In a post last week, I dove into the question: Why are some TV shows enduring hits, some flash-in-the-pans and some none starters?
What separates a M*A*S*H, Friends or Cheers from a Baby Bob, Mama’s Family or Veronica’s Closet (Huh..you say? Exactly my point).
The difference, according to researchers Cristel Russell, Andrew Norman, and Susan Heckler (“Chapter Fifteen People and “their” Television Shows: an Overview of Television Connectedness,” The Psychology of Entertainment Media: Blurring the Lines between Entertainment and Persuasion, ed. L. J. Shrum. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) is our degree of connectedness with the show. Do we take the characters and situations into our own lives? Do we build a bridge between our reality and their fantasy? The stronger the bridge, the more durable the connection will be.
Successful Sitcoms have to go beyond the “Sit”
Imagine you were in a pitch for a new sitcom. “We have 6 20-something friends in Greenwich Village who hang out at a coffee shop and talk a lot” or “we have a middle aged sports writer and his family who move across from his Italian mom and dad in Long Island.” In a Hollywood pitch for a new sitcom, it will typically be the “sit” part that gets pitched – what’s the situation? This is where the concept tends to trump character in most premises. But situations are only of fleeting interest to us humans. Situations engage the mind in the same way a puzzle or brain teaser would. They can introduce a partial picture and our curiosity wants to resolve it to our satisfaction. We want to see how the situation turns out. By the way, this mastery of unresolved situations is the basis of the appeal of humor and drama as well. But situations don’t have “legs” when it comes to consistently engaging us. We have limited attention spans for situations. Once we resolve them, or feel that we’ve resolved them, our attention moves on. This is the way it works in the real world. Life will throw us situation after situation, often several in a day. If we lingered over each one longer than was necessary, we’d never move forward. We’d keep getting caught in situational “eddies”, separated from the main current of our lives.
It gets worse. If situations can’t be resolved in a timely manner, we grow frustrated and bored with them. Our brain starts telling us, through our emotions, that it’s time to move on. So, for a show to be successful, it has to introduce a parade of situations, just like real life would.
So, how does a show keep us engaged in between situations? What keeps us tuned in? The characters. Characters are what we connect to. Characters engage us at a completely different level than situations. Situations are an intellectual challenge. Characters create emotional bonds. We care what happens to them. And this caring, this connection, provides the emotional overtones that keep the situations consistently interesting.
Let’s look at the mother of all entertainment situations, the budding romantic relationship. This has universal appeal. We all (hopefully) experience love. And we all experience sexual attraction. This is something we can relate to. When it’s simmering between two characters we care about, it’s almost irresistible. Hollywood has tested this formula thousands of times in all different situations. They have mastered the ability to mercilessly tease us through the various stages of outright hostility but inner intrigue, unrequited love, flirtatious exploration, tentative connection, secretive romance, open declaration, romantic entanglement, betrayal, the inevitable break up, and then, the cycle can start all over again. It seems contrived because it is. But it works. I’ve just described 10 seasons of Friends. The truth is, however, that we would have never stuck it out if we didn’t care about Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Joey and Phoebe. The appeal of Friends was the appeal of the characters, not the situations.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at humor. What strikes us as funny, and why? Why is there a fine line between a baby’s laughter and tears? How can we find both Tyler Perry and Oscar Wilde funny? What part of the brain processes humor? Why is this different in men and women?