characters’ lives. If issues like race or sexuality are brought up, they’re done so in unbelievably slapstick-y ways — such as the Seinfeld episode where George panics that he might be gay after receiving a massage from a man, or the episode where George attempts to convince his boss that he’s not racist by finding a black friend, or the way Chandler’s father being a drag queen is completely played for laughs. The ‘90s weren’t that long ago; LGBT or racial issues certainly weren’t completely out of sight, you just wouldn’t know it by watching sitcoms of the era.
And yet, we’ve once again returned to an environment where a primetime family sitcom can have an entire episode about the Black Lives Matter movement (such as this year’s highly acclaimed “Hope” episode of black-ish), or where an otherwise light-hearted workplace comedy can end its season with a surprisingly passionate argument for workers’ rights (the first season finale of Superstore). And that’s just covering network television, without even going into the deep dive into mental illness on shows like You’re the Worst and Lady Dynamite or the proud feminism of shows like Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The results, at this point, are clear: we’re living in another Norman Lear-esque era of shows with deft handles on tough subjects. Of course, television is cyclical, and we’ll sure enough circle out of it once again. But for now, let’s enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s giving us some really great, thoughtful comedy.