Thursday, 13 January 2011

I'll be There for You - Sitcoms as Social Commentary

I'll be There for You - Sitcoms as Social Commentary

Arunabha Sengupta (with Sangita Biswas)

As a child she was abandoned by her father. After her mother killed herself, she grew up in the streets among pimps and weirdos. She believes in spirits wandering in cats and Santa Claus.

A neglected sibling, she craves recognition not lavished on her as a child. It makes her hyperactive and obsessive compulsive towards perfection, competition and orderliness.

A pampered child to whom the present of a boat is an everyday affair, she runs out on her groom at the altar to start life on her own. She struggles with self esteem and lack of confidence as she continues to learn the ways of the real world.

As a boy, he went through the separation of his parents caused by his father’s bisexual and cross dressing tendencies. It makes him chronically allergic to commitments, uneasy in the company of women, and prone to using sarcastic humour as a defence mechanism. To put a morbid icing on the bitter cake of life, he hates his job.

Put on a pedestal by doting parents during and after successful student days, he suffers from a heightened sense of grandiose self image. He is overtly possessive and has the track record of disastrous relationships including three divorces, with one wife being a lesbian.

An out of work actor deemed to be a struggler for life, without the modicum of talent that is necessary for success, he finds gratification through a profusion of one night stands .

Case histories of six troubled patients on the appointment roster of a psychoanalyst?
However, a closer look reveals the cast of a sitcom that filled lives around the world with laughter and merriment for ten long years. The six FRIENDS.

How do we explain the mathematical oddity of the lives of six individuals with very evident social problems adding up to nearly two hundred and fifty of the most enjoyable half hours in the history of entertainment?  How do these six lives, and the equally convoluted ones that cross theirs, find their way into a medium of entertainment known for stuffing brain fluff into the idiot box after abundant sprinkling of canned laughter?

The answer is somewhat more than mere schadenfreude.

Sitcom is perhaps the most underrated genre of storytelling on television. The same actors going through the motions for years – sometimes decades, blurting out repetitive punch lines, with routine gesticulations, machine controlled laughter being thrown into the fray to emphasise the often obscure attempts at humour – discerning critics have been hesitant to endorse it with any more importance than associated with the TRP. By definition, it is anything but serious entertainment – by nomenclature a step down from stand-up comedy. On air incessantly through a season, chances remain that polishing, refining, editing and production have to be rushed. The edges often come through frayed, the substance half done, the end result sketchy and patchy.

Yet, if one looks beyond the classification into genres, and immerses into the rich realm of the Friends lexicon, one discovers astonishing riches of social commentary. With each half hour sparkling with glittering humour, it does not quite attempt to take your mind away from problems with mindless entertainment.  It adjusts your point of view so that the same set of troubles reveal their lighter side.

While following the lives of six individuals, Friends manages to cover almost all the ground stretched across the wide expanse of contemporary United States. It does away with the old comedy adage oft repeated in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, ‘If it bends its funny, if it breaks it ain’t funny’. It does not attempt at pulling the problematic punches to maintain the feel good factor essential to half an hour of comedy. Phoebe’s old life in the streets is not tempered. Neither are the heartbreaks that follow each and every unsuccessful relationship. Chandler’s embarrassment with his parents, Monica’s quest to obtain her mother’s approval, Ross and Rachel’s break ups, Joey’s audition debacles and financial problems remain unwaveringly real, painted in the true colours of life. The genius of the show and much of its phenomenal success lies in that it continues to be hilarious in the face of the dilemmas that it deals with. It is a message to the world gift wrapped with wit. As Monica says in the very first episode, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.”

The wide canvas of the show smoulders with burning issues. A lot of it grapples with relationships. Marital, extra marital, infidelity, ebbing and rekindling passions – stretching out to parental partiality, possessiveness and jealousy, craving for attention,  problems of adjustment, abandonment and apology and finally solidarity, support and the moments of discord between friends. None of the concerns raised are trivial and many are painful. Friends does not look away for the sake of the genre. Yet, through some unreal alchemy that is the hallmark of the show, even the elements of life steeped in sorrow and despair are revealed as bundles of fun. Even as Ross screams, “We were on a break” or Chandler says, “Four years of closeness and sharing, at the end of which she ripped your heart out, and that is why we don't do it!”, they manage to make the sound drip with spirit of hilarity.

Among the other weighty issues closely interwoven into fabrics of society, the show reflects upon surrogateconception, unmarried parenthood, relationships with age mismatch, adoption, lesbian wedding, joblessness, corporate politics, long distance relationships and many more. The tone is light, the messages deep – it hyper stimulates the funny bone while leaving a deep impression on the soul.

 While the facts of modern existence roll on in parallel, the six friends go about trying to make it in the world. It is here that the series leaves its mark as strongly, simplicity and compassion laced with humour, reflecting on those small insignificant details which make life worth living. One can’t help feeling for the helpless struggle against the forces of fate when Joey thanks the director for the chance to play Al Pacino’s butt, Chandler has to laugh long and loud at the boss’s stupid pleasantries, Monica puts on a sour face along with artificial boobs to dance on the table at a theme restaurant or Phoebe comes out of the massage room and screams into the security camera that she did not mean anything that she said inside.

