Friday, June 25, 2021

Thoughts on the Sitcom, Part 2: The B Plot Destroyed the Sitcom

Originally, a sitcom centered on a single plot.  The plot had to be carefully structured to sustain it for twenty-six minutes.  This was an important duty for the writer.  But the sitcom changed over time.  Today, we have the multiple plot sitcom, which requires little structure.

How was the multiple plot sitcom created?  

Episodes of Leave It to Beaver often involved Beaver getting himself into trouble.  If the writers couldn't find a way to fit big brother Wally into the story, they would script a separate scene in which Wally talks to his mother June about a problem he's having with a friend, a teacher, or a coach.  These scenes usually occurred in the kitchen while June was cooking or cleaning.  Aided by these amusing kitchen confabs, Wally was able to resolve his problem without the fuss of rising action or a climax.  Not really a B Plot.  Let's say the vestiges of a B Plot.

The true origin of the B Plot came about with The Brady Bunch.  

The Brady Bunch had a large ensemble cast and it was difficult to come up with a single story that would engage the entire cast.  So, rather than sideline cast members, a B Plot would be introduced.  It wasn't usually much of a plot.  Often, it was more of a running gag.  It could be, simply, that a character is engaged in a hapless struggle to bake a cake.  In the episode "The Tattle-Tale" (1970), we occasionally check in on Alice, who is working hard to concoct a product jingle for a radio contest.  In "My Sister, Benedict Arnold" (1971), we occasionally check in on Alice, Peter, Cindy and Bobby, who are operating a dunking machine for the school carnival and keep getting dunked into the tank. 

The B Plot allowed a writer to make use of a plot idea that could not be sustained for the full length of a sitcom.  Four small plot ideas were combined in the 1974 MASH episode "Life with Father."  Hawkeye and Trapper John endeavor to win a contest that requires identifying the faces of presidents hidden in an illustration.  A young Korean wife of a Jewish soldier asks Father Mulcahy to arrange a Bris for her newborn baby.  Father Mulcahy is upset to learn that his sister is giving up being a nun to marry and have children.  Henry gets the idea that his wife has been unfaithful based on something suspicious she wrote in her latest letter.

Cheers commonly offered B Plots by Season 7.  This was mostly done to spotlight Woody Harrelson (Woody becomes a beekeeper, Woody auditions to play Moses in a play, Woody pleads with Sam to borrow his prized antique car for a date).  But, in time, subplots also came to feature other characters.  In the episode "Two Girls for Every Boyd" (1989), Woody is reluctant to perform a love scene for a play because he's worried it will upset his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, Sam, Fraiser, Cliff and Norm compete in a "best beard" contest.  The idea of the Cheer's bar holding a beard-growing contest might not be the sort of idea that the writers could sustain for an entire episode, but it could get just enough laughs to serve as a B Plot.    

Seinfeld took the B Plot further.  The series had good results when it sustained a single plot in episodes like "The Chinese Restaurant."  Often, though, the main plot would focus on Jerry and George while a secondary plot would focus on Elaine or Kramer

The idea went further still with FriendsFriends had six main cast members, every one of which had his or her own fans.  The series tended to rely on an A Plot, a B Plot and a C Plot, all of which had equal status.  This idea carried on to other sitcoms and soon became the norm.  It is not unusual today to see a sitcom episode that juggles four plots.  The modern sitcom is twenty-two minutes (last time I checked).  This means that each plot lasts, on average, for five minutes and thirty seconds.  No real plot development or character development can be achieved in five minutes and thirty seconds.  This allows for shallow and lazy writing.   

A 2019 British series, Scarborough, is a good example of a sitcom ruined by its subplots.  The series had two appealing leads, Jason Manford and Catherine Tyldesley, but writer Derren Litten too often bypassed Manford and Tyldesley to give attention to the misadventures of the series' quirky secondary characters.   Having your leads off screen much of the time is not a good strategy, especially when your secondary characters are far less interesting.

Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld, was masterful in the way he was able to interweave the different storylines.  He was able to bring the plot pieces together into one perfect whole.  But the vast majority of today's sitcom writers aren't as clever as David and they rarely bother to link one plot with another.  

Other than Seinfeld, I can think of one other sitcom that uses multiple plots effectively.   The Swedish sitcom Happy at Sea has a loose premise: three generations of a family spend five weeks together at a summer house.  The series, like a real-life vacation, is filled with a stream of small, random, fleeting events.  There's no place in this relaxed setting for a single sustained plot.

Sorry to say, these rare exceptions do not change a simple, undeniable and appalling fact.  Yes, the B Plot has ruined the sitcom.

No comments:

Post a Comment