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Sitcoms: Why don't Americans know when to call it a day?


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With the turmoil in the world around us at the moment it seems there's little upon which there is universal consensus. The sky is blue. Puppies are adorable. The Big Bang Theory should long since have been cancelled.

This last point forms part of a larger theme in American television – that sitcoms are almost always dragged on for years until they are no longer funny and we are watching out of a sense of duty alone, rather than for any real form of entertainment.

Contrast this for a moment with the prevailing practice in Britain – of the greatest British comedic successes from the last twenty years, (Gavin and Stacey, The Thick of It and Father Ted to name a few), few have more than three series.

While this is understandably frustrating, it is an arguably superior option to being subjected to a further five years of poorly written and un-funny writing. Take for example probably the most obvious demonstration of this contrast, The Office. Both the UK and US versions were hugely popular, and although the American remake leant heavily on the original script for the first season, both were very funny in different ways.

However what distinguishes The Office US from its British roots, besides the obvious switch to a more American-friendly humour, is its disappointing final series. The Office UK ran for two series and a two-part Christmas special, after which Ricky Gervais refused to write more, despite the show being hailed as one of the most successful British comedies of all time.

In contrast The Office US ran for nine seasons, and was eventually cancelled due to pressure put on the production team by the show's stars, who recognised that it had run its course. The departure of the show's main character, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell), at the end of season seven should have brought its run to an end - but two more seasons followed, both with decreasing humour and quality of writing.

Of course The Office US isn't the worst offender by a long shot. Over the course of its nine-year run, How I Met Your Mother completely tarred its name as a once beloved sitcom through poor writing and tired humour. And although its controversial to say because of its iconic television status, many people also feel that the ten seasons Friends enjoyed were a few too many.

So what's the explanation for this difference across the pond? The most obvious reason is that American TV networks are more focused on making money, whereas in Britain there is more concern for the craft itself. Nine times out of ten the aim for the American programme is to make it to 100 episodes, at which point it may be sold on to other stations to be rerun, which is how big money is made from television in America (this contrast is particularly apparent in relation to the BBC, which is publicly financed, meaning that every show doesn't have to earn an investment back through a run of several seasons). This is also one of the reasons that American shows tend to have around 20 shows per season, in comparison with Britain where the average episode count per season is six.

To a similar effect, in British comedy the writers are in the driver's seat. A writing team of usually only one or two people develop the idea and complete the script before it moves on to production. In America, producers have a much bigger hand in the development of a show, working up ideas and pulling together early scripts before it is passed onto a larger team of writers to create the final product. This increased size of creative team means that shows can be sustained for longer, but also that it's easier for those behind it to lose track of reality and not know when to call it quits.

While the quality of British television obviously benefits from its focus on quality over quantity, with less tired ideas being used and no “jumping the shark” storylines, there is an argument to be made that the amount of material produced per writing team in the UK just isn't enough. This is true across the board, with Sherlock standing out as a prime example – the crime drama has had just ten episodes over its three seasons.

So unless a compromise can be reached whereby sitcoms may be prolific as well as well written, (and given the reasons for the divide this seems unlikely), there is an important decision to be made by those wishing to create one. Is it better to have a show remembered for its accumulated screen time or have it missed as a piece of condensed, quality writing?

This probably needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The only thing that can certainly be done to help resolve the issue in the meantime is for American producers to learn to recognise when a show is starting to go down the drain, and have the courage to say enough is enough.

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