6 is a Magic Number

Activists of various stripes struggled for years to displace the nuclear family as the center of the American social imaginary.  Not everyone lives in a Mom+Dad+2.5 kids family unit, obviously, and demographics suggest even fewer will do so in the future.  Television has proven a particularly important front in these battles, which is appropriate given how much the medium once worked to solidify the white, middle-class suburban marriage as the foundation for all that is holy and good in American life.  As television historians and old-school Nick-at-Nite addicts are well aware, after the heyday of Beavers and Kittys, Springfields and Mayfields, TV families in the sixties became both playfully monstrous (with The Munsters and The Addams Family), weirdly reconstituted (as in Family Affair, Andy Griffith, and The Brady Bunch), and queerly interspecial/interdimensional (as in Flipper, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and My Favorite Martian).  There was also Mr. Ed, the story of a man who married and presumably had sex with his horse.

Barring any unforeseen social upheavals or planetary timewarps that take us back to 1955, The Cosby Show will probably prove to be the last domestic sitcom to play it straight; that is, to portray the symbiotic foibles of parenting and childhood as intrinsically amusing and somehow transcending all considerations of race, class, and time.  The Simpsons and the less-honored though in its day equally revolutionary Married with Children put an end to all that.  Nuclear-fueled domestic sitcoms still appear on the schedule, of course, but with various “re-framings” that make them something other than Eisenhower-esque re-education camps.  Thus ABC’s Modern Family anoints itself as “modern,” integrates a gay couple and a Latina dialect gag into its multigenerational architecture, and rather unnecessarily looks to the faux-documentary format for an added layer of edgier realism (plus it brought back Ed O'Neil--how's that for the full circle of destroying and then reconstructing the dom-com?). 

An hour earlier on the same network, The Middle—a deceptively by-the-numbers comedy about child-rearing practices in Indiana—now feels like the niche marketing of a certain sitcom classicism.  When’s the last time you heard a really good joke about teenagers who never clean their rooms?   Hip and up-to-date in its cultural references, if not its plots, The Middle also speaks to the industry’s sense that the only place where nuclear families actually still exist and still want to watch television about themselves is the “middle” of the country; i.e. the Midwest, where dated television formats go to die (even if you generally hate this type of comedy, however, The Middle is well worth watching if only for the incredible and generally unsung performance of Eden Sher as middle daughter Sue Heck—she’s like a Dawn Weiner cleaned up for network consumption, a transposition that somehow makes her both more pathetic and more hilarious at the same time.  She’s so good in the role that she’ll never win an Emmy simply because no acting appears to be involved). 

The gradual displacement of the nuclear family as the psychic center of American social, political, and televisual life is laudable to be sure.  Beginning in the 1990s, however, a new format began to emerge that is now arguably just as restrictive, maybe even more so.  In a world where those destined to marry and have children took longer to do so, Seinfeld introduced the premise of urban singles simply hanging out, a sitcom realm where one’s friendship network was often more important and meaningful than blood relations themselves (despite their ongoing cynicism and occasional treachery, the Seinfeld crew clearly preferred their own company over that of their insane relatives—and none of them, thankfully, ever seemed to have any real investment in what society expected of them on the married with children front—an innovation made both explicit and somewhat controversial in George’s lukewarm reaction to his engagement with Susan and his sense of relief once his fiancee poisoned herself by licking too many cheap wedding invitation envelopes). 

Friends famously built on this formula, but with two innovations (neither of which were necessarily welcome): (1) the central cast bumped up from four leads to six; and (2) a resurgence of sentiment and concern about reproductive futurism (to use Lee Edelman’s wonderfully disdainful, clinical term for breeder ideology).

Surveying the state of television today, it is clear that this is the new normal(ization) in network comedy: six (or more) leads, either all single or a mix of single and married dyads, bonded together as an extended family unit confronting the crazy uncertainties of modern life (with at least one eye open to the imperatives of future coupling, career advancement, and reproduction).  If you watch a number of these shows, as I seem to do, you need a scorecard to keep track of each yearly wave of witty banterers looking to live their crazy, mixed-up, cappuccino-fueled lives all over your television set.  Consider the following army of young, clever, and generally photogenic people whom the networks hoped you would like to have known better during the past season:

Traffic Light (Fox): Mike, Adam, Ethan, Lisa, Callie (one shy of six, clearly the reason the show was cancelled)

Perfect Couples (NBC): Dave, Julia, Vance, Amy, Rex, Leigh

Better With You (NBC): Mia, Maddie, Ben, Casey, Joel, Vicky

Happy Endings (ABC): Dave, Alex, Jane, Brad, Max, Penny

Cougar Town (ABC): Jules, Ellie, Laurie, Bobby, Andy, Grayson (+ the kid, Travis)

Mr. Sunshine (ABC): Ben, Crystal, Alice, Alonzo, Roman, Heather (+ many supporting players)

There is also the close-cousin of the NBC super-ensemble workplace comedy:

Community (NBC):  Jeff, Britta, Pierce, Annie, Troy, Shirley, Abed (that’s seven, and with the increased role for Señor Chang," eight!)