Throughout, the characters manage to hold on to their human qualities and, more significantly, their flaws. Monica continues to be obsessive compulsive and domineering, Rachel’s immediate concern on hearing of the demise of her boss Joanna is about the availability of a job position, Ross remains incorrigibly self important, Chandler manipulates Monica into depression to get his extra hour of sleep, Phoebe goes out with two guys at the same time and Joey refuses to remember names of the girls he has slept with. They often have their moments of discord, lapse into terrible meanness, storm out and slam doors on each other’s faces – yet end up hugging and kissing, rejoicing in the joys and sharing the sorrows of life. The message remains stark – life is not perfect, neither are people. Yet it can be celebrated.

It is in the little steps that one takes with the characters that the beat resonates with that of life. In the words of a dedicated Friends fan, “I did not have the perfect childhood – and it took me several years and many sitcoms to realise that nobody does. But we all have our own unique life support systems. What would my life have been without my friends? So many situations were diffused because at the time of need someone heard me. I see a Rachel in me as I set out to achieve the impossible because some of my friends way smarter than me believe in my ability. So when Rachel landed her job in Bloomingdales , I was rooting for her. I know what it means to go out and do something your family said you could never do, but your friends said if not you then who? How can this be meaningless entertainment when it can mirror so much that is happening in my life?” The magic of the sentiment and the show can be witnessed when Rachel relates the discouraging conversation on the phone where her dad gives her the disco version of “You are not going to do it alone” three times, and Phoebe responds with “Aha aha”.

There must be thousands of aspiring actors who walk along with Joey to the auditions, pleading with him not to carry the unisex handbag.  There are just as many office drudges identifying with Chandler as he sleeps in the conference room, chubby women egging Monica on as she loses weight, failed lovers sharing self pity with Ross as he nurses his latest divorce or heart break.  There is something or someone to identify with in every episode. When Rachel develops a crush a much younger colleague, when Joey makes the pact with God to never turn 30, when Chandler falls in love with Joey’s girlfriend, Joey suddenly discovers latent feelings for Rachel – they all strike chords that resonate with the music of our lives. The friends are but a group of people who like us live in our world. The Thanksgivings may continue to suck, but a toast can be raised even to a lousy Christmas and a crappy new year.

Other shows, such as Everybody Loves Raymond, share this universal appeal that transcends ethnic and other borders. It underlines how similar marriages can be across cultures, how complex equations of family life can kick-start an infinite loop of misery. And when enacted on a television screen by talented actors, it transforms into a hilarious reflection on life – prompting the question, why can’t we laugh at the same problems like this?

As an aficionado of sitcoms relates, “I remember watching an episode of According to Jim, where the husband forgets an anniversary and lies about it to his wife. I remembered a similar situation in my life. The only difference is that nobody was laughing when it happened to me, because unlike Cheryl I never let it go. It is not that I recommend oversimplifying situations, but sometimes that’s all that is needed.”

Another striking lesson was highlighted by a mother struggling to bring up a child in a foreign country.  “Raising a child was complicated – more so because I had convinced myself it was. I got some of the best advice on parenting from Jill of Everybody Loves Raymond, a mother of three boys. The same crisis, the same challenges, different solutions. Some involved listening, others involved the opposite. I have no problems admitting that I have modelled many of my parenting decisions on this sitcom. Would I recommend it?  You bet – in a heartbeat. Every one of us eventually works out solutions and I for one feel that sometimes we need to see the lighter side.”

A counselling therapist in training puts an innovative spin on the perspective. “Maybe what we need is to forget we have this really long life ahead of us to stretch matters and go on and on about issues. Maybe if we were to script our lives like sitcom writers, we would do things differently. I have always wondered how my future clients would feel if, as their marriage and family therapist, I told them to live like they had one season of 30 minutes episodes left in their life. I think it is a powerful tool and I for one intend to use it. All of us have our own stories, our own narratives with so many sparkling moments – maybe we all need to find and embrace our own sitcom families.”

Apparently there is a lot more to sitcoms than knob controlled guffaws, and light prompted sighs. Even the ‘studio audience laughter’ that is so annoying to some can have its therapeutic effects. According to Sigmund Freud, the expectation of laughter actually stimulates humour. Laughter, long acknowledged as the best medicine, is available in plenty – and probably because of the spatial and temporal limitations of continuous production, the ingredients of the packaged humour have to be derived from the debris of everyday life, giving the gift of a new focus to daily matters.

Through the half hours of hilarity, the language of laughter speaks to us saying I’ll be there for you as long you manage to take the challenges thrown at you by life in your faltering strides.


Arunabha Sengupta is the co-editor of Scroll and the author of three novels, the latest being The Best Seller 

Sangita Biswas is a guest author located in San Jose, California

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting take on my fav sitcom "Friends". Thanks for this brilliant piece!!