The Sitcom’s Knowing Smirk

Always watching, always judging.

I'm currently reading Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock, a book about all the ways in which we are unprepared to deal with living life in the present. As Rushkoff puts it, "our culture [has become] an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment. Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important—which is behavioristically doomed."

The resultant breakdown in narrative—or, at least, our understanding and experiencing of narrative—leads to all sorts of weird consequences. "Television loses its ability to tell stories over time," Rushkoff writes. "It’s as if the linear narrative structure had been so misused and abused by television’s incompetent or manipulative storytellers that it simply stopped working, particularly on younger people who were raised in the more interactive media environment and equipped with defensive technologies. And so the content of television, and the greater popular culture it leads, adapted to the new situation."

He then highlights ways in which these narrative shifts have impacted television: Family Guys non-sequitur cutaways; Lost‘s inability to satisfactorily wrap up; The Sopranos‘ abrupt cut to black. I'd like to touch briefly on one specific way this narrative breakdown manifests itself that Rushkoff doesn't examine: the sitcom's knowing smirk.

In conversations, I've tried to articulate my critique of this tic—Jim and Pam's glances at the camera in The Office; April Ludgate's sarcastic looks and Andy Dwyer's excited grins in Parks and Rec; the confessional-style straight-to-the-camera dispatches from everyone on Modern Family—as a failure of perspective, but that's not quite right. Jonathan V. Last has chalked it up to straightforward laziness, at least in the case of Modern Family:

The first is Modern Family’s POV. About 80 percent of the show is standard one-camera perspective. The characters go about their business oblivious to the audience. There are occasional static-camera scenes, where we see the characters from the point of view of what could be a hidden camera, almost like ATM security video footage. That’s fine, too.

But every so often the fourth wall comes down and the characters go into "confessional" mode. They sit and address the camera directly, as if they were being interviewed by a documentarian. Or they were on Survivor.

Why is this? The show has no reason why the characters would be talking to an interviewer. Instead, the writers default to the confessional mode to get to jokes that would be harder to arrive at without it. And I suppose they assume that, because The Office uses the confessional, every other sitcom in American can, too.

This is laziness, pure and simple.

I think this is closer to the truth—in fact, I think it is true—but I also think it's an incomplete truth. It's not just laziness: It's laziness that is welcomed by audiences and excused by a breakdown in narrative rules and a rejection of the need for coherence.

We, the audience, live in the now, the present, the giffable moment and the one-liner we can tweet to everyone watching along. We demand interactivity with our entertainment and this is the result: The aforementioned sitcom characters are looking at us and winking because we are looking at them and they know we are looking at them. They are just as aware as we are that the "rules" of sitcoms are absurd. The self-aware character, like the live-tweeter and the gif-creator, is above it all and drenched in detachment. These are the creatures of our times.

Rushkoff also highlights the ahead-of-its-time Beavis and Butthead. "Though dangerously mindless in the view of most parents, the show artfully recapitulates the experience of kids watching MTV. As the two knuckleheads comment on the music videos, they keep audience members aware of their own relationship to MTV imagery." In a very real way, Messrs. Butthead and Beavis did more to kill the importance of the music video than the deprivation of airtime created by MTV's reliance on Real World spinoffs and VH1's I Love the [Insert Decade]: It popped their bubble of self-regard, allowed us to admit that they were inane and stupid cultural artifacts, and stripped them of their significance and power.

One wonders if Modern Family et al. are doing something similar to sitcoms.