Evolution of a sitcom

Here’s something I’ve noticed from my many years of watching too much TV. Sitcoms that start out really well inevitably evolve into a pathetic imitation of their former glory. Give them enough years and they all go that way, I think.
I have three good examples: Roseanne, MASH, and Happy Days. Anyone have any others to add?
All three of those started out as very funny, witty sitcoms in which it was obvious that people put some real effort in. Then they evolved into something else. Roseanne became a hideous, unfunny exercise of Roseanne’s pop psychology and plastic surgery. Instead of a lovable but acerbic blue collar family, they all turned into hateful, spite filled, parent-hating jerks. The early days of Happy Days were totally different from the Fonzie-dominated rubbish that soon took over. It was actually a very enjoyable, albeit light, homage to the (supposedly) carefree days of the 1950s, not a dumbed down rehash of sitcom plots involving a guy with a magical thumb.
Both MASH and Roseanne suffered from the actors’ obvious disdain for continuing to look realistic in their roles. The Conner family, especially Roseanne, looked very authentic in the early years but then evolved into looking like exactly what they were: surgically altered, carefully coiffed Hollywood automatons walking around a set. MASH took on a totally different look when they switched to doing all the scenes on a soundstage instead of spending the extra bucks for an actual outdoor shot. And the hair style on Hotlips went from something you might think a nurse in Korea would wear to a carefully done, platinum blond sort of thing that looked like it never had blood splattered in it.
It just seems such a shame to take a well done bit of entertainment and then have everyone decide that it’s too much trouble to keep a bit of verisimilitude. And I guess the actors get tired of looking schlumpy on TV all the time.
Anyone else notice this or have other examples?
– Greg, Atlanta (whose cable is out right now, and that’s probably for the best)

I would have to add All in the Family and Cheers to your list. You’re right about the shows you mentioned and the reasons they declined. Some other reasons shows go downhill:
They take themselves too seriously, and feel they have to deal with “issues” instead of just being funny.
Characters become characatures of themselves: the Fonz, Kramer, everyone on Married with Children. Others lose the flaws that made them funny or at least identifiable.


Once the show got popular (right around the time the “Jerry” pilot was the central focus of the show) it went downhill. I blame bad writing, Newman, George getting employment, Kramer being more of a focus, and Newman again.

The same thing happens with dramas, too. The smart people (Dick Van Dyck, Mary Tyler Moore, the Honeymooners) quit when the quality of the scripts began to deteriorate. But it’s too tempting to go on.

Usually the team of writers changes during the show’s run. The newer writers aren’t as good as the original, and things fall off from there.

It’s a normal part of a show’s evolution.


Chalk it up to the power of the actors. As a show becomes popular, the lead actors, as the face of the show, become more and more powerful and are able to negotiate things like producer responsibilities and the like. The director has very little power on a series (as compared to a film). I think this explains the Roseanne and MASH phenomena, Roseanne took over the show and hired only writers who wrote what she wanted to do, Alan Alda got tired of playing a one dimensional character and changed MASH into a drama. The Cheers issue could be chalked up to rising production costs. As the actors got to be paid more (I believe Ted Danson was the highest paid actor on TV for a few seasons) the budget allotted to the writers suffers. The good writers eventually get production deals with more money than the former writing gigs (Cheers was created by the Charles brothers, former Taxi writers and University of Redlands Alumni). Seinfeld suffered once Larry David left the show.

I actually hated Roseanne the first year. Then it was great. UNTIL the last year. I think Tom Arnold’s departure had to do with that.

MASH was hard to maintain nearly 4 times the lenght of the Koren War. Plus only 3 orginal cast memebers. And Hawkeye character wasn’t as central in the beginning.

Happy Days WASN’T a hit until the Fonz took over. Then it was the Fonzie show.

But sit-coms all suffer from, people get old and age. It’s great to have a show about kids but two seasons later they aren’t kids. What do you do with the show?

I believe the Simpsons (though declining now) has survived so well because the characters don’t age. Would Bart be funny at 18? Hardly.

There’s a website devoted to this subject: www.jumptheshark.com. It defines the turning point of a TV show as “jumping the shark”, as in the episode where Fonzie waterskied over a shark. I probably heard about it here.

Remember, I’m pulling for you; we’re all in this together.
—Red Green

It seems that the useful life of a really good sitcom is about five years. If it stinks the first year and grows into a good show (Roseanne) it might get an extra year --but(to coin an axiom), all sitcoms that go on more than six years stink by the end. Even the Sitcom of Sitcoms, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, became more and more centered on Ted and Georgette in the last two years and lost its focus.

Writers leave, actors get bored, or worse, fall into the dreaded desire to be liked. That, imho, is what destroyed MASH – they made all the characters exactly the same person in the desire to make them all likable. In the last couple of years they all talked in those weird, creepy one-liners; to spread the “laughs” around, in character or no. Dreadful.

Of course, it’s not just sitcoms. The fabulous Carol Burnett Show went completely to hell the day Tim Conway became a regular. His selfish scene-stealing (forget about comic timing, development of jokes, the skills of experienced writers! The only thing that matters is that I can make Harvey Korman laugh!) and the other cast members’ indulgence of it utterly destroyed a great show – that and that miserable “Mama’s Family” thing that sometimes took up half the show.


I think when someone creates a show, the plan is for it to last five years. Though they realise, of course, that it’s got little chance of doing that. However they hope it will last seven years. That seems to be a goal symbolic of ‘classic’ status.

But the chances of a sitcom sustaining its premise to seven years or more when originally they barely expected it to last past season one let alone reach season five, is a good indicator why they are doomed to failure after a certain high point.

It’s often about the time a new romantic interest becomes a regular, where previously there was none. Or they introduce a baby that rapidly ages five years between seasons (c.f. Family Ties).

Just to pick a nit, there were a lot more than three original cast members left at the end of MASH. Klinger, Hawkeye, Mulcahy, and Hot-lips come to mind right off the bat. And a lot of secondary cast members like Sgt. Zale and the cook…

I think a lot of the deterioration can be attributed to the power of the stars. A lot of them have demanded writing and directing privileges when negotiating new contracts.

Plus, the chemistry of a long-running show is hard to manage over time because cast members leave, die, etc. Sitcoms that have kids on them have to make the transition to adolescence and adulthood, and usually lose the magic along the way. All in the Family was never the same after Meathead and Gloria moved out. Cheers survived the death of the Coach, but the disaster was when Kirstie Alley came along. MASH was never the same after Henry Blake, Trapper, and Frank all left. Family Ties failed when the show started focusing on Alex in University and his love life, rather than the interactions of the family. And who can forget “Joanie loves Chachi”? Apparently everyone.

I’ve noticed that the same thing tends to happen to SDMB threads.