What Sitcoms Really Tell Us About Human Behavior

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In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks highlights a trend in sitcoms over the past 20 years: shows about friendship groups (e.g. Friends and How I Met Your Mother) have replaced series about families (Leave It to Beaver, The Cosby Show).

On the upside, these new-ish "flock comedies," as Brooks calls them, have a narrative advantage over their family-focused counterparts: "it helps to have a multitude of characters on hand zooming in and out of scenes," he writes. In other words, the sprawling cast of Desperate Housewives offers more opportunities for comedic situations than the static family unit of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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But these shows also point to a change in the behaviors of today's young people—one that's potentially troubling, in Brooks' mind: "With people delaying marriage and childbearing into their 30s, young people now spend long periods of their lives outside of traditional families, living among diverse friendship tribes," he writes. He worries that these group friendships mean the younger generation is "trading flexibility and convenience for true commitment."

Lost in this conversation, though, is another type of TV show that has been around much longer than the flock comedies Brooks describes: the workplace sitcom. This genre follows a similar logic to friendship-focused series: shows set in offices also capitalize on large casts and they also examine the ways people attempt to replace—or perhaps avoid—the commitments of family. But while Brooks frets over the possibility that superficial friendships could impede people's ability to establish deeper connections, the shows themselves suggest otherwise: on TV work, not friendships, pose the greater threat to family relationships.

From a narrative perspective, workplace shows are similar to Brooks' flock comedies—they both use their setups (a friendship group, an office) as a way to explore "a multitude of characters." Night Court's cast was particularly vast because the show focused on the lives of both the workers at the court and the people who stood trial. And the The Office is almost a parody of a diverse office place, with regular characters ranging from Germanophile beet farmer Dwight to pop-culture-obsessed Indian-American Kelly to Oscar, a gay Mexican-American.

And, more compellingly, these shows look at the ways people attempt to find satisfaction outside the nuclear family. The characters on flock comedies rely on their friends to play the role of spouse and kids, while on workplace shows they depend on their jobs. Mary Tyler Moore's Mary uses her new job as a television producer as an outlet after breaking up with her fiance. On The Office, Michael Scott's most consistent prop is his "World's Best Boss" mug—a sendup of a "World's Best Dad" mug. 30 Rock is even more knowing about its commentary on the ways people substitute family with work. In an episode in season 3, guest-star Oprah Winfrey tells Liz that she allows her two infantile colleagues, Jenna and Tracy, to fill the role of the children she doesn't have.

But these shows about the workplace do include one element that's missing from the friendship sitcoms: judgment. While shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother are neutral to positive about the ways friends fill in for family, nearly every workplace series seems at least intermittently uneasy about characters who have no family life outside of work.

One of the more heartbreaking episodes of The Office shows Michael visiting a rival paper company, which is run by a father and his son. As the camera pans the Prince Family Paper offices, it rests upon the owner's mug—which says World's Best Dad on it. The implication is: this is what Michael really wants—a life in which his most important accomplishment is being a father rather than a boss. (This is a desire that's made even more painfully obvious when he spreads a rumor that he's the father of a former colleague's baby—even though he knows full well she used a sperm donor.) In contrast, the two characters we're meant to feel least sorry for are Jim and Pam, who meet in the office, get married, and have a baby.

30 Rock also questions its characters' decisions to put work before family. "Rosemary's Baby" offers Liz a cautionary look at what will become of her life if she continues to allow her career to be the center of it. She meets her childhood idol, a pioneering female television writer, and soon realizes how depressing her life is: she lives alone, drinks all day, and doesn't know which decade it is.

Even Sex and the City, which isn't primarily about work, offers a warning against being too career-obsessed. Late in the series, we meet Carrie's editor at Vogue, Enid (played by Murphy Brown's Candice Bergen—perhaps offering a hint at where Brown's life would be if the show had kept running?), and get a glimpse at her sad romantic life: her dating options appear to be either a married man she can only see on one side of town or a sweet but trollish foodwriter.

The friendship-group comedies offer no such condemnation of looking beyond family for social and emotional fulfillment. Maybe that's because so many of the "flock comedies" turn into family comedies themselves, at least in part. By the end of Sex and the City, each of the girls were in committed, monogamous relationships, and two of them had children. When Friends went off the air, four of the six members of the gang were romantically involved with each other—and one of the couples had a baby on the way. There's a similar pattern among shows that are still running—two of the main characters in How I Met Your Mother are married to one another, and the others have all dated each other at some point in the show's history. In all these cases, friendship is not a permanent replacement for family—eventually, the characters want traditional families of their own.

But for the characters who put work first, their state is much more permanent. Mary remains single throughout the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as does Murphy in Murphy Brown—though she has a child. Seven seasons into The Office, Michael is still single (though there are rumors he'll marry his One True Love Holly before exiting the show next year). And despite all her efforts to land a man and adopt a baby, Liz Lemon, too, is unmarried and has no kids.

Brooks frets about the rise of friendship-focused shows because of what they may mean for the future of the family. But on television, at least, these friendship families turn into real families. If we're looking to TV to give us clues about human behavior, it's work—not friend tribes—that diverts people from "true commitment."

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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