On sitcoms and knowing when to stop…

…because let’s face it, some sitcoms seem to go on forever.  I once heard someone remark that Friends should have ended the second time Ross and Rachel broke up, yet we were subjected to several more seasons before those two finally got together.

Two and a Half Men should have ended after season three, when Jake was still cute and Allan not yet quite so pathetic.  When Walden replaced Charlie some hope for the series was revived, but after watching the first episode of the latest season the wife and I have decided that, as far as we’re concerned, this show has ended.

My Family should have stopped when Nick left the home and Janey moved back in.  After that it went from funny to just ridiculous.

The creators of How I met your mother seems to have heard that all good things come to an end, and in my mind it’s about time.  Luckily the final season looks set to let the show end on a high note.

Of course, a show ending does not immunize it against a revival.  Or a movie.  Or a play.

Yes Minister title cardEarlier this year the wife and I discovered Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.  These series revolve around a British Cabinet Minister (and later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington.  Hacker has the dubious task of implementing his party’s policies and creating legislation for his department, opposed all the way by his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), who does everything in his power to maintain the status quo.

Caught between the two is Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds), Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary.  Bernard feels a great sense of loyalty to his minister, but also knows that his future in the civil service will be determined by the performance reviews written by Sir Humphrey.

We found this show highly entertaining.  It was great fun watching Hacker and Sir Humphrey trying to outsmart each other and attempting to decipher Humphrey’s rambling speeches (which are designed solely to confuse his listeners).  The actors were superb in their roles (Hawthorne won BAFTAs for his performance four years in a row) and the script was brilliant, with not a single joke based on bodily functions.  The show was voted sixth in the Britain’s Best Sitcom poll in 2004 and was apparently former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favourite television program when it originally aired.

I was very excited when I discovered a revived series had been created which aired early this year.  That excitement was short-lived, however.  It was terrible.

To start with, the main characters were still Hacker, Humphrey and Bernard.  Under British law it is technically possible that Jim Hacker can still be Prime Minister in 2013 after first taking the office in the nineteen-eighties, but it’s highly unlikely given the volatile nature of politics.  The characters were also played by other people, considering that only one member of the original trio is still alive.  This was by far the bigger of the two problems.

Yes Minister cast, Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington, Derek Fowlds
The original cast: Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds

The actors who originally played these characters had both remarkable acting talent and a wonderful on-screen chemistry.  I couldn’t see either in the new series.  Which is not to say David Haig and Henry Goodman, the new Hacker and Humphrey, cannot act.  But it seemed they were trying to be funny rather than playing the characters, and the new Bernard, played by Chris Larkin, came across as a complete simpleton.  If they weren’t playing the same characters I might have experienced it differently.

Another problem was the live audience…or lack thereof.  All the articles I can find on the revived series claim it was filmed with an audience, but it sure doesn’t seem that way.  The laughter sounds the same every time and cuts out abruptly the moment a character starts speaking, making it seem like the laughter was inserted into the soundtrack afterwards and giving the show a feeling of profound fakeness.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe British people laugh differently today than how they laughed a quarter-century ago.

Whatever the case may be, one episode of the revived series had the exact same effect as one episode of Two and a Half Men‘s new season: it convinced the wife and I that we’re not going to waste our time watching the rest of the season.  We’ll rather watch the original series again.  It’s wickedly clever.

7 thoughts on “On sitcoms and knowing when to stop…

  1. lol I agree, didn’t watch Friends or Lost but from what I’ve heard, their time ended before the actual “finale” the interesting thing is that the fans seem to hint when time is over, but producers feed into their love of the show and keep on going!
    AurumEve.com ~ Global Jewelry

    1. Though you get other cases where the show ends, leaving fans with some serious withdrawal – House, Eureka, Legend of the Seeker, Chuck, Leverage. However, Chuck and House both ended at the right time (Chuck could in fact have ended a season earlier) in terms of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, but if either of them went on longer they ran the risk of losing their magic. (I’m not including Breaking Bad as I haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve read the same would apply there. I’m not including Dexter either as I’m only on season 5 😉 )

  2. TV producers do seem to enjoy hanging onto the proverbial corpse slightly (much) too long. The best TV shows are the ones that are shortlived, although occassionally by awful circumstance. I’m thinking predominantly of Father Ted- and of course other slathers of genius such as Fawlty Towers and the IT Crowd. I’m not one for canned laughter myself, although there are exceptions… never quite got into Friends, and most American comedy really rubs me up the wrong way, especially because of the laughter in situations where the funny has quickly vacated the premises (Two and a Half Men being this in its entirety).

    1. I have a theory that there’s a corollary to “All good things come to an end”: If it doesn’t come to an end, it’s not a good thing. Soap operas are a case in point.

  3. Definitely with you on Yes Minister – it was a great show! I didn’t even realize they revived it, although, from what you’ve said sounds like a bad idea that they did, so I think I’ll be giving it a miss…

    I don’t know if you’ve seen In The Thick of It, but that’s another more contemporary take on the inner workings of British politics. It’s very different in tone to Yes Minister but pretty funny too if you like cynical humor and aren’t easily offended (there’s loads of swearing and shouting if I remember right).

    Not a sitcom, but I think the TV show Lost could have done with being wound down sooner. I loved it at first, but thought it got a bit convoluted in the end (and I’m still annoyed at all the questions the show raised and never answered. My wife refuses to speak with me about it any more because I’ve complained so much, heh).

    1. Luckily I’ve never seen Lost, but I’ve heard the end upset quite a few people.

      I haven’t heard of In The Thick of It, but if it’s British and comedy it’s fairly certain I’ll like it. I’m a big fan of British farce, but all their comedies appeal to me. I do have a preference for those created in the eighties and nineties, but we also loved IT guys, for example. I think I mentioned before that the Brits are still able to make comedies where sex and excrement are not the sole source of humour – where you actually have to think now and then in order to get the joke. And no other nation on earth has such a wonderfully sardonic and cynical sense of humour.

      A related subject I didn’t touch on is movies whose sequels should never have been made, but once we get on that road it could well go on forever.

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