From a Teen’s Perspective: Why we love classic sitcoms

by Dylan Lanier on March 27, 2023

We are living in a whole new world of television. Everyday, streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu release heaps of new shows for us to endlessly scroll through and binge for hours. Alas, much of this content proves to be another unwatchable production in a stream of mindless entertainment. However, we seem to be able to sort through the daunting piles of content to find a few hidden gems.

Particularly, I think it’s interesting that while my generation diligently watches all of the latest hit shows, we consistently return to rewatching the classic sitcoms from the 2000s like The Office and Parks & Rec. While this pattern may seem like a coincidence — after all, they are just high-quality, widely-popular shows — I think there are specific reasons behind our inclination towards that specific type of entertainment.

I think television shows today have three critical issues: They emphasize plot over characters, they prioritize novelty at the expense of the audience’s enjoyment, and they try too hard to be movies.

Classic sitcoms were simple: They placed humorous characters into self-contained storylines each episode. For example, a typical epsiode of The Office follows the same group of mid-level employees as they argue about planning a party or hosting a basketball showdown in the downstairs warehouse. Objectively, those plots seem pretty bland. TV today has conditioned us to expect murder, deceit, and scandal at every turn. But for classic sitcoms, it’s all about the characters. The situations are more relatable and become funny as the characters we’ve grown to know and love react in expected and unexpected ways.

Riverdale is a newer show whose first season revolves around a shocking murder. While we do get closer to the characters throughout the season, we’re almost always focused on the central conflict, and after that’s resolved, we don’t feel the same need to stick around to see what happens to the characters.

By putting characters in the spotlight, older sitcoms connect us to what we can relate to the most — people. That’s why “less-exciting” sitcoms are more enjoyable to watch and rewatch again and again.

The central misconception that an audience wants a better plot than better characters encourages creators to develop increasingly outlandish storylines. Parks & Rec is about a Parks & Recreation Department in the Midwest. On the contrary, the 2020 hit Outer Banks is about a group of teenagers that travel across the world in search of legendary gold. Sure, the latter is probably more interesting on the first watch, but once you know what happens — all the crazy twists and turns — the show loses its magic and isn’t that interesting to rewatch, while the former has ordinary, relatable plot lines that stay funny because the audience loves the characters and isn’t expecting huge drama and mind-blowing action. After all, in our real lives, we enjoy the occasional thrill at an amusement park or an exotic vacation, but we typically like to stay in the comfortably enjoyable situations of everyday life, like brunch with friends or a pretty bike ride.

Finally, modern shows are losing the very essence of what they were meant to be — short, digestible episodes that introduce a central conflict and then wrap it up quickly in a neat, little bow. While The Office and Parks & Rec have broader storylines spanning across the seasons, each episode focuses on a particular situation — such as Michael Scott falling into a koi pond — and follows the resolution of that scenario.

However, recent hit shows like The 100 are split into 45-minute or hour-long episodes that are just continuations of the last and follow massive, complex storylines. We usually turn to shows for quick breaks from reality. It’s hard to stay committed to a series when each episode could become its own feature-length film.

You can watch almost any Parks & Rec episode without context; you don’t need to have watched 10 hours worth of past episodes to understand what’s going on and enjoy it. Shows like The 100 require committed, sequential viewing, which isn’t easy to watch and then rewatch, leaving many of us to turn to the classic sitcoms time and time again.

In a world where every type of content is at the tip of our finger, it’s easy to get lost in unsatisfying entertainment. While that’s largely a product of the immense volume available, it’s also indicative of the television industry’s failure to produce shows that we want to watch over and over. My generation’s love for the sitcoms of a not-so-distant past should serve as an indication to the writers, directors, and producers of the world that we’re nostalgic for a different, better kind of television.

Photo of Parks and Recreation cast courtesy of NBC

From a Teen Perspective is a weekly column contributed by Menlo-Atherton High School Junior Dylan Lanier, who has lived in Menlo Park since he was two.

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