Vantage point

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sitcoms and Movies

Here is a potentially disastrous bit of news. After the success of the Sex and The City movie, there are now plans to make a FRIENDS movie. Given how abysmal the last few (in fact last 6!) seasons of FRIENDS were, I don't expect the movie to be good.

But this got me thinking about a larger question. Is it a bad idea to make any sitcom into a movie? Or can a film adaptation actually work for some sitcoms? When I say "work", I mean the cinematic quality in my eyes, not box office success, which is a foregone conclusion for a hit sitcom.

And I have concluded that the quality of a sitcom-based-movie depends largely on one factor. Is the underlying storyline interesting and strong enough? Or so express it in programmer lingo, how important are the globally defined variables, as opposed to the locally defined variables?

Most sitcoms (especially American sitcoms) are written in a very modular fashion. Every 22 minute episode is written with a goal to make it funny and entertaining, independent of the other episodes. In fact American sitcoms are so gag-filled that often, short 15-30-60 bits are written to be funny independent of the rest of the same episode. Not that they all succeed, but that seems to be the attempt.

So given the modular nature of the 22-minute episodes, a movie is more often than not likely to resemble just a much longer episode. Unless..... there is a strong underlying plot (story arc) that moves significantly from episode-to-episode or season-to-season. That plot would then actually make a good film story over a longer period of time.

But American sitcoms rarely have a story arc for various reasons. So regardless of the quality of the characters, writing, acting, and direction, the film versions of most sitcoms will end up seeming like longer episodes. And not everyone can manage to create a 90-minute episode that will be absorbing. The one exception in my eyes - The South Park movie, which was a pretty good 90 minute episode. In fact even their Imaginationland story arc could make a decent "movie".

But as good as the South Park 90-minute episode was, it was still just that. An episode. It lacked the "global" characteristic that would make it an independent movie in its own right. Because there is no strong underlying storyline to the series that could be translated to the big screen. As good as the Seinfeld series was, its film adaptation will suffer from the same problem. Lack of a strong underlying storyline. So whether you watch Seinfeld or South Park episodes in chronological order, or randomly, it doesn't make too much difference to their entertainment value. Which is probably why Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David smartly and sensibly never made a movie, despite the massive financial potential of such a project (though on the Jon Stewart show, Jerry did say he wanted to make a 10-15 minute long epilogue episode, which would be great).

So as I think about this a bit more, I can think of only one good sitcom that could be made into an actual movie as opposed to a 90-minute episode. Arrested Development. As hilarious as its every episode was, there was a strong narrative that moved substantially as the series moved along. Watching its episodes in sequence increases its entertainment value exponentially, because there are a lot of jokes, themes and sub-plots that make sense only in the larger context.

Another reason that makes an Arrested Development movie likely to be more movie-ish than episode-ish, is that the series was abruptly canceled. The writers did try to tie some loose ends together in the final episodes, but it does seem as if there is a lot more of the overall story left to tell.

Which is why I am keenly looking forward to the Arrested Development movie, whose script Mitchell Hurwitz is working on.

But the FRIENDS movie? Brrrrrrrrr!