This is something new – a cross-blog debate. Answering a Friday question once I mentioned that single-camera sitcoms seemed to move quicker than multi-camera shows. Earl Pomerantz, in his excellent blog, disagrees. Here’s his full article, well worth reading.
I agree with just about every point Earl makes except the conclusion.
Here’s what Earl said:
When I watch The Office, or Community, or 30 Rock, or Modern Family, I find myself invariably glancing at the clock, amazed at how much time there is still left in the show. To me, these shows are excruciatingly slow.
On the other hand, a well-crafted multi-camera show, skillfully blending story and jokes, seemed to be over before I knew it. I’m speaking of the old multi-camera series, grounded in story and character, not today’s versions, which eschew story and rely almost entirely on jokes.
I completely agree that better story telling will make for a better more compelling show. Earl goes on in another post to cite a great example, a multi-camera episode he wrote for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Not just great. Award winning great.
But it’s an unfair comparison. I don’t think you can pit a classic multi-camera episode up against a COMMUNITY. Different styles, different eras, catering to different audiences.
For a more accurate test, what if the opponent was an equally classic episode of MASH? (By classic I mean Larry Gelbart, not us.)
But having written MASH I can tell you, we packed as much into each episode as was humanly possible. That was the format established by Larry and Gene Reynolds. We had from two to four plots going in each episode. The dialogue was a stylized banter that when it worked was just crackling. We strove to get emotion, drama, comedy, silliness, pathos, scope – anything we could find – into the show.
Which show would you prefer if you took the Pepsi Challenge of quality? That depends on personal taste. To me, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was the pinnacle of comedy writing. To write one was my ultimate goal. But I know writers of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW who felt the same about MASH. Still, I feel it’s fair to say MASH moved quicker.
My partner David teaches sitcom writing at USC. He was surprised to learn in one of his classes that many of the young students had never seen CHEERS. So he assigned the class the first season to watch. (I contend the first season was the best). A lot of the students were not overly impressed with it. Why? It moved too slowly.
I think Earl and I would agree that too much importance is placed on pace today. The audience is used to it, they have unlimited other choices, and in general we’ve become a society that can no longer tolerate being bored even for a minute. Where as story telling used to be the master we served, now it’s speed. So showrunners will employ visual techniques, rapid-fire scenes, and a barrage of jokes. Sometimes it’s at the expense of story, character, or genuine emotion.
But it doesn’t have to be. Again, personal taste but I think MODERN FAMILY does a great job of mounting a zippy show with a lot of humor and depth.
Now, let me pose another question. Can a show be too fast-paced for its own good? I mean, that’s where we’re heading, right? My answer is yes. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT jammed so much into each half-hour that I think it wore out a good portion of the audience. The material itself was hilarious and sometimes inspired but it was just so dense. Audiences need to catch their breath. So I caution show creators: speed can kill.
Who knows? Someone may come along with a sitcom that goes back to the pace of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and viewers hail it as “groundbreaking”, “daring”, “unprecedented”. And the number of cameras won’t matter.
What do you guys think?