Sunday, October 2, 2011

Are single-camera and multi-camera shows really in conflict?

Jane Krakowski and Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock's live episode. Photo courtesy of tvgeekarmy.com.

Ever since the resurgence of single-camera sitcoms that began in the early 00's with shows like The Office, Scrubs and the late, great Arrested Development, a lot of the discussion of comedy on television has centered on the merits of a single-camera setup versus a multi-camera one. When the aforementioned shows premiered, the landscape of TV comedy was dominated by shows filmed using a multi-camera setup - a TV show staged like a play, filmed in front of a live audience with limited sets - including such giants as Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. These days, the landscape of TV comedy is much more divided between the two formats, with single-camera shows like 30 Rock, Community and Modern Family squaring off against multi-camera competitors The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother.

If you look at those lists of shows, you can probably guess what a lot of the dialogue surrounding the issue is going to look like. These days, single-camera shows have an aura of youth, cleverness and intelligence that multi-camera sitcoms just don't. When a single-camera sitcom falters in the ratings, viewers and internet commentators tend to react with cries of, "It's just too smart for most people," while multi-camera failures are greeted as a sign that the format is too "old-fashioned" or "dumbed-down." I have definitely been guilty of this; as a huge fan of Community's rapid-fire dialogue, willingness to venture into the absurd and sharply-drawn characterizations, I tend to explain the show's (painfully) low ratings by dismissing those who don't love it as unintelligent and old fashioned, viewers who wouldn't know originality if it bashed them over the head.

I should probably stop doing that. Because the thing is, a sitcom's use of the single-camera format doesn't mean it's automatically smart and funny, and the presence of a live audience and multiple cameras doesn't indicate the opposite qualities. I started to rethink my position after watching new fall offerings New Girl and 2 Broke Girls. Those who read my review of those shows will probably remember that I found New Girl to be grating and reliant on cliches, while 2 Broke Girls had a fresher perspective. (The second episode of 2 Broke Girls was less promising, but I think the kinks can probably be worked out.) 2 Broke Girls also happens to be a multi-camera sitcom.

That's not to say that the two formats are interchangeable. There are a lot of things that you can do with a single-camera show that just aren't possible with a multi-camera setup. The latter, by definition, features limited options in terms of sets - it's why Seinfeld almost always took place in either Jerry's apartment or Monk's Cafe. The difference in scope is nicely illustrated by comparing scenes featuring paintball from The Big Bang Theory and Community:



The BBT scene is certainly funny, and even features a nice moment of film parody in Sheldon's dramatic death scene. However, the scene is basically limited to the guys talking in a shed, and Sheldon being shot from offscreen, since the sets are presumably open to the audience. Now watch the Community clip:


Even ignoring the hopped-up opening credits, there is a lot going on in this scene. From the fact that the scene takes place in a hallway (something you rarely see in a multi-camera setup) to the way the camera angles are used to create suspense (is Annie going to catch Neil before he shoots her?) to the dramatic close-ups on both characters' faces, this is not a scene that could take place on a multi-camera show. Like almost everything that happens on Community, it wouldn't be possible. (Just think about the fact that most study group scenes take place with all the characters sitting around a table. Not going to work when you have a live audience to contend with.)

Another difference between the two formats is the comedic rhythm. Multi-camera shows shot in front of an audience rely heavily on a setup-punchline rhythm; the point is to make a joke, let the audience laugh, and then get started on setting up the next joke. Single-camera shows don't work like that. The jokes can come thick and fast, forcing the audience to break out of a particular rhythm and try to catch as much funny as they can. It's the reason you can watch any given episode of Arrested Development for the tenth time, and still pick up on new jokes and references. You can see the way the comedic rhythm alters if you watch 30 Rock's live episode. The episode was aired live, so it's considerably rougher than your average multi-camera sitcom, but it follows the same format, and the pacing differences are apparent. This isn't a time for a rapid-fire string of impressions or gollum-esque multiple personalities; instead, the episode sets up punchlines (Jack wearing a hand-knit poncho, Liz's continually dashed hopes that someone remembers her birthday), knocks them out of the way, and gets started on the next joke.

The thing is, a more polished version of the 30 Rock live episode would probably be a pretty great show, at least as long as Tina Fey was behind it. It just wouldn't be 30 Rock. That's the thing about debating the merits of the two formats; one isn't inherently better than the other, they're just different. It seems a little ridiculous to mock the multi-camera format as old-fashioned when it gave us a show like Seinfeld, which was not only groundbreaking in its time, but which holds up just as well today. Conversely, it seems disingenuous to argue that single-camera shows are smart and modern when that format gave us Outsourced. A show shouldn't be judged by its format, it should be judged by how the format is used to capture the spirit of a particular episode. One of New Girl's biggest problems (in addition to the shallow characterizations, lazy stereotyping and painful attempts to be cute) is that the writers are using a multi-camera, setup-punchline rhythm in a format built for rapid-fire jokes and sophisticated visual gags.

If a single-camera show is going to be worth the extra money (shooting in this format is much more expensive and time-consuming, because you have to shoot multiple takes of each scene and built much more elaborate sets), you have to know how to use the format to your advantage. Right now, Community is the best example of the sheer potential inherent in the format; the over-the-top movie parodies wouldn't be possible in a multi-camera setup, and the quieter, more emotional moments have more punch because the actors can play them more naturally, rather than having to perform them for a crowd. On the other hand, The Big Bang Theory takes advantage of the format by having long takes that focus on the interaction between the different characters and that feel organic in a different way; since everyone's coverage is filmed simultaneously, the scene can just be about the actors playing off each other and establishing a great give-and-take. BBT excels at this type of scene, and these interactions between the main characters are one of the reasons I keep coming back to the show.

The point that I'm trying to make (and that I may have lost for a while in the middle there) is that neither format is inherently better. The format of The Big Bang Theory plays to its strengths - a strong ensemble, a relaxed rhythm, and the kind of energy that results from performing in front of an audience - just as the format of Community allows both the grandiose parodies and the sweet, quiet moments to really pop. It's not about the format you use, its about what you do with it, and really understanding the merits and drawbacks of either format is the only way to end up with a genuinely good product. So let's stop calling multi-camera shows "stupid" and single-camera shows "weird," and just let them both be as funny as they can be. If we can put aside our differences, we can focus on our real enemy: reality television. Seriously, that stuff just sucks.

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