Issue 1/6 – Couch
The Couch and the Sitcom
One of the most formulaic of television of genres, the situation comedy is anchored around the sofa. Architect Sam Jacob tunes in.
Sitcoms take place almost exclusively in one or two interior settings. Their characters seem unable to leave this claustrophobic enclosure; so rarely are they afforded the opportunity of a different social architecture. There are two reasons for this Beckettian purgatory. Firstly, the simplification of location narrows the focus of the show and so helps the audience to understand the sitcom’s subject matter: if the show occurs in domestic spaces, it may be about family, marriage or the trials and tribulations of flat-sharing. A work-based sitcom might explore other kinds of social roles and interactions between character types that the employment scenario gives rise to. The second reason is practical: studio sets rather than locations are the mainstay of sitcom production as they have many economic and logistical benefits.
The living rooms, office spaces and bars of sitcom-land may look like the living rooms, office spaces and bars of the real world but they are patently not. They are distorted by the need to manoeuvre cameras, to position actors in a way that reads true to the audience, to allow for certain kinds of action to take place, such as the entry of characters into the scene. Sitcoms don’t happen between four walls but within three. They present themselves with a front. The audience looks into the sitcom world as though at a stage, or into a diorama. This has spatial consequences: rooms are arranged according to theatrical logic rather than real-world space-planning principles.
What this does is create spaces and objects that are both real (in the way they conjure a recognisable situation) and unreal (in the way they are distorted to accommodate the necessities of theatrical performance). Perhaps it’s the sitcom sofa that embodies this more than anything. This piece of furniture is often the landscape against which many episodes are played out. Emblematic of family unity, the sofa is the focus of any living-room scene. It forms a visual and spatial pivot for the room, not pushed against a wall – as most of our sofas are at home – but set in an open plan. This placement allows characters to walk in front and behind, to enter from the street (usually stage right), the kitchen (stage left) or down a staircase from the rarely seen private areas of the sitcom home.
The sitcom sofa – and the characters who sit upon it – tends to face us, the audience. It casts the viewer in the role of the television set: as we sit in our own homes on our own sofas, we find ourselves looking back at some strange kind of reflection.
It has been suggested that the set of American sitcom classic I Love Lucy helped change the way in which the public thought about kitchens. The show’s open-plan design allowed for more interaction than a traditional parlour kitchen, as well as for greater ease of filming. These characteristics subsequently became desirable spatial qualities for the audience in the real world. Perhaps this genre of programme has also been instrumental in altering the way we relate to our sofas. If so, then the socio-spatial dynamics of some of our most popular television shows warrant closer scrutiny.
ABC (USA), 1964–1972
A show about the difficulties of a newly married couple, whose expected matrimonial hiccups are compounded by the fact that the wife, Samantha Stephens, also happens to be a witch who can conjure things out of mid-air. By incorporating the feminist trope of the witch, the programme communicated the decade’s anxiety about various forms of social emancipation, be that racial, sexual, or in this case, gender.
At a time when success was measured by one’s ability to consume, Mrs Stephens’s magic powers were a particularly useful attribute. In the first few episodes she miraculously stocks the new family home with all the accoutrements of modern life, conjuring her sofa with the declaration that it should be ‘comfortable, something overstuffed.’ Over the course of the show’s run, the Stephens’s lounge room housed a range of sofas marking the decade’s transition in fashion from mid-century Scandinavian modern to a slightly plumper, green and yellow floral skirted number. Ironically, this is an object that other characters are intended to circumnavigate and admire, not to sit upon as the sofa is usually used for entertaining with cocktails rather than for lounging. Occasionally Mr Stephens might collapse on it after a hard day’s work as an advertising executive, an occupation which, given his wife’s ability to provide every possible home comfort at the twitch of a nose, is about as futile as his attempts to outlaw her innate magic.
The Cosby Show
NBC (USA), 1984–1992
Initially designed as a vehicle to launch standup comedian Bill Cosby’s television career, the show centers on the family home of the Huxtables, an upwardly mobile African-American middle-class family living in a Brooklyn brownstone. The show was touted as a social salve for the black community. James Wolcott of The New Yorker claimed it provided ‘a model of civil discourse and traditional values at a time of gangsta rap and trash talk.’
Given the show’s role in promoting a positive image of African-American society, it is no surprise that the Cosbys have more space than most other television families. Though The Cosby Show set is quite extensive, spanning kitchen, bedrooms and ancillary spaces, the narrative always seems to pan back to the sofa, where problems are first identified and eventually resolved. When Mrs Huxtable tries to replace the family furniture in season five, her husband makes his strength of feeling about his couch absolutely clear, addressing both her and the upholstery ‘…but I’m talking about LIFE. They tried to separate us… Thank goodness that my patient cancelled, otherwise I would not have been here to see my wife stab me in the sofa.’
NBC (USA), 1994–2004
Spearheaded by Rachel Green’s decision to flee the altar in pursuit of her independence, American super-sitcom Friends tells the story of six single American twenty-somethings living out early adulthood in noughties Manhattan. As the median age of marriage increases at the turn of the twenty-first century, the family support system expands to include one’s friends.
Different living-room sets were employed as couplings were made and undone from season to season forming ad hoc groups across various Manhattan apartments. Sofas were always a part of these arrangements. The show’s most famous and reliable couch did, however, conform to stereotype: the stalwart orange mohair of the Central Perk café was strange in sitcom history for being a sofa outside of the home. With super-sized teacups, the sofa completed a décor of exaggerated domesticity and was arranged facing front of the set. The comparison this raises between domestic and public space is important, with the café taking on the role of the traditional lounge room, a space to which a disparate group of friends can always return in order to find community, something now apparently impossible in the pseudo-private spaces of shared homes.
The Royle Family
BBC (UK), 2006–2012
The bourgeois territory of the sitcom is expanded with this portrayal of low-income British family life in Manchester at the turn of the millennium.
Huddled together and often over-occupied, The Royle Family’s three-piece suite points, naturally, towards a television. The critic Mark Lawson likens the lack of event to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: ‘Beached on their sofa in front of their god of a box, they patiently but hopelessly wait for a revelation that will never come…’ The show is far from banal, however, as the repetitive and circular dialogue and aimless bickering, not to forget bodily confrontation, accumulate into a poignant tragicomedy of the modern multigenerational household. The camera rarely assumes the position of the television in this case, preferring to take up other vantage points that include the TV as another character, endlessly spewing information into the room so that it can be communally chewed, provoking and appeasing in equal measures. Though often bleak, The Royle Family depicts the equation of family-plus-sofa-plus-television as one of active consumption, a sum of proximity and stimulation that results in dialogue rather than a dead-eyed stare.
ABC (USA), 2009–ongoing
The sitcom is the story of three interconnected families living in suburban Los Angeles, at the head of which is bumbling patriarch Jay Pritchett. The nuclear family unit is reconfigured by the consequences of divorce, remarriage, inter-racial, inter-generational and homosexual couplings and adoption. The show espouses that traditional and enduring values can be found in all these situations after all.
The camera roves between different domestic settings, observing day-to-day interactions and activities in mockumentary style. The show also adopts a confessional mode: each set of characters, often perched tightly together on their individual sofas, answers pertinent questions posed by an unseen interviewer whom they address as if he/she is standing directly behind the camera that faces them square on. Caught between posturing in an attempt to maintain their public image, and gleefully gossiping, eager to defame others and to please the ‘production team’, Modern Family reveals the sofa space to be a complex dichotomy of private fear and public bravado.