Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).
As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.
With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.
The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.
A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.
The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.
Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.
The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.
With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).
Change and Consistency
Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.
What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.