Outsourced (NBC): Todd, Madhuri, Charlie, Gupta, Tonya, Rajiv (+ many supporting players)

Parks and Recreation (NBC): Leslie, Tom, Ann, Ron, April, Andy (+many supporting players)

The Office (NBC): Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam, Ryan, Stanley, Kevin, Angela, Phyllis, Meredith, Andy, Kelly, Creed, Toby, Darryl, etc. !!!!!!

I think I would have better luck memorizing the names of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir than keeping up with all of these characters, many of whom are so structurally interchangeable as to exist as little more than Proppian actants in one giant, undifferentiated fairy tale of life in Los New Chi-Town (less true of the NBC workplace shows, of course).  Somewhere between 12 to 18 of these characters bit the cathode dust by the end of this past season—but be assured their ranks will be replenished by 12 to 18 more irrepressible free spirits next year. 

You might ask, what about 30 Rock?  That may well have the strangest core unit of all: Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy as the central, normative dyad of witty, waspy brunettes (divided  by class, age, and politics)-- put into better relief by the psychotic (and ever Other) idiolects of dumb blondness (Jenna) and crazy blackness (Tracy).  Given that the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Kenneth anymore (a third excluded term for urbane whiteness—country stupid), he seems destined to sink into second-fiddle status with the rest of the supporting cast. 

Beyond creating a Sudoku like challenge for the average TV viewer, this proliferation of characters carries with it an implicit message that may well be as damaging as the previous tyranny of the nuclear family:  If you do not have at least five other significant and extremely garrulous friends in your life (including, perhaps, your spouse), you are a failure inasmuch as you are not living up to television’s new standard for appropriate socialization.  If you are not spending at least an hour a day in a coffee shop, yoga/pilates class, local bar, or public plaza engaged in rapid-fire, playfully antagonistic banter with five other people to whom you would gladly donate a kidney, you are now a freakish pariah of some kind, doomed (along with your paltry two or three good friends) to wander the cityscape as socially retarded orphans (points to Cougar Town and Community for making such exclusion an explicit concern in the characters of “Tom” and Señor Chang,” respectively).  

This may be a particularly misanthropic viewpoint, but I would hazard to guess that most people are lucky to know five people in their entire lives that they would consider extremely close friends—and the odds that all five would end up working in the same office or living on the same cul-de-sac are remote at best.  No doubt much of this fantasy stems from the growing elasticity of that period between “carefree” adolescence and the looming responsibilities of functional adulthood—thus the move in these programs to mix the married and the single, the coupled and the uncoupled, as unwavering integers in the family of six.  No matter where you are on life’s normative and still extremely white middle-class trajectory, these shows have you covered.  

Given the inescapable hegemony of this model, Workaholics (Wednesdays on Comedy Central) is actually a welcome change of pace.  Here friendship has been pared back to a more reasonable cast of three (the square, the wiseacre, and the frizzy-haired oddball—again, I’m terrible with names), college friends who now find themselves rooming and working together in the cubicled hellscape of mid-twenties shitwork.   Office Space is the most obvious comparison, but the show is actually a much better written and deftly executed excursion into territory previously claimed by Secret Girlfriend (a web series picked up by Comedy Central in 2008 that offered a first-person shooter perspective on the also-ran partyscape of young L.A., a la The Continental, done in such a way that, as with Entourage, you wanted everyone dead by the end of each episode).  Workaholics could just as easily have gone wrong, but happily is saved by a doubling-down on the quick banter (even Courtney Cox’s hyperventilating Jules Cobb would have trouble keeping up here, as would the original speed-cracking wise ass, Matthew Perry, who seems almost glacial compared to this trio’s barrage of constant insults).  

Essentially it’s the young urban single format stripped of all female baggage and micro-targeted at the 18 to 24 (male) demographic.  Girls, to the extent that they exist on the series, are either obstacles at work or unattainable as dating partners (everyone over 30, meanwhile, appears to be either extremely bitter and/or insane).  While some might say this makes the show a bit sexist or perhaps even misogynist, I would simply point to the empirical evidence of just how many 20-something men do in fact consider women to be either obstacles at work or unattainable dating partners.  At the very least, the show’s ability to focus so obsessively on the slow-motion anarchy of late male adolescence makes it more “true to life” (God, did I just write that?) than the married, Merlot-sipping wits on the big boy networks. 

Best of all, there is no illusion here that these three will grow old together and take up adjoining rooms at the nursing home in sixty years.  Like its now decade-gone progenitor, Seinfeld, Workaholics represents a welcome return to a philosophy of “no hugs.”  It aspires to be no more than a straight-forward comedy about those last moments in life when truly anything might happen on any given day, and where even the act of waking up and orientating oneself in the morning can become a mystery fraught with peril.  The “shaggy dog” plot is back, in other words, fueled this time not by the thousand stories in the naked city of New York, but by the indomitable and often chemically assisted stamina of a 25 year old male set loose in L.A.   

Enjoy it while you can, guys, in about ten years you'll be sitting on the couch of the Courtney Cox of your generation, pretending to care about her children or having to opine on whether or not she should "open her heart" to the hunky divorcee who just moved in down the street.  Occasionally you will gather in a designated man-cave or be compelled to grill meat outside for a block party--but mostly your rapier-like wit will be directed at the hazards of diaper duty, the tragedy of male-pattern baldness, and the ongoing efforts to marry off the last single member of the old gang (in this case, my money is on frizzy-haired oddball guy). 

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