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After 'Raymond,' What? The Hazy Future of Sitcoms

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N01

My, what a great big tear will come rolling out of the CBS Eye on May 16. That's the night the network says goodbye to "Everybody Loves Raymond" after nine years of rollick, frolic and astronomical profit. "Raymond" will remain a nearly bottomless oil well in syndication for years to come, of course, continuing to make Worldwide Pants chief David Letterman, star Ray Romano and "Raymond's" other producers obscenely rich.

At least we will henceforth be spared the sickening spectacle of Letterman welcoming employee Romano to Letterman's CBS "Late Show" and heaping praise on the program as if he were just an enthusiastic layman fan.

The last of a dying breed? Ray Romano and Brad Garrett in an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," which ends its nine-year run next month. (Ron Tom -- CBS)

Inevitably, the demise of "Raymond" -- which is leaving mainly because Romano is tired, since its ratings are still healthy -- has to be said to signal the End of an Era. Walk the streets of Television Town these days and you are likely to be conked on the head by the remains of one ending era or another as it falls to the ground. Television is in a period of change, of massive plates shifting and realigning beneath the intricate infrastructure -- the heftiest upheaval in telecommunications since TV itself was born.

Most of the changes are technical, but content is changing too. "Everybody Loves Raymond" is the last great sitcom of its sitcom generation, the flag bearer for a style of domestic sitcom that not everybody loves anymore. It's also a form that Hollywood seems to produce with less and less inventiveness and confidence, and each year's batch of "product" is greeted by the public's extravagant shrugs. The airwaves are still full of sitcoms about funny families who live in hilarious households, but the genre has calcified -- not for the first time but perhaps, finally, for the last.

From TV's beginning, situation comedies, which had started on radio, were a mainstay if not the mainstay of prime-time programming. The classic prototype was "I Love Lucy," a weekly look at the domestic adventures of a wacky family and its subordinate satellites. In the '50s, when television overcame motion pictures as well as radio to become America's entertainment medium of choice (as well as a national boogeyman soon to be blamed for every social and political ill that came along), family-aimed sitcoms about families were the best and safest bet.

It was especially true when sponsors ran television, demanding the most innocuous and wholesome settings possible for commercials peddling soap, cereal and cigarettes. Nobody wanted shows that were "dark," at least not in this genre (the great Golden Age dramatists perpetrated plenty of brilliant darkness, but their heyday was relatively short-lived), and "edge"? Shmedge! Nobody worried about edge then.

The Nelsons and the Andersons and the Ricardos and the Cleavers lived streamlined lives uncluttered by serious woe. Father knew best, and we all remembered Mama.

Then came the '60s and the topsy-turvification of America -- and of American values reflected and shaped by television. In the '70s, the free-spirited rebelliousness and uncivil disobedience were cleverly repackaged into the safe stuff of setups and punch lines, and Norman Lear begat Archie Bunker and Archie begat Maude and Maude begat Florida, and every critic was duty-bound to write that television would never be the same -- until along came Bill Cosby and it was the same. Only different. Cosby reinvigorated the domestic sitcom by yet again reinventing it.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" is the last of its generation of pleasant domestic sitcoms, shows that depend for laughter on the audience recognizing itself, or parts of its personality, in the characters on the screen: "Oh look, that guy acts just like Uncle Harry." "Raymond" may represent not just the last of its generation, but the last generation of such shows, period, because while Ray was rolling along, a new form of television burst forth that eliminates the middlemen and lets the real people at home watch essentially real people on the screen. New kinds of images were dominating what media scholar Eric Barnouw long ago dubbed "The Image Empire." And new magical buzzwords were invented to describe this strange new TV: "unscripted," sometimes gussied up as "reality-based" or just called, with epochal inaccuracy, "reality television."

Now reality television has met the sitcom in ways that suggest neither "sit" nor "com" will ever be what it used to be again.

Reality sitcoms began auspiciously and with conspicuous cleverness in such programs as "The Larry Sanders Show," with Garry Shandling living the onstage and backstage life of a terminally needy talk show host, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a little bit of brilliance from "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David in which scenes are outlined and some dialogue is written in advance, while other comedy emerges through the improvisation of the stars, most notably David himself.

Both shows, conspicuously, are from HBO, whose executives encouraged the wild-eyed and the bizarre while executives of broadcast networks still demanded sitcoms basically in the traditional formats. Even those have changed, however, and "unscripted" has become a badge of comedy courage for such series as Fox's silly "Simple Life" with Paris Hilton.

You can bet that many of the funnier lines in "Simple Life" are indeed scripted -- written by a professional writer -- but the writers have been freed of the shackles of storytelling in the old, formal, beginning-and-middle-and-end sense. Every show is now free to be, in "Seinfeld's" immortal phrase, "about nothing."

More recently, Showtime introduced "Fat Actress," a reality comedy in which an enlarged Kirstie Alley stars as herself, the eponymous porker of the title who -- on the show and in parallel real life -- has turned her existence into one long infomercial extolling a weight-loss plan she's being paid to plug. Very complicated so far, and not very successful, which may be just as well considering the unsavory product-placement precedent that's being set.

