Take one example of a sitcom and examine how it challenges generic expectations in relation to at least two of the following: narrative structure, ideology and visual style.
situation comedy was introduced in British broadcasting in the 1950s. Generally, the sitcom is seen as an unchanging media, with little scope for reinvention and receives little critical acclaim. However, Extras, directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is an example of a sitcom that challenges generic expectations in relation to narrative structure, ideology and visual style while true to the form of a situation comedy. This is done very effectively as the new translation of the traditional sitcom’s elements creates a more layered and sophisticated type of comedy.
Brett Mills talks of the sitcom genre’s origins saying ‘whether (they) lie in theatre, music hall, vaudeville, cinema or a combination of these, the resultant for is seen to have remained stables for decades. This is generally true, and for Extras to be considered a situation comedy it certainly conforms to most narrative rules; it has the 25-30 minute time-slot, the equilibrium – disequilibrium – resolution format, constant characters, recurrent themes, comic modes, and a consistent setting. However, Gervais and Merchant challenge expectations by making subtle changes in these areas to produce a sitcom that stands out as original and has a different effect than classic sitcoms such as Hancock’s Half Hour, for example.
It has been a long day. You are exhausted and arrive home after spending several hours at work or school. You decide to watch television and you try to find a funny show, anything that can make you laugh and make your day better. Choosing between several types of comedy shows is hard because there are innumerable reasons to watch one type or another. A television comedy can sometimes be your ...
Immediately noticeable in Extras is the lack of opening credits with a theme song. Instead is a simplistic black screen with the word ‘Extras’ in white. This represents the bleak atmosphere the comedy about a struggling actor has – a cheerful jingle introducing the main cast would seen highly inappropriate. In fact, Cat Stevens’ song Tea for the Tillerman is the theme music for Extras, but is only heard at the end and is arguably bleak itself.
The absence of a laughter track is very noticeable in Extras. Beth Montemurro (2003) said ‘the presence of the laughtrack directs the home viewing audience in terms of when to laugh and what should be perceived as humorous’ and went on to say that ‘this “vicarious positive reinforcement” instructs the viewer about how to respond emotionally to the content of a program’. By excluding this element, Gervais and Merchant ensure that Extras does not take away the home viewer’s freedom to choose – they are not told what to laugh at, which in a way compliments the viewer as one who does not need guidance. This is contrasted in series 2 when Andy Millman – Ricky Gervais’ character – stars in his own sitcom that includes a cheesy intro theme song and is performed in front of a live audience. By featuring this, Extras emphasizes the more realist tone of the sitcom, and references are made to Millman’s sitcom as only appealing to the ‘general public’ and being slated by reviewers.
As in most sitcoms, ‘Extras’ generally begins in a state of equilibrium, with a new film set and a new opportunity for Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) to ‘get a line’ in the production. Generally this is disrupted due to the antics of his friend Maggie (Ashley Jenson) or because Andy trips himself up trying too hard, and by the end of each episode nothing has really changed. Conformity to this consistency in characters and situation without progression is strong, even allowing episodes to be shown in North America in a different order than in the UK. However, as far as there being a lack of consequences, the shift in the 2nd series is a result of Andy’s success, and the hierarchy of characters shifts throughout the series to a point where his best friend Maggie is pushed aside (Series 2, ‘Robert De Niro’).
In the book Cannery Row who is written by John Steinbeck we get a glimpse of a strange idler community by the California-coast and its working, shy, but happy inhabitants who we learn to know. In the book there are strange things happening, fightings and funny expedition. Everything in Steinbecks humanity and humor. John Steinbeck is an American writer who was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in ...
This is an example of the more contemporary feature of the sitcom where an underlying theme or storyline may last a whole series. It is important to note however, that although Andy does have success, his shift as a character is only minor as fame seems to only highlight his underachievement and while his perspective changes and he is placed in new situations, his character remains much the same.
As it is custom in classic sitcoms such as ‘The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet’ or ‘The Cosby Show’, Extras adopts the ‘no hugging, no learning’ formula in its narrative, most commonly associated with Seinfeld. This adds to the realism of extras and its divergence from the traditional sitcom values which may be seen as cliché and outdated to the current audience.
A particularly unconventional scene in Extras occurs in the Series 2 episode featuring Ben Stiller. Following an unfortunate misunderstanding where Andy unknowingly insults a boy with downs syndrome, a series of clips from various current talk shows is shown in which presenters discuss the issue. This is a parody of media frenzy and effectively targets the world of media gossip and how false assumptions can be so actively misconstrued. The cut to these shows, all in different settings with the relevant television hosts is not likely to be found in a traditional sitcom and would seem interruptive. To add to this is a scene in the same episode where a reporter ‘interviews’ Andy on the issue. Without noting two words from his interviewee, the reporter has made up the story and does not listen to any explanation given, commenting on tabloid newspapers and discrediting them in a comedic way. Here Extras reaches the audience through other familiar media forms, which effectively addresses an issue without being too obvious – i.e. ending with a lesson learned or a hug – which can in some ways insult the viewer’s intelligence. Although the tradition of an issue being addressed is conformed to, Extras does so from a fresh angle which challenges general perceptions.
Ideology in the sitcom is also addressed through the issues dealt with in this montage. Extras has themes of racism, religion, homophobia and political correctness. As well as the previous incident is one where Maggie (Ashley Jenson), Andy’s best friend, confuses a girl suffering of cerebral palsy as someone who is very drunk, joking ‘she’s had a few’. To say that Extras is not politically correct is an understatement. Most traditional sitcoms had to be cautious in the past as they either relied on advertising for their funding or – in the case of the BBC – may have felt they had the public interest of ideals to uphold. Gervais and Merchant challenge this in Extras by addressing these issues in a comedic way without a lesson to be learned. The closest the audience comes from learning a moral lesson is by observing the truth of these issues in daily life by identifying with the realistic aspects of this sitcom.
