How Classic 90s Sitcoms Stayed Timeless and 2000s Sitcoms Didn’t
Sitcoms are comfort food. I turn to them when I need to unwind or when I want to make a good mood even better. Having lived through multiple sitcom eras, I've found that the sitcoms of the 1990s - Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, for example - are more enjoyable as a snack for my soul than the next big era of situation comedy, the early 2000s, which brought us classics like 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and Parks and Recreation. Both eras informed who I was and my worldview, as one has deep ties to my childhood, and the other hit me in my formative teenage years. Yet somehow, the sitcoms of the 1990s, while obviously older, feel more timeless than the classics of the 2000s.
For nearly a decade, I've been wondering why an older-style of sitcom feels less dated than a more recent one. I think I've figured it out: those 90s sitcoms all felt detached from the larger world and its problems. By sticking to more universal themes of interpersonal relationships (Friends) and the unwritten rules of society (Seinfeld), they essentially pickled themselves to prolong their shelf life. The 2000s shows are still comforting and are still a good source for tons of laughs, but they're constant reminders of the Bush Administration, the embrace of conspiracy theory on a mainstream level, and how white people often do and say some messed up shit while still, somehow, managing to be on the right side of a conversation about race in the larger view.
The 2000s shows dated themselves by being about external cultural influences that they weren't totally equipped to handle. They wound up being a minefield of awkward plots and mixed messages as sitcom writers were trying to figure out how to be really funny while talking about how deranged the world had become. It's not like it was new. Norman Lear was mixing comedy with social commentary in the 1970s and 1980s. Lear was an outlier. Looking back at that 2000s era, it's like watching the concept of sitcoms go through its awkward teenage years. It was a genre realizing it could speak frankly about a range of real-world anxieties. They handled it well enough, but with some caveats. Parks and Recreations and 30 Rock both portrayed their resident hardline right-wingers, Jack Donaghy and Ron Swanson, as more loveable, more idealized versions of their real-world counterparts that we've come to loathe.
I've already written about a similar revelation with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. A lot of the problems I wrote about in the article I've linked (like how it wants to be funny but about cops, who are very not funny, especially now) can be traced back to it being a lingering remnant of that 2000s era. It literally started as the 2000s sitcoms that spiritually preceded it were winding down.
The Office might be one of the few shows to escape this era with the timeless label. It's in the midst of a renaissance as new fans discover it on Netflix and Comedy Central. It's gaining this new massive audience in part because it only lets the outside world peek in every once in a while. It mostly kept itself contained within its premise, preserving it for future generations of fans to dive into without having to worry much about Haliburton or Saddam Hussein. None of this makes the shows that let large cultural factors influence their stories any better or worse - just less of a pleasure to snack on.
None of this is to say that the carefree and frivolous 1990s sitcoms were devoid of social commentary. They were full of it, from end to end, but the way it was expressed was implicit rather than explicit. It's in their absence of commentary on the larger problems in the world that speaks volumes. All the problems of today were around then, or were beginning to ferment, but Clinton was in office, the economy was doing well, and we still weren't giving BIPOC folks much of a voice in media to talk about how everything was screwed up. There was a general vibe that we had problems, sure, but they'll work themselves out naturally, so it's best not to worry about them too much. Besides, wouldn't you much rather talk about puffy shirts or stuff Monica's head in a giant thanksgiving turkey orifice?
They were shows built to be pure escapism because the dominating Gen-Xer attitude of the time was one of apathy, disillusionment, and, ultimately, a need for distraction from the first two things. They were one of the first generations to understand that America isn't as good as it claims it is, but things always end up working out well since they've all got money, so who cares. The 2000s sitcoms found humor in the acknowledgment that no, shit just won't be automatically better, so it's wiser to face them than to ignore them. We can debate how well they handled those conversations, but there's no doubt that they paved the way for sitcoms of today to openly and purposefully talk about heavier real-world problems. It's a legacy that can be seen in Atlanta, Rick and Morty, Insecure, Bojack Horseman, Superstore, Transparent, Blackish, Catastrophe, and on and on. They have the freedom to comment on life in ways that often stretch the definition of what a sitcom even is.
That excites me as a sitcom lover. This new crop of 2010s shows will inspire the next wave of shows that not only fearlessly tackle real-world subjects, but do it with an ease that comes with knowing you have 20-plus years of learned lessons behind you already proving that it can be done well. There's no need to worry about ignoring the horrors when, by now, we all know the horrors can be spun into a really funny half-hour.
Luis can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Catch him on the "In Broad Daylight" podcast with Cracked alums Adam Tod Brown and Ian Fortey! Check out his regular contributions to Macaulay Culkin's BunnyEars.com and his "Meditation Minute" segments on the Bunny Ears podcast. Listen to the first episode on YouTube!
Top Image: NBC