Fox, oddly enough -- considering its reputation as the blue-collar home of "Married . . . With Children" and other risque vulgarities -- has occasionally in recent years come through with a truly and provocatively daring departure, the most conspicuous being that perpetual-motion machine "The Simpsons," an animated masterpiece that put yet another new face on the domestic sitcom.

In the same spirit, if hardly to the same effect, came last year's "Wonderfalls," a charming Fox comedy that folded quickly and can now be seen only on a lovingly packaged DVD collection, and a year earlier, "Arrested Development," which nobody loves but the critics and which may not be back for a third season.

We're Americans; we always want to know what's coming next. In fact that desire accelerates annually -- we must know "what's next" as soon as what was only recently "next" has come and gone, been hot and then not. What matters least is probably content; the deeper questions seem to be which avenue that content will take into American homes and heads. Cell phones are now spieling out highly abbreviated "episodes" of, say, tonight's "Desperate Housewives" -- they're promos, but they're breezily entertaining. Verizon Wireless has unveiled a cell-phone series based on the WB series "Smallville," based on the teenage Superman. Among the features: "exclusive 'Smallville' video sneak peeks" and "ring tones" of music heard on "Smallville"!

Gosh, another fabulous techno-toy that nobody needs yet thousands may crave.

Meanwhile, the omnipresent Web offers more and more opportunities for downloading TV shows as well as movies and music.

It seems a ticklish situation, this massive new distribution apparatus that could be to television what television was to the movies. Or not. Dave Chappelle, a comic skyrocket who is the most encouraging success on cable's overhyped Comedy Central channel, has been praised for the way he's used the Internet to spread the news of his show, even if that means giving large chunks of it away for free (without commercials, in other words). The theory is that the appetizers will lure viewers to the main course, and spectacular ratings for "The Dave Chappelle Show" indicate the strategy is working.

In the current Vanity Fair, critic James Wolcott, who's never seemed exactly a bundle of fun himself, laments the dearth of dazzlingly original and audacious stand-up comics on the cultural landscape. He looks in vain for a Sam Kinison (dead) or a Richard Pryor (ill) or the next Dave Chappelle, for that matter. Chris Rock, probably tied with Jerry Seinfeld as the funniest stand-up comic in the universe, spends more and more of his time making forgettable movies, so that fans have to play DVDs of his HBO specials over and over, but they're still funny the seventh or eighth time. Lewis Black is a genuinely outrageous comic and actor, a sort of Oscar Levant for the 21st century, but his output seems slight -- not enough to earn him a large spot on the laughter map.

It's logical to mention stand-ups when talking about sitcoms because nearly every stand-up who can stand up would love to land a hit sitcom of his or her own. Rare is the comedian who's not willing to risk the possible creative stasis of a sitcom rut when the reward could be the roughly half-billion dollars that both Cosby and Seinfeld are said to have raked in from syndicated reruns -- and just on the first and second passes.

One of the great things about cable is that it's multi-millennia in a Mixmaster, recorded time played back 24/7 in no particular order. As you surf from channel to channel, you also leap from year to year, decade to decade, riding a roller coaster on a Mobius strip. What the next great thing in comedy will be can't really be predicted by pulling names out of a hat, though it's always safe to look to the United Kingdom, where the BBC and the commercial networks keep creating shows that American networks then buy and try to adapt. That was the case with the gloriousness of "All in the Family" and, this year on NBC, the soggy ignominy of "The Office," which had already been available in its superior original form on the BBC America channel.

What will definitely be available virtually all the time is virtually everything -- not just TV comedy but a history of TV comedy that spills out from specialized channels and floods the streets of the city, defying attempts to categorize contemporary comedy one way or another. In their own little worlds, on small cable networks catering to female viewers, such sitcoms as "The Nanny" and "The Golden Girls" are hits again, watched avidly by viewers who may not have been born when the shows were in network first-run.

In cases like that, a dated-looking visual style or comedy style matters little; potentially almost everything old is old again.

At any given hour we can watch everything from great vaudeville clowning on Turner Classic Movies to something as cheeky and, yes, edgy as "Nighty Night," the latest thing in risky, risque British imports, all about a woman who owns a beauty parlor in the daytime and at night compulsively cheats on her husband, a man stricken with debilitating cancer. Yes, it really is a comedy.

So is life -- "the human comedy," as William Saroyan called it. Scripted or unscripted, found or lost, inspired or contrived, it -- that is, we -- will continue to be laughed at, scoffed at and shuddered at from every available angle, as the real world and the dramas reflecting it seem to grow ever darker (to the point where NBC is offering "Revelations," a superdark fantasy about the end of the world, as spooky escapist fun). We'll see us on little bitty cellular telephone screens or 70-inch living room theater screens in the near future and, in the distant future, on what's hot after what's next, via heaven-knows-what.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company