It’s hard to get away with so much poignancy in a sitcom because that’s not what sitcoms are designed for. In fact, the sitcom might be the last place on television where constructive political dialogue takes place at all.
The classic sitcom has evolved over the years as multi-camera shows with laugh tracks gave way to single-camera productions with cinematic production values and rat-a-tat rhythms in the early 2000s. But the basic trappings remain: a cast of familiar characters in a closed environment that faces a different conflict each week. Since a sitcom is meant to last for years, it needs a collection of three-dimensional characters who don’t all think alike and who constantly annoy each other. It’s a perfect medium for clarifying sensitive issues, examining ideas from multiple perspectives, and cushioning political points.
“The aphorism is that television doesn’t tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about,” says Philip Scepanski, professor of media arts at Marist College and author of Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy.
Over the years, television producers have often used sitcoms as vehicles for targeted cultural commentary. Norman Lear’s All in the Family grappled with the generation gap between a working-class conservative and his liberal daughter and son-in-law; The Mary Tyler Moore Show led to a conversation about the opportunities for working women; “MASH” was a faintly shaded commentary on the Vietnam War. Sitcoms, too, could encourage conservatism; Scepanski points to the “very special episodes” of the Reagan era in popular shows like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Family Ties,” which aligned with the Reagan White House’s War on Drugs agenda — and so did Washington’s Message delivered in prime time shows could be educational. (Under the Reagan administration, the FCC relaxed requirements that stations provide targeted educational programming to children.) Even “The Cosby Show,” argues Scepanski, contained an embedded conservative message: “A Reagan ideology about we don’t need social programs because the Cosby family may rise up.”
Subsequent sitcoms have been at the forefront of emerging social issues – “Murphy Brown” even drew the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle for telling a 1992 story about single mothers. The 1997 episode of ABC’s “Ellen,” in which Ellen Degeneres comes out as a lesbian, drew 42 million viewers; Oprah Winfrey, who was Degeneres’ guest therapist, said she received hate mail afterwards. In the 2000s, gritty non-PC sitcoms like South Park began delivering cutting commentary on current events that was ripped from the headlines. A 2014 episode of “Family Guy” written in response to the death of Trayvon Martin still feels like a new commentary on racial justice: Peter accidentally shoots his black friend Cleveland’s son, then walks free, after defense attorneys described the young victim with a series of racist tropes.
Today, television offers more content than ever before, but sitcoms are starting to feel vulnerable – pushed out of network lineups by game shows and procedures and overshadowed by lush drama on streaming platforms. It’s remarkable, then, that so many newcomers to the field are deliberately trying to fill in political gaps — ABC’s 2018 “Roseanne” revival specifically attempted to represent Trump voters in Central America — or to bring strong viewpoints and often unheard perspectives. FX’s “Atlanta” — more akin to an anthology of short films than a classic sitcom – offers some of the most poignant commentary on race today. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” changed its goofy tone to explore tensions between race and the police following the murder of George Floyd. On Peacock, new show We Are Lady Parts chronicles an all-Muslim, all-female punk band; The first song the audience hears is called “Ain’t No One Gonna Honor Kill My Sister But Me”. On FX, “Reservation Dogs” blends magical realism (a deceased spirit with an undignified past parodies the “Wise Indian” stereotype) with gritty realism about the challenges of life on the reservation, from broken families to underfunded health clinics. But it also shows the power of community and pride in heritage.
It’s also significant that the creators of many of these shows are drawn from the communities they represent, says Scepanski. “These are things that we try to treat with a light touch,” he says. “Because whoever it is — white liberals or those in charge — is afraid to offend, they don’t want to get flak or backlash.” When told by Native Americans, a story about Native American life has the credibility, a portray a more nuanced, unshakable reality.
Abbott Elementary is less edgy and intrepid than some other recent sitcom entries. As a network series, which by definition must appeal to the widest possible audience, it tackles current educational controversies properly. In the pilot, there’s a brief reference to young teachers fleeing because they can’t stand the pressure, but the remaining teachers occasionally utter chunky, pointed lines about how much they care. The series exists in a world without Covid, so there is no mention of masking, quarantine, distance learning or return-to-school protocols. And the word “union” never appears.
However, the show is far less reserved when it comes to the conditions in the schools and the socio-economic challenges of the students. Teachers take different approaches to dealing with a chronic lack of resources: fight the system, tolerate it, or find ways around it. And the real villain is the system itself – a social order that leaves an inner-city school languishing because it lacks the political clout to attract attention. When serious young teacher Janine, played by Brunson, asks her principal if someone from town can fix the school’s flickering lightbulbs, the answer is matter-of-fact, “Girls, no. Do I look like the man from Kool-Aid? I don’t have enough juice to tamper with the inner workings of City Hall.”
The show also delves into the vagaries of school funding and the limits of well-meaning charity. One episode revolves around the ritual of teachers posting wish lists online in hopes of getting school supplies donated. It turns out no one pays attention to an ordinary list, but when it’s a heartbreaking video about “the oldest teacher in America’s poorest school,” the donations keep pouring in — in part from eager white millennials wanting to film the donation Delivery. (“We’re going to do something very respectful!” insists one of them.) What’s really being skewered is the middle- and upper-class audience, who tend to watch quality TV like Abbott Elementary, a liberal establishment that pays lip service gives to support underprivileged groups of the population, but actually has the luxury of only helping selectively or ignoring the problem completely.
A sitcom alone isn’t likely to change these people’s behavior, says Scepanski. But cultural values help set the political agenda. “You can’t know these things exist and just let them be,” he says. And as awareness of the state of urban education grows, he says, maybe – maybe – “it’ll be something that a mayor or a governor will put on their agenda because the polls show people are more concerned about the state of downtown.” take care of schools.”
The teachers hope so, of course. in a (n Essay on the music and culture page okplayer, A Chicago teacher wrote that the show highlights the consequences of neglecting education and “how the only solution our cities have to make these schools better is to burn out their brightest and brightest young teachers.” A few others have asked if the series is realistic or jaded enough; wrote a critic of the Sioux City Journal that the show might introduce some teachers who aren’t as dedicated as the current series’ regulars. And some educators have questioned whether a light-hearted sitcom should even be a place for social comment. “The education crisis is not funny,” says one Professor of Education tweeted last month.
But that’s the hidden power of a sitcom — the chance that a partisan who might never read a memoir on urban education will end up getting one anyway, via a squirt toilet and a headmistress who uses school supply funds to buy a footbath . (“How does it help them to have a headmaster with aching muscles?” she says of the students.) And the longer a sitcom stays on air, the more nuance it can explore, and the longer a discussion of stealth politics can go last for. Humor is a catch, as the savviest showrunners know. Politics just creeps in.