*In Praise of the Beat of Just One Drum

If there’s one thing that gets me down, it’s when television shows decide to mix things up a bit by doing something different, such as filming episodes in an exotic location. My spirits have always plummeted when I’ve tuned in for some relaxing viewing, only to find that the cast of The Facts of Life, say, is heading off for a holiday in Paris.

To start with, I hate Paris. It is the most overrated place in the world. A friend of mine went there for a holiday with her brother; he ordered a beer in a bar near the Eiffel Tower and it cost him the equivalent of fifteen dollars Australian, and that was back in 2002. The French capital is nothing but hard cobblestones hurting your feet, and drizzling rain, and overpriced hotels with lifts that don’t work. Would it kill these people to pull one of their nasty old buildings down and construct something new occasionally? If a show must be set in Paris, I wish its makers would simply take the approach that has always been good enough for The Young and the Restless: that is, jazzing up scenes in their all-purpose café set by incorporating into the action a man playing an accordion and an extra wearing a beret.

The other place that the casts of American shows tend to head off to for a location stint is London. Well, controversially, I prefer even London to Paris; yes, it, too, is cold and pokey, with art galleries and museums filled with soul-destroyingly tedious objects, but at least no one who lives there is fooling themselves about all that their city doesn’t have to offer. My more forgiving attitude towards London doesn’t mean, however, that I want to see the cast of Family Ties turn up there.

I need situation comedies to stay on familiar ground; I don’t want upheaval. When I was younger and had endless time, I spent a lot of it watching sitcoms that weren’t funny, such as Valerie, which became Valerie’s Family, and then The Hogan Family, after the departure of its star, Valerie Harper, because she had asked for too much money. I found such programs soothing because I knew there was no possibility anything said or done in them would be funny, and so there wouldn’t be the sort of disappointment you feel when a comedy that is capable of being funny isn’t (not to mention the special torture of telling someone else a show is funny, and then the only episode they ever watch isn’t funny and you have to explain how this was the only unfunny episode of it ever, and so forth). I used to watch these programs for the storylines, which I found comforting. However, if the cast were haring off to Europe, I would feel merely an all-consuming exhaustion from the outset.

Also, storylines of episodes shot on location are always so very boring. The worst is when there’s some kind of mystery; an example of this that is so obvious I raise it very reluctantly, is the appearance of the cursed tiki when the Brady Bunch go on holiday to Hawaii. The only words I will utter in praise of shows on location is that there was once an episode of Growing Pains in which the Seavers were going overseas on a cruise ship, and devil-may-care youngster Mike and his girlfriend had a debate about the rights and wrongs of prenuptial agreements that I think about to this day.

Of course, I should use the term ‘episode’ only with caution, given the strong likelihood of another thing I abhor occurring in on-location ones: the words ‘To be continued’ appearing before the end credits roll. I assume that they want to make the most of all the money they’re spending, but when I’m watching a sitcom, I don’t require suspense from these people; rather, I want everything done and dusted by the time I’ve polished off a Lean Cuisine.

Another loathsome type of novelty episode is when a sitcom goes all serious. Consider the ‘Richie Almost Dies’ episode of Happy Days, in which Richie Cunningham was in hospital after having been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and the Fonz spent a lot of time talking to God. There was, as well, an episode of Diff’rent Strokes in which the Drummonds all thought they were going to perish in a fire in their apartment building (hence its title, ‘Fire’) and a similar quantity of solemn talk ensued. The equivalent of this getting-serious exercise in television dramas is when they up the ante, and have an episode that largely concerns only two characters and they engage in a lot of intense one-on-one chat. This usually involves a mugging, as occurred with Joey Potter in Dawson’s Creek talking endlessly and uninterestingly to her captor.

I also don’t like it when an actor from a show gets to direct. This is something one often sees when a show has been on for a few seasons and the actors, it seems, are getting restive. This used to happen all the time in thirtysomething; by the third season of the show, every episode seemed to be directed by one of the actors, which tended to mean quirky camera angles and storylines. An episode I especially hated was the one Melanie Mayron, the actress who played Bohemian spinster Melissa Steadman, directed that was about red-bearded advertising man Elliot Weston making his nervous debut as a director of television commercials; through this piece of cleverness, we knew just how she felt about directing a TV show for the first time.

Another way in which thirtysomething – much as I loved it – let me down was its creators’ mania for sequences that were dreams or fantasies, and/or in which dead characters came back and talked to the living. After satyric English literature professor Gary Shepherd was killed in, I think, a bicycling accident (I say ‘I think’ not because I forget, but because the show made the cause of his death slightly opaque), he was in the show more often than he had been when he was alive. Six Feet Under did convert me slightly to the possibilities of scenes in which the dead talk to the living, but even a program as top-hole as The Sopranos can’t get away with an episode-long fantasy sequence, as is proved by the monotony of watching Tony Soprano, while in a coma, dreaming of an alternative life as a salesman in the process of developing dementia.

At least, though, as The Sopranos wasn’t a cosy show, its veering off in different directions to, presumably, stop the writers and actors getting bored was a little easier to bear. I cannot forgive it in a situation comedy. Life is terrifying enough without the Keatons contributing to all the unease.

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