Saul Austerlitz’s history of the American sitcom suffers from problems of comprehensiveness in two completely opposite directions. On the one hand, it tries far too hard to be the ultimate compendium on the genre, squeezing in references to shows that have next to nothing to do with the shows featured in individual chapters, just so they can be name-checked. On the other hand, it rushes far too rapidly past the sitcom’s past—particularly the 1970s, represented here by just four shows—in favor of getting to the ’90s and 2000s, when Austerlitz’s deeply buried thesis seems to suggest that the sitcom reached its fullest flowering in the wake of Seinfeld. The book struggles with its scale, but also seems impossibly near-sighted, unable to see the full scope of what it’s looking at.
Yet Sitcom works when broken down into its component parts. As a series of essays on 24 episodes of 24 sitcoms, situated within their particular time and place in the medium’s evolution, the book is more or less enjoyable, offering up Austerlitz’s perspective on a wide variety of individual shows, from classics to misbegotten syndication favorites to contemporary critical successes. But as an overriding critical survey of the format’s history, the book leaves something to be desired. It’s skillful at picking up the individual thematic threads that have long marked the sitcom—including everything from meta-commentary on the nature of television to a bland domesticity that will never be punctured—but when it comes time to build those into a complete statement, the best Austerlitz can really offer up is: “The sitcom sure has changed a lot, huh?”
The book suffers from its bias toward recent sitcoms, at the expense of older shows. Austerlitz never comes off as if watching older shows is a chore or something not worth doing (as too many contemporary television critics do), but there’s a definite sense—particularly with shows from the ’50s and ’60s—that the author is just waiting to get to the good stuff. Seinfeld is frequently name-checked in chapters that seemingly have nothing to do with it, suggesting that all of sitcom history was a build to that particular series. And while it’s definitely an important turning point in the evolution of the sitcom, crowding it into earlier essays has a tendency to shortchange some of those shows.
The selections are also somewhat strange, and shows that were passed up occasionally get shoved into chapters with other series in ways that feel haphazard. For instance, The Andy Griffith Show doesn’t get a chapter of its own, instead awkwardly occupying real estate right next to Leave It To Beaver (because the two shows placed such an emphasis on child-rearing). Get Smart gets juxtaposed with The Dick Van Dyke Show, for some reason, and such ’70s stalwarts as Barney Miller and Soap are hardly mentioned. (To be fair, some recent sitcoms also get short shrift, with Malcolm In The Middle, arguably just as pivotal to recent sitcom evolution as Seinfeld, being shunted aside in favor of chapters focused on Freaks And Geeks and 30 Rock—great shows both, but neither major turning points in the history of the sitcom.)
Austerlitz’s major theme here is the story of the sitcom as a sort of chronicler of its own history, and when he sticks to that, he’s on solid ground. But his critical assertions—for instance, that a tendency toward sentimentality often hurt ’70s sitcoms—will occasionally arrive from nowhere, with minimal backing. The book’s devotion to the “24 episodes” device also comes and goes, with some episodes getting intense focus and others receiving a paragraph or two of description. There are a lot of good ideas in Sitcom, and it’s a solid read as a collection of essays. But as what it purports to be—a complete history of one of TV’s oldest, most resilient forms—it falls flat.