One of the historic functions of American sitcoms has been to deal with taboo issues in the society of the time. This purpose has been all but forgotten as network television becomes increasingly more conservative, both on the production and audience side. Although, it’s not as if cable TV is stepping into the breach. Cable channels tend to use their license to push boundaries on representation for infantile laughs rather than a progressive cause. I suspect that increased conglomerate ownership of TV stations has something to do with this too. If you’re appealing to the same judges, you’re bound to get the same verdict. I bring this up because I just happened to come across episodes of two 1980s sitcoms based around controversial topics on TV recently, although the rate of re-run on some channels does rather push the odds in favour of that happening. I was first struck by how committed each sitcom was to serious treatment of the issue in question, as opposed to today when it would need to be discussed by proxy. Then what stayed with me was the contrast between the ways the sitcoms handled delicate subjects, though neither seemed to proceed with much delicacy.
The first was a two-part episode of Different Strokes called ‘The Bicycle Man’. It’s a notorious episode of an already pretty notorious sitcom. You may think there’s nothing creepier than a grown man with an ageing disorder being made to play a child but there is, and it’s a grown man with an ageing disorder being made to play a child being pursued by a paedophile. It’s a classic case of wanting to have your cake and eat it, appropriately enough as that’s what the child molester uses to try and get into Arnold’s pants. The sitcom is earnest about educating the audience (especially children) on the dangers of paedophilia, and the final scene, which seems to go on forever, is basically a PSA. But the producers are also clearly reluctant to disturb the conventions of the studio sitcom, and so we still have a laughter track and one-liners about paedophilia. Some of this works in regards to the molester himself, who uses comedy to cosy up to children, but most of the time it feels like the episode is pulling in different directions. That said, the pathological profiling of the paedophile is the most sophisticated I’ve seen in television.
The second was an episode of The Golden Girls called ’72 Hours’ in which Rose is informed she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and has a three-day wait to find out. Unlike Different Strokes which doubled its length and set aside screen time to outline the issue, Rose’s predicament is a subplot of a normal episode rather than an issue-based special. This underlines the fact that the sitcom dealt with taboo topics like racism, sexism and homophobia all the time but was also indicative of how the writers wanted the audience to calm down about HIV rather than obsessing over it. This was 1990, so it’s not exactly typical at this point to portray HIV as an everyday part of contemporary society that affects straight as well as gay people, yet that’s exactly the jumping-off point of this episode. Not that the writers are in any way idealistic about how people of an older generation respond to the threat of HIV. Rose is understandably scared and turns to scapegoating promiscuous gay men while Sophia starts labelling her cups and using different bathrooms. No-one is condemned for acting irrationally here but no-one is let off the hook either.
It’s a shame these episodes stand out in today’s TV. Look at Modern Family. We have a gay couple at the heart of the show yet the Christian ownership of ABC by Disney means that we’ve never had a storyline which draws attention to their struggles in society. We only got a kiss between them after gay marriage became culturally acceptable, five seasons in. You might argue that the permanent presence of previously marginalised characters in a sitcom is a bigger step forward than a devoted storyline to issues in their community, but, again, take Modern Family. Have any of the clichés or misconceptions about gay men disappeared by having Mitch and Cam as protagonists? When it comes to taboo issues in sitcoms, I think concept and execution are polarising. Many sitcoms like The Middle address agonising social problems because of what they are and not what they talk about.