Friday, November 4, 2011

You say "absurdly self-referential," and I say "conceptual artist"

Danny Pudi and Gillian Jacobs in Community. Photo courtesy of fanforums.com.

This fall, many media outlets are trumpeting the resurgence of comedy on TV, based on the enormous ratings pulled in by The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Modern Family and New Girl and seeming fatigue with reality shows and heavily serialized dramas. Reality shows like The X Factor and expensive sci-fi dramas like Terra Nova have been pulling in solid numbers, but they're a far cry from their smash predecessors American Idol and Lost, while a number of underwhelming dramas (The Playboy Club, Charlie's Angels) came and went with barely a whisper. Compared to the enormous buzz surrounding comedy offerings like New Girl and 2 Broke Girls, dramas and reality shows are looking weak indeed.

It was a little shocking, then, to read a recent headline on Splitsider.com that asks if the 2011-2012 season is the worst season for sitcoms in a decade. (For the record, the author ultimately concludes that it's only the third-worst season for new comedies since 2000; apparently the sitcoms of 2002-2003, 2000-2001 and 2007-2008 were worse). After completing the list, it becomes clear why the author chooses to bash himself against the impenetrable wall of the TV pundit elite. The top three TV seasons for comedies are, in order: 2009-2010 (the premiere year of Community, Cougartown and Modern Family); 2001-2002 (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Scrubs, The Tick and Undeclared); and 2008-2009 (Better Off Ted and Parks and Recreation). In other words, the "best" years for sitcoms were the years that spawned low-rated critical darlings like Parks and Rec, Community, Scrubs and all the short-lived, too-edgy-for-primetime series that premiered in 2001. The 2003-2004 season, meanwhile, falls midway down the list, because apparently the reviled Two and a Half Men cancels out the genius of Arrested Development.

This piece brings into sharp relief the divide between critical adoration and popularity. Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory aside, almost all the shows the author categorizes as "good" spent most of their existence with the fear of cancellation hanging over their heads (if they even made it far enough to worry about being cancelled). If you were to look at The A.V. Club's TV page on a Friday morning, you could be forgiven for thinking that Community was the most popular show in the history of television. Meanwhile, out in the real world, The Big Bang Theory pulled in four times the viewership of Community, while Rules of Engagement (which is apparently a show that appears on television) had triple the viewership of Parks and Recreation.

There is a really fascinating dynamic at play here between the opinions of critics and what's popular with the masses. Unfortunately, this dynamic is often reduced to a simplistic game of childish name-calling, with the fans of quirky, low-rated shows maintaining that only old racists and uneducated, NASCAR-loving hicks could ever stomach Two and a Half Men, while those who chuckle at Jon Cryer's antics on those shows are bewildered by the fact that anyone could find the absurd, self-referential antics of the Greendale study group funny. It's oddly reminiscent of the "dialogue" (read: angry shouting) between the pansy-assed, liberal, Obama-supporting commie bastards and the prejudiced, out-of-touch, heartless capitalist pigs. (In the immortal words of Liz Lemon, "Yeah, suck it, I do read the paper!")

A disconnect between what is considered "good" by the critical establishment and what is popular is nothing new. There's a reason that the most critically acclaimed movies of 2010 (ranked by Rotten Tomatoes) were Waste Land, a documentary about a Brazilian artist photographing garbage pickers, and Into Eternity, a "meditation on human folly, punctuated by philosophical and historical references" by conceptual artist Michael Madsen. They may have gotten 100% good reviews, but the words "conceptual artist" make me want nothing more than to watch robots smash each other in Transformers 5: Planet of the Earth (once again, with much thanks to Liz Lemon). And it's not just The New Yorker passing out these reviews; the Philadelphia Enquirer and The Washington Post were among the publications that endorsed these films.

To be fair, Waste Land and Into Eternity are probably great films. They're just not appealing to a large demographic of people. And, as much as it pains me to say it, the self-referential absurdity of Community and the inside-showbiz jokes of 30 Rock might not interest a lot of people either. I like to think that if more people tuned in to these shows they'd find the following they deserve, and I could certainly be right about that. Of course, the three people who saw Into Eternity probably think the same thing, and they could be right too. So let's not be too mean to the people who choose to watch Two and a Half Men; they might just be turned off by descriptions of the show as "absurdist" and "experimental" in the same way hearing "conceptual artist" makes me want to curl up on my couch and watch reruns of Saturday Night Live until my brain rots. And even if I love Community and you love Rules of Engagement, we can probably agree on one thing: a half-hour comedy, no matter which comedy it is, is still more consequential than Jersey Shore can ever hope to be. Oh, wait...

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