Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Netflix and the Current Climate of Sitcom

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When saving for a house with your lovely girlfriend you need to make sacrifices, you need to do away with treats as you used to term them. That means making do without visits to the cinema or meals out at Pizza Express every week. It means being with the one you love, sharing those time together so all money can go into savings towards a better and brighter future in your first step on the property ladder.

A benefit of this also means committing to a different viewing practice of television. Luckily, my girlfriend had a Netflix account but this was in the early days of the provider. We used it initially for catching up and bingeing on Breaking Bad, then we noticed that the company started to release more original content. Firstly, with comedy specials by John Mullaney, then they went into original half hour format of comedy sitcoms vehicles for specific talent.

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First to appear was Master of None by Aziz Ansari (who co-starred in Parks and Recreations) wrote and starred in this semi-autobiographical sitcom of a struggling Asian actor in the big city coping with pigeon-hole casting and casual racism, whilst also incorporating Ansari's rye eye on relationships in the modern world.

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The cherry on the cake though is possibly Joe Swanberg's Easy; an anthology of eight episodes set in Chicago starring a multitude of talent from American independent cinema but where Swanberg as writer and director is given a platform to for a larger audience to access his work.

Swanberg who came from the Mumblecore movement of ten years ago, has always been able to write relationships and like the better writers of the last 30 years in American cinema, can write women well and effectively, something his sometime mentor Apatow struggles regularly with.

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Swanberg puts his lense and scripts on differing relationships. From a marriage of 15 years struggling to add fire back into the bedroom, to a lesbian love affair that could be make or break by the adoption of vegan eating practices.  Yet he also comments on how people change in a relationship or struggle to adapt to the big life changes in their life such as impending fatherhood or new employment.

Swanberg by employing a revolving door of talent makes it easy (pardon the pun) for us to not fall in love with characters, historically the appeal of sitcom is you would want to be friends with the Friends cast - yet by having just a swift peek into this couple's life, we are now in a position of either taking it or leaving it without the need for a fully committed 24 episode season as is the want on network television.

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The Ranch, meanwhile, is one of the more consistently funny sitcoms of recent years. It has the tropes and mannerisms of a typical family sitcom, yet it deals with an undercurrent of social themes - a family business struggling in the current economic climate, a married couple parting ways as well as a talented individual having to come to terms with the fact that his career and life did not pan out as he wished.

The show was released via the online network with 10 episodes and after a short hiatus, returned again with 10 more episodes making them more of an extension and conclusion of Season One rather than a stand alone Season Two.  Despite the hiatus, I could not imagine how much I missed the characters and the ease of the sitcom world inhabited by the Bennett family.

What is at times so refreshing and pleasing when you watch the show, is that even though a lot of the jokes are telegraphed and the characters are generic; it is that sense of wholesomeness and heart on the sleeve honesty that runs through the show that fills you with a sense of warmth and belonging.

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And yet because the show is so professional, perhaps too polished, it can still hit you with an unexpected surprise such as the end of Season 1, Episode 11, 'Gone as a Girl Can Get' when Rooster (Danny Matherson) finds his Dad, Beau (Sam Elliott - grizzly and terrific) crying as he plants some flowers and wonders why people leave him. The scene is played not for laughs, but seriously, like families can be on occasion and it ends with two people at loggerheads usually on equal terms; there for each other.

The Netflix vehicle should be applauded though as gone are the time to sit down and watch a 90 minute comedy, and why so many comedies struggle due to the lack of jokes and hit count of laughter.  By minimising the screen time per episode to the 25-30 minute running time, you have to hit a home run less often, and if it is hit and miss, there is no need to worry due to the next episode being available straight away. An audience is more inclined to sit down and give the next episode another chance rather than dismiss it and forget about watching another episode the week after.

The Ranch, Easy and Master of None are available on Netflix now.

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