When WandaVision debuted in January 2021, we were introduced to Marvel Studios’ very first sitcom show, with two beloved Avengers taking on personas of 1950s television characters. Marvel Studios is known for content far outside the world of comedy television, so this pilot episode confused and dazzled audiences everywhere. By the end, we had a wonderful sitcom-meets-action-movie spectacular, and Wanda will go down in history as one of the most buzzed-about shows.
Beyond becoming a global phenomenon in its own right, the show opened up a discussion about our favorite television programs over the past 60 years. Sitcoms are a staple of cable television. Yet, in 2021, there is a question of if they’re dying.
The thought first entered my mind in 2019 when The Big Bang Theory ended its 12-year run. I didn’t keep up with the show, but I did watch the finale, and I remember thinking to myself that it was the last multi-camera program I really watched.
For a bit of an explanation: a multi-camera television program is when a show is shot on a set from multiple different angles, often in front of a live audience. Scenes are long, rely on physical comedy, and the characters generally ignore the camera. This theatrical style of acting had actress Kathryn Hahn thriving in WandaVision as “Agnes,” Wanda’s nosy neighbor.
The style of sitcom started with I Love Lucy in 1951. Lucy was the first show to be recorded instead of acted out live from a studio and is often credited with being the pinnacle of television’s golden age. The famous laugh track, however, didn’t come around until 1965 in a program called Hogan’s Heroes. Key elements like warm lighting, overacting, and the ever-familiar sets have become comforts to the American family.
Opposed to multi-camera programming is the single-camera television show. As you could assume, the show is filmed on one single camera often on-location (instead of on a set). Scenes are shorter, humor is more subtle and they’re known for breaking the fourth wall. These kinds of comedy shows aren’t new, as television smash hits Bewitched and The Brady Bunch ran alongside Lucy back in the day. However, the single-camera show became exceedingly popular for comedy in the late 2000s and 2010s with shows like The Office and Modern Family.
Modern Family is considered a cornerstone of 21st-century television and signaled a new era of comedy. So, WandaVision used the episode directly inspired by the ABC comedy to signal the turning point of the show from a quirky sitcom riddled with Marvel elements to a full Marvel Studios sensation. Ironically, though, it also marked the end of the false reality Wanda had created on the show, and it may have marked an “end” to comedy television as we know it in our own world.
Since the start of Modern Family in 2009, several incredibly popular single-camera comedy television programs have hit the screen like New Girl, Schitt’s Creek and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, even these programs have seemed to plateau lately. In fact, the past few years and the next upcoming have nearly wiped the slate of sitcom top dogs, including:
New Girl (ended in 2018 after seven years)
The Big Bang Theory (ended in 2019 after 12 years)
Arrested Development (ended in 2019 after 16 years)
Modern Family (ended in 2020 after 11 years)
Schitt’s Creek (ended in 2020 after five years)
Shameless (ending in 2021 after 10 years)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (ending in 2022 after nine years)
If we look at ABC’s current lineup of sitcoms, we are left with a pretty short list:
The Conners (multi-camera)
Call Your Mother (multi-camera)
Of course, there are plenty of other stations to find similar programming. ABC has just been known to carry at least one of the big names in comedy at any given time and seems to be struggling since its top seller quit the scene. Ratings have been fluctuating, and even decently popular programs like The Goldbergs are seeing a decline in viewership. In fact, on IMDb right now, WandaVision is listed as the top comedy series out of 50 (which, if you watched the show from start to end, might be a funny thought to you). If the single-camera sitcom dies along with the multi, where does comedy go from here?
Interestingly enough, comedy television tends to have an extremely long life in animated form. Family Guy has been running for 22 years, The Simpsons for 32, and South Park for 24. It will be interesting to see how recent additions to the lineup like Bob’s Burgers (2011) and Rick and Morty (2013) hold up.
So, why are sitcoms dying?
For one, sitcoms have been critiqued on the political correctness of their jokes for a good while now, especially becoming an issue in the 2010s. Shows like Friends or Seinfeld would most likely not live up to today’s standards, and even current shows have episodes that would not likely be made today. Of course, moving away from offensive and derogatory humor is no sin. When an industry has spent 60 years relying on “shock value,” though, it can be incredibly hard to move away from it.
Additionally, since the age of Tumblr’s “pure cinnamon roll,” audiences are looking to become deeply connected to or touched by the characters in media. Unfortunately for the world of the sitcom, this cannot be done with humor alone. Something that made Schitt’s Creek so popular was the combination of wittiness and vulnerability, specifically with the character of David. Audiences are seeking more in the stories they consume and want to see themselves in the characters they watch.
It could be said that the dawn of streaming has a part in the slow “death” of the sitcom. With so much to stream at any time, it makes sense that viewers would become impatient with waiting week-to-week, especially for shows that don’t have incredibly gripping plotlines. Streaming services don’t tend to produce all that many sitcoms, often just adding shows from other networks to their options. Most streaming service comedy is interlaced with drama, like Netflix’s Dead to Me or Alexa & Katie.
On a similar note, in this day in age, it takes a lot to actually engage audiences. With so many distractions and things to do beyond watching TV, shows truly have to be groundbreaking to really make a stride. For how many shows there are on streaming services, subscription services and cable tv, only a few ever actually make the mark of global phenomenon like WandaVision. In the past few years, this has included Game of Thrones, Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale, which should be noted all didn’t come from cable networks.
Sitcoms aren’t the sole base of comedy. The word sitcom is actually a clipping of situation comedy, as in contrast to sketch or stand-up comedy. If the genre of the sitcom were to actually die one day, it wouldn’t mean the end of laughter in media entirely. However, it’s a bit sad to think about. Sitcoms were a large part of my formative years, and even still I look to them for comfort and nostalgia. Still, this might just be a low point and not the end at all. Generations to come could have the same selection of funny shows to choose from if just a few pilots hit the right way. Until then, though, this could be considered a dark age for sitcoms. Luckily, we have the first few episodes of WandaVision to keep our humor needs occupied.