Thursday, March 17, 2011
I don’t buy that art has an expiration date, and I can prove it. I ate week-old chili yesterday and look at me now. The problem with pop culture references in sitcoms isn’t that they become dated when future consumers (THINK OF THE CHILDREN!) are so far removed from the era of reference and, less saliently, so confounded by the contemporary worship of hollow, self-serious pretension as greatness that they can’t recall what the War on Terror was in general or the invasion of Iraq in specific, much less Michael Moore, Mission Accomplished, free speech zones, Peanuts, or the Soup Nazi, so they watch Arrested Development with stony-faced revulsion at the America which once embraced and glorified incest, embarrassed that their great-grandparents actually thought this American Oedipus (and then some) was funny. That’s on them, and stepping in on their behalf is the most feckless of concern trolling. When has not understanding something ever given one license to denounce it? I’m not going to ask my grandma her opinion on Islam. I can turn on Glenn Beck for myself, thankyouverymuch.
Whether a sitcom leans more on creative slapstick or witty wordplay or even, Oprah help us, pop culture references, durability comes from greatness—that is, the artful expression of meaning, depth, purpose, thesis if you wanna get all Aristotelian about it, Mr. Fancy Pants College Degree—not whether a show incorporates topical humor or not. You don’t need to have endured the hype for The English Patient—or even know that it’s a real movie—to identify with Elaine seeing through the emperor’s new clothes. You don't need to scour Gawker and Mediaite to catch the fluid media satire of 30 Rock. The only Burt Reynolds movie I've ever seen is Boogie Nights, but Archer still makes me laugh more than any other show on TV. Reference humor is just one paintbrush, and it can shade character, comment, or overwhelm.
Comedies like the ones Matt Zoller Seitz names in the piece that started all this—Family Guy, Chuck, Community at its worst in episodes like “Basic Rocket Science”—fail not because they rely on pop references, but because they ARE pop references. That is, they fail because the pop references win the battle against serial (or even episodic) goals (e.g. when the space parody plot requires a character to have a sudden secret motive that she's already had in another episode and that contradicts her current characterization). To throwback to the ‘80s, which these showrunners find much more fertile than I, as if the righteous exposure of ‘80s cliché is a noble pursuit in itself, it’s like a pair of fishnets. It’s not a complete garment, just a net of see-through jokes. When one goes, the whole thing starts falling apart.
That said, we’re living in an age of reappropriation and reflexivity. Video essays, hip-hop, Tarantino, a Justin Bieber song slowed down to whale speed—Frankenstein art could feasibly be built from nothing but references. Look at Godard. The mere act of selection and editing imbues a work with more than one layer of meaning. You don’t have to have seen a single Hitchcock film to understand Scorsese’s point about the escalation of violence in the 20th century in Shutter Island.
Besides, dated’s in the eye of the beholder. Why shouldn’t a show represent its time and place? All in the Family is about as attuned to the issues of the day as a sitcom can get—quaint little concepts like gas lines and the draft—but its conversations, save a racial slur here and there, are timeless fixtures of the American dinner table. The chinaman is not the issue here. Meaning is what grants immortality.