Nora Helmer and Kristine Linde are two totally different women. First of all, Kristine is a widow, but doesn't suffer of the loss of her husband. ??Not even a broken heart to grief over?p.8 The only thing she suffers from is the fact of being all alone. She's a very calm and wise woman. Nora on the other side is like a little child in the beginning. She wants to do whatever she wants; for instance ...
Racism is addressed when Maggie dates a black man. Upon noticing a golliwog in her apartment she attempts to remove the item so as not to offend him, resulting in the type of squeamishly embarrassing situation that Gervais is famous for. While this does primarily entertain, it can also be a reflection of attitudes of the British public who go out of their way to avoid offending racial minorities to the extent that they still treat them differently. In a sense, therefore, Extras does conform to generic expectations by featuring these issues, but by challenging the way in which they are put across to the viewer – in a much more subtle and primarily comedic way – it avoids traditional values of the sitcom.
Throughout the years, it is important to note that expectations of a sitcom have evolved in some ways also. One of these ways that the ‘gay secondary-but-permanent character (has become) a staple of the majority of mainstream television dramas and situation comedies’ (Shugart and Helene, 2003).
This being said around the time Extras appeared on television screens, it did not join the majority, challenging expectations at the time. Consisting of four main characters – three men and a woman – in this way Extras did not conform to contemporary ideals but stuck to the traditional character format with the white, middle aged, predominantly male cast. This being said, Extras does feature a number of guest characters who are gay, most notably in the episode featuring Sir Ian McKelland in the second series. In this episode there is a flamboyant stereotyped gay male who Andy refers to as ‘too gay’. Homophobia is addressed in this episode, again as an undertone to the comedy with no outright lesson being learned, and another character is revealed as being gay who the viewer may not have considered as such, along with Andy. This can address the viewer as they may consider their own inner perceptions and whether or not they may unconsciously stereotype others. Once again, it is important to note that the viewer has the choice whether or not to consider this – it is not part of the script and it is not presented outwardly in the text as a vital issue as can be generally found in traditional situation comedies. Darrell Y. Hamamoto notes ‘The market shift toward “social relevance” in television programming was reflected by such programs as The Mod Squad, The Bill Cosby Show, The Young Rebels and Storefront Lawyers. The relatively short lifespan of these programs, however, indicated the audience’s retreat from entertainment that dealt with social issues.’ Extras is perhaps a result of this retreat as far from trying to address problems, Gervais and Merchant almost mock the very existence of them.
Situation Comedy Before writing this essay, I watched a old re-run of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and I read the chapter in the television textbook where a episode of Leave It to Beaver was broken down into Act One, Act Two, Act Three and Act Four. It was there that I realized that since 1951, with the premiere of I Love Lucy, that most sitcoms follow a very basic, but successful pattern. I will ...
The role of the woman in Extras is another way that it challenges generic expectations. Some conventional roles of women in sitcoms outlined by Roy Stafford (2004) are ‘Matron/Working Battleaxe, Sexy assistant, Business matriarch, Woman in a Man’s World, The Vamp (1980s), Woman in Power, Women who fight other women and Woman who watches her ‘biological clock’. Maggie as the main woman character in Extras fulfils none of these roles, and in fact takes on more of a male role, constantly seeking the attention of the opposite sex, with a different male crush in almost every episode. As Andy’s friend – not his love interest, or relative – she features in the series as an independent character and not simply a prompt for jokes centred on the dominant male character.
The evolution of men and women, how the roles in society have changed. Over the last five hundred or so years women have come a long way. We have seen in the Sixteen hundreds arranged marriages where the woman had no say in the union, and the relationships were is based on money or prestige (Shakespeare 1668). Presently we see love is the driving factor. In 1997 a study was done to say forty-six ...
Each episode in Extras features a new celebrity. This may seem to bow to the very traditions of media culture that it seems to disapprove of as discussed earlier. However, in its own way this challenges conventions of the sitcom. Krutnik and Neale (1990) explain: ‘Laughter in comedy stems ultimately from a pleasurable losing and regaining or a position for the ego during the process of signification. The concept of verisimilitude enables us to discuss the longstanding convention that comedy is – or should be – concerned with “low” or “inferior” characters, classes and life.’ By recruiting high profile actors and celebrities in this sitcom, Gervais and Merchant take the opportunity to allow the lower classes to laugh at those often placed on a social pedestal. In this way the viewer is given opportunity to laugh the celebrities who are seemingly playing themselves. Rather than viewing characters like themselves, the general public can relate through the character of Andy Millman, who is the most ‘normal’ character in the series.
The sitcom as a form is not violated by Gervais and Merchant in Extras, however, rather than base their comedy around conventions at the time, or on the historically successful programmes, they have taken the elements of the sitcom, putting their own twist on the form of television. Presenting a more realistic feel by omitting the obligatory laughter tracks, fourth wall and cheesy musical introductions, Extras becomes a form of sitcom that compliments its viewer’s intelligence and freedom to choose what they find humorous, whether it is the flamboyantly gay character, Maggie’s unintended racism or a subtle glance from Andy at a famous actress. Extras challenges the viewer’s generic expectations as far as what they have grown to expect from a situation comedy, and while this may be disconcerting at first, and anxiety soon melts away as the acceptance of the result of their tampering breathes life into television as a quality form of media.