TV, Comedy, and the Nature of Friendship

It has been almost two weeks since my last post. I’ve spent the majority of that time watching three television shows: “Girls,” “Louie,” and “The Inbetweeners.” I recommend all three to anyone who has not yet seen them – “Girls” is on HboGo (thanks Laura), the first two seasons of “Louie” are on Netflix with the third currently airing on FX, and the first two seasons of “The Inbetweeners” are also on Netflix, and I’m working on a way to watch the third.

This post is far different than what it started out as.

Originally I was going to write about why I didn’t like “Girls,” and then I watched the last five episodes of the season and couldn’t write that post anymore – because the show exponentially improves in its second half, thanks mostly to the humanization of Adam and a move away from the show being just Lena Dunham parading around her friends on premium cable.

Then I finally caught up on season two of “Louie,” started watching the third, and decided to write a post comparing the show with “Girls” because both are very much contingent upon their showrunners (though that is the first and last time I will even remotely compare Louis CK and Lena Dunham) and are doing something that straddles the line between comedy and drama brilliantly.

But I never got around to writing that post. I went home for a weekend, then it was the Fourth, and I got distracted. Around the time I wasn’t writing a post, though, I watched a third show on Netflix: a British sitcom called “The Inbetweeners.” I don’t know how to describe it other than if Superbad were a British TV show, it’d be “The Inbetweeners.” I urge you to watch it. I burned through the two seasons on Netflix very quickly and I’m itching to watch the third (and the movie!).

really, watch this show

And that’s when something occurred to me: the one thing these three shows have in common is a short season structure, at least compared to traditional American network shows. The first season of “Girls” is ten episodes, each season of “Louie” is thirteen, and the first two seasons of “The Inbetweeners” are six episodes each. The typical network show in America is 22-26 episodes per season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that cable shows are – and have been for a while –doing critically better than network shows. And I’m going to lump in British TV because they also seem to be doing it right: most British shows have shortened seasons and, on top of that, only air for a handful of seasons (The British version of “The Office” only has two seasons and a holiday special, while the American version has an unfortunate nine seasons – at least).

Maybe season length doesn’t have anything to do with it, and these shows are just better in quality – they have better creative teams, better actors, better production. Maybe you could run “Louie” for 26 episodes and it’d be just as strong all the way though. But then I thought of the third season of “Parks and Recreation.” That season is the best season of a television comedy in the past 10 years – on either network or cable – and nothing really comes close. It is the pinnacle of TV comedy, and it ran on NBC, probably the worst run network going right now. So how did “Parks” do it? Was it a coincidence that the third season of “Parks and Rec” was also a half season – running only 14 episodes?

I could argue that short seasons simply make for better television. More jokes are packed in a shorter amount of time, things don’t drag, every scene has a purpose when your season is cut in half. When a television show is stretched to 24 episodes, writers run out of ideas, arcs are stretched out, characters become stagnant. I could argue that these shows with truncated seasons are better simply because it’s easier to make a good show in fewer episodes. But that’s too easy – and boring.

Rather, I want to argue that it has something to do with the nature of comedy on TV, and the nature of friendship. People (and I’m going to start talking in vague generalities right now, forgive me) watch comedies on television for the familiarity, the comfort, too feel good. Watching a sitcom is like hanging out with friends. This is opposed to dramas on TV, which I won’t get into because I don’t really like TV dramas except for “LOST” and I couldn’t tell you why people watch them.

The idea that TV comedies make people feel good is an important one – they’re not going to watch it if it doesn’t. But they’re also not going to watch it if they find it boring, so the difficulty becomes finding a way to merge the two. Watching my favorite TV show should be the same experience as hanging out with my friends – it’s familiar and comfortable while still being entertaining and just unpredictable enough to keep me interested. TV comedies are (or should be) all about their characters, because when it comes down to it, those characters become surrogate friends for the audience (which is why “Friends” is so popular, and imitations like “How I Met Your Mother”). You can’t really have unlikeable characters in a comedy because the audience isn’t going to want to hang out with him/her – and yes, when you watch a comedy on TV, you’re hanging out with the characters – just like they’re not going to hang out with someone they don’t like in real life.

What does that have to do with short seasons? Here’s a worn-out cliché: absence makes the heart grow fonder. The short seasons leave the audience wanting more, not being fully satisfied, so they’ll go back and rewatch the episodes they do have over and over while they wait impatiently for the next season – that’s how cult followings are born.

And then there’s the flip side to that: you don’t want to hang out with even your best friends all the time. Sometimes people just wear out their welcome, the longer you’re with someone the less appealing they become. The same goes for TV shows. The worst thing for a TV show is overexposure. Maybe that’s why the fourth season of “Parks and Rec” was such a letdown. After the incredible 14-episode third season, a full season was just too much, like hanging out with the same friend for a week straight and by the end you want to throttle him.

So yes, it’s probably easier to make a good ten-episode season than a good twenty-episode season, but it’s also easier to watch one. While I love my friends and I love TV comedy – too much of a good thing has never been truer. With television shows so readily available thanks to the Internet, it’ll be the ones limiting their exposure with short seasons that continue to be the best. I don’t think we’ll ever see a “great” 24-episode season of television again (the second season of the American version of “The Office” was the last).

And that’s why I’m thankful the first “Community” season post-Dan Harmon will only be a half.

-Ben Cosman