What Sitcoms Really Tell Us About Human Behavior

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.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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