What is the sitcom supposed to accomplish?
As it evolved through the mid-20th century, the American comedy became both a vehicle for laughs and a moral barometer, communicating and articulating how audiences should respond to the current times. Shows like Cheers, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, and even Friends shot for broad humor while also regularly engaging with the day’s social and cultural issues, from race to class, gender to sexuality, politics to relationships. As scholar Tison Pugh writes, “discussions of family sitcoms often touch on issues of morality and pseudo-theological attempts to define what American families should both be and see,” and so “these fictional families have influenced countless viewers’ perception of American domesticity.”
Within today’s hyper-politicized environment, wherein we increasingly evaluate entertainment by way of politics, the audience’s relationship to the sitcom is even more complicated, as decisions about what the American audience “should” be and see are central to national conversations. As Sacha Baron Cohen bluntly asked last fall, “Who is America?” The situational comedy, perhaps reluctantly, has been forced to confront the question with evermore urgency.
The workplace sitcom Superstore, airing on NBC and streamable on Hulu, may come the closest to answering the question.
Doing away with high concepts and overt pondering of the (rightfully) acclaimed The Good Place, Superstore delves into the interpersonal dynamics and social realities of the working class. The show follows the everyday exploits of a group of Walmart-like, big-box store employees, led by floor supervisor Amy Sosa (America Ferrera). Nearly every episode takes place within the confines of the store, allowing complex relationships to take root in everyday struggles. It’s also hilarious.
The key is that the political and cultural valences within each episode are perfectly natural, rather than gear-shifting into a Very Special Episode approach, which tends to address hot-button issues as though they can be completely solved in under 30 minutes. A show like Superstore, concerned with our everyday lives and what it means to share space and time with other people, treats these issues as natural phenomena, which crop up as they do in our own lives: intermittently, and over long periods of time.
The employees of Cloud 9 have gone on a strike, dealt with Election Day polling at their store, encountered the follies and dangers of sexual harassment policies, suffered from the predatory employee health plan, and engaged with many more issues, both in specific circumstances and throughout the life of the show. The character of Mateo (Nico Santos), for example, has spent a handful of episodes dealing with his status as an illegal immigrant, but it was worked seamlessly into the fabric of the show — many big-box retail stores employ people in Mateo’s situation, and many folks like him struggle to separate their professional and personal lives without risking the truth coming out.
Not coincidentally, some of the show’s most affecting emotional moments occur long after these issues are first introduced, such as Glenn’s (Mark McKinney) discovery and acceptance of Mateo’s situation.
In the most recent season, the show’s fourth, Amy (America Ferrera) and Dina (Lauren Ash) have babies. Amy struggles to afford the hospital care because she has no insurance; Dina’s stay is lovely and pampered since she’s covered. These storylines ebb and flow over a season of TV or longer, and relevant obstacles like immigration and health insurance are portrayed honestly precisely because of how they fit smoothly into the characters’ lives. None of it forsakes the comedy.
Other sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine provide a similar balance between the goofiest, broadest of jokes and pointed engagement with racial profiling or a character’s bisexuality. Veteran Bizzaro-sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, meanwhile, has taken a different approach since its very first episode, “The Gang Gets Racist,” back in 2005: This season, in appropriate Sunny fashion, tackled #TimesUp and #MeToo, particularly in the episode “Time’s Up for the Gang,” written by Megan Ganz, in which the gang attends a sexual harassment seminar after Patty’s Pub ends up on a “shitty bars list.” It’s an acerbic, hilarious satire of the frenzied reaction to the movements, and it underlines our understanding of these characters as the embodiment of human weakness and moral failure and, crucially, identifiable as quintessentially contemporary Americans.
At the same time, reboots of shows like Murphy Brown and Will & Grace, which previously existed in periods more amenable to a straightforward style of address, feel out of touch and out of time in 2018. The new episodes of Will & Grace, with their obvious anti-Trump jokes and relentless, desperate reminders of its liberal-minded characters (and writers), proved that the when the sitcom overestimates its moral authority, the result is a dulled sword. In contrast, the reboot of One Day at a Time on Netflix feels lived-in and true, overcoming critical praise of being “timely” and “the show we need right now” to be its earnestly joyous self, depicting a Cuban-American family dealing with daily pressures, both political and otherwise.
Sure, we can simply say that the personal is political, but more specifically, for shows like Superstore and One Day at a Time, by staying true to their own worlds and characters, they get closer to the truth of ours. In 2018, the sitcom seemed to embrace its role as a moral yardstick like never before, tapping into the inescapability of the issues we face in our daily mundanity and searching for some way forward. But this injection can feel false if its not authentic to the architecture of the series, and so Will & Grace or even The Good Place have risked losing consistent characterization for the sake of political or philosophical positioning.
So how should we behave? You can look to the sitcom for answers. But fundamentally, they’re only trying their best — just like us.
Jake Pitre is a freelance writer and academic whose work has appeared at Pitchfork, BuzzFeed Reader, The Globe and Mail, The Outline, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere.