Thirty minutes or less: Where unexpected television pleasures thrive

It’s always fun podcasting with Mo Ryan, and not just because she’s one of the best at what she does. Occasionally, one of us will say something that dislodges an unknown stumbling block in the other’s cranium, and a shaft of metaphorical light will shine down upon a previously dark area. Other times, one of us will seemingly reach into the head of the other and pull something out in a bit of Vulcan mind-melding. An example of the latter occurred on last week’s show, when Mo went into a brief yet potent description of how wonderful the world of televised thirty-minute programming currently is. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but her brief take on it inspired me to jot down a few notes about them during a rare moment of free time.

There’s a lot of talking about “branding” when it comes to television, and such talks usually revolve around a network, a showrunner, or a particular actor. For instance, we could have a good discussion about which show is more in tune with HBO’s “brand” right now: “Girls” or “The Newsroom”? Certainly there’s room for more than one type of show on a particularly network, but which one would that network pick as more representative of the type of programming they would like to produce? But there are as many discussions about the ways that “Girls” fits into the brand of televised comedy, and these are the ones I am most interested in looking at today.

girls-hbo-girls-hbo-30778171-600-450.jpg“Girls” fits into a larger swath of 30-minute programs that defy conventional approaches to criticism and viewership due to nothing else besides their running time. People have a hard time categorizing “Girls,” “Louie,” Wilfred,” “Weeds,” Nurse Jackie,” “South Park,” and “Community,” because what those shows try to accomplish is contradictory to what people expect out of a program that lasts a mere half-hour. Even as we accept on ever broadening levels just how complicated television can be, there’s still an all-common assumption that “30 minutes of television = comedy”. And so long as people resist the idea of any non-hour long program as having dramatic merit, shows that come in at half that length will be judged on a sole criteria: “Is this funny?”

It’s a bullshit idea, but one that’s mixed in with “laughs” as the sole metric by which many people judge the aforementioned shows. My father called me after the third season premiere of “Louie,” befuddled by his own reaction. “I liked it, but I’m not sure I laughed once,” he told me. As if him not laughing had somehow cast dispersions on the show or lowered either its grade or his enjoyment. The most successful episodes of shows like “Community” for me have been those like “Mixology Certification,” which aren’t afraid to play its pathos straight. The success of that episode lay in how successfully it achieved its goals. Had the episode tried to be a laugh riot and failed, one could accurately criticize the episode for falling short. But what if laughs aren’t the main point of the endeavor?

This is why the thirty-minute program is so special right now, and why anyone worth their creative salt should be trying to get in on the act right now. There will always be a place on TV for the hour-long show, don’t get me wrong. But there are limitations to the tolerance people have when investing that much time into a show versus a program that rewards audiences in 50% of the time. Life’s too short to watch everything, but it’s far easier to catch up on a 30-minute show, or stick with one even as it goes in weird places. That’s both a boring observation but perhaps the most important one. With our eyes being pulled in so many directions, viewers need to make a risk analysis on every piece of pop culture they absorb. Watching two shows versus one isn’t always the correct choice, but it’s nonetheless a choice many people make. As such, those trafficking in these types of shows have the freedom to indulge more abstract, esoteric, freakish, demented, idiosyncratic, and/or above all personal visions for their programming.

modern-family.jpgNow, this primarily applies to basic cable and pay cable models. And, to its credit, a highly-rated show such as “How I Met Your Mother” does attempt strains of drama within its overall comedic context. It’s rarely successful in its latter year, but at least it broaches certain dramatic strains that “Two And A Half Men” would only wave a Viagra joke at. But the more apt model for network success is something like “Modern Family,” which tries its damndest to avoid reinventing the wheel at all costs. By contrast, a show such as “Parks and Recreation” follows the intricacies of small-town government straight into the world of small-time ratings. That NBC has kept it on the air as long as it has it a function of the network’s overall ratings woes, not inherently support of the show’s specific vision.

“Parks” is a show that suffuses its comedy in emotional realities that simply catch many people off-guard. Watching Leslie Knope tear up in the season five finale is one of my favorite moments on television 2012, but doesn’t fit in with connotative conceptions of what a “comedy” is supposed to do. Again, we’re back to the “Is this funny?” argument. I have gotten in many fights with commenters who resist any type of analysis of comedies beyond stating at length what was funny and what wasn’t. There are three problems with such an argument. One, it would be a pretty boring ass review to simply list out a series of punchlines and rank them. Two, comedy is insanely subjective, and one man’s LOL is another woman’s WTF. Thirdly, reducing shows to their pure comedic value does them a disservice. If a show is only going for laughs, well, those shows tend not to get covered in the type of fashion I do. There’s little wrong with a show just trying to be funny without any other type of agenda. But honestly, how many shows do you know that are worth watching that engage the world on such a surface level?

So I tend to gravitate towards the gravitas of a show like “Cougar Town,” which harbors deep melancholy barely under its shiny, wine-soaked surface. I gravitate towards “Louie” and it’s deep curiosity and ultimate optimism about the world at large. I gravitate towards “Weeds” because it taps into our latent narcissism as a culture. We don’t expect our dramas to be comedy-free. In fact, we’d lambaste such programs for having an enormous stick up an enormous orifice. “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” quite often is the funniest show on television on the week a particular episode airs. And we don’t ding them critically for making us laugh. If anything, the ability to make us laugh AND cry is seen as a bonus. Why do hour-longs get the benefit of the doubt while the 30-minute shows are greeted with widespread befuddlement when attempting the same magic trick?

When “South Park” does an episode like “You’re Getting Old,” we owe it to the show to engage it upon the terms it establishes. Maybe there’s no good way to get past the “comedy”/”drama” dynamic when it comes to describing programs, because let’s face it: the types of shows I’m celebrating here are few and far between on the television landscape. And trying to come up with a single, one-sized-fits-all name for them is in fact doing these shows a disservice. All of them are bringing unique flavors to the table, and lumping them into a third category defeats the purpose. Shows like “Modern Family” thrive because people understand what they will be getting. The ability to repeat that type of content is admirable, and certainly serves a purpose that television has provided as a genre for decades. But it’s time to also point out the shows that constantly have fans wondering what type of show they will be watching that particular week as well. “Louie” has served up three very different episodes thus far this season, and the next two are a completely different beast unto itself as well. Putting these shows into “little boxes” (to borrow a phrase from the “Weeds” theme song) just means we’re denying ourselves from the unique pleasure these programs can provide. There’s comfort in the familiar, but there are also thrills in the unexpected. I’ve seen enough television in my lifetime to welcome the unexpected at any turn. For now, I’m finding it 30 minutes at a time.

3 Comments

  1. Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I totally agree, Ryan!

    I think oftentimes with shows like ‘Louie’ or ‘Wilfred’ or ‘Girls’ or ‘Enlightened’ the networks/publicists/award shows/etc only highlight the COMEDY of the show, so when someone tunes in ready to just laugh for 20-30 minutes and sees an episode like “Consider Helen,” they aren’t ready for it and just tune out. It’s a shame that we operate like that, and there should be a way to market these shows more truthfully—shouldn’t it be a *good* thing that these shows have such a range?

    I do feel like I need to point out a moment from this past season of ‘Modern Family’ that fits the mold of moments we’ve come to expect from ‘Cougar Town’ or ‘Parks and Rec’ or ‘Community’: the conversation between Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Merle (Barry Corbin) about coming to terms with their sons’ sexuality in Ep 3×20 (”The Last Walt”). I can’t remember ever seeing a scene like that on a network sitcom: two All-American manly men having an open discussion about what it’s like to have a gay son. It was short, certainly, but it sticks out as one of the most honest moments on the show. It’s not a place ‘Modern Family’ goes to often without the use of voiceover or a soundtrack in the background, but they definitely pulled it off.

  2. Steph B
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I think some of my initial squeamishness with Community was due to the fact that I didn’t laugh during most of the episodes, and what you seem to be suggesting is that these shows will probably influence the next generation of writers and producers?

    I think Seinfeld, Sex and the City (in its youth), and Scrubs were also pretty genre bending, or maybe you could even go back to “All in the Family,” for breaking barriers for sitcoms. I’m sure there were a few other great 30-minute shows that really moved tv forward (hmm, maybe grist for another piece?)

    Sort of reminds me of an episode of Scrubs where they re-imagined the show as a typical sitcom (I believe Clay Aiken made a guest appearance), and revealed all the flaws of that style, pointing out, you can never go back to those old tropes.

  3. Posted July 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Great post. However, don’t you feel this issue was hinted at in earlier shows like MASH, All in the Family, and etc?