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Death of the multi-cam

From George Costanza to Michael Scott, Adriana charts a seismic shift in television comedy: the death of studio sitcoms at the hands of a single camera

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According to everyone, were in a ‘Golden Age’ of TV, whatever that means. Go into any smoking area sober and you’ll overhear at least 3 conversations about Breaking Bad. The last 5 years has seen a shift in quality from film to TV, represented most by the amount of movie actors and directors being involved in TV. Shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Wire and The Sopranos have turned many a film snob into a TV enthusiast. The ‘death of multi-cam’ could be blamed on a lot of things. Writing, the internet, Obama; in the end people don’t have the patience for digital laughter and jokes about aeroplane food.

The biggest upheaval in a genre definitely has to be in sitcoms. The half hour comedy landscape is completely unrecognisable to what it was 15 years ago. Shows like Cheers and Seinfeld would feel out of place in todays line-ups but why is it that a live studio audience makes the viewer shrivel in embarrassment and shame for the people on screen? Perhaps the audience is getting smarter, and are less forgiving. Despite being a remake, The Office was an undeniably ground-breaking show. It led the way for the many mockumentary style programs that cause cult-like followings. The internet is a fertile breeding ground for groups of people who’re prepared to verbally abuse you until you agree that Parks and Recreation is better than all other shows ever created.

It’s categorically incorrect to say that multi-camera shows (like Friends, Will & Grace) are inherently unfunny. These are the shows that made the way for the slicker, more subtle landscape we have today. A lot of the old sitcoms were fronted by stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, in Seinfeld or Ray Romano in Everybody Loves Raymond. This might be where the stigma of quick one-liners came about. The problem with the shows of today is that due the character development nature of it, it’s difficult to appreciate a show from watching one episode. There’s always a pre-curser of “you have to watch the whole first season, honestly it’s really funny, trust me.” But this character focus has made way for all kinds of actors to shine through on TV, without having to be overtly funny. Someone like Steve Carell would have been lost in big show like Frasier, but the subtle, quietness of The Office meant that he could have his moments of pure genius. 

Equally, there are some real multi-cam stinkers being made right now. The Big Bang Theory endures a lot of abuse, and I’ve defended it for a while, but as the series seems to be drawing to a close, the same joke is starting to wear out. The winding down of How I Met Your Mother in the spring has come as a relief to many fans, as were all thinking, but not really saying, how downhill it’s gone. One of the worst offenders is 2 Broke Girls, a show that knows it’s falling but doesn’t know how to stop. I feel embarrassed just watching. It’s hard to tell whether the writing is bad or the format is bad, but these shows are really bringing down the reputation of multi-camera and ruining it for all the others.

But this is not to say that all single-camera sitcoms are made equal. Many of the more recent single camera shows are just as cheap and dull as their counterparts. Shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project aren’t doing ‘woman-friendly’ comedy justice, and lack a lot of character jokes that are needed in lieu of one-liners. The cult surrounding these shows through a strong online following means that they might float along for a while, but what impact will they have on anything? The worst offender these days is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. With an undeserving Best Actor Golden Globe for Andy Samberg, this show is achieving success beyond its quality.

I could be elitist and say that multi-camera sitcoms are a meaningless, mass produced opiate of the masses. The Costco to single camera’s Waitrose. Stupid people TV. This could be evidenced by the fact that the top rated show in America right now is The Big Bang Theory. But I won’t. I think it’s safe to say that for now multi-camera is dead, but I have strong feeling the cost and ease of it will bring about its resurrection very soon, and just like the trendy single-cam shows of the right now, we’ll soon be overanalysing and religiously following the multi-cam again.