“Okay, okay, we passed Section One: Sitcoms about or involving Asian-American diner owners. Now on to Section Two: Fat, tubby TV husbands and the crazy-hot women that would never actually be married to them.” — J.D. testing his new girlfriend’s sitcom history knowledge in Scrubs Season 4, Episode 17, “My Life in Four Cameras” (2004)
“I’m talking about how we’re trapped in a mystical prison that’s constantly laughing at us—what are you guys talking about?” — Huey waking up in the middle of a magical sitcom curse in DuckTales Season 3, Episode 2, “Quack Pack” (2021)
Look: Having made it through the last several broadly written, incomprehensibly weird years, I think we can all admit that reality isn’t always as divorced from laugh-track sitcom logic as we might, y’know, prefer. Just this summer, for example, I found myself in a medium-speed chase with a lady in a stolen car who’d pulled an illegal U-turn and peeled through a red light after running into the back of my aged Prius—an absurd scenario that’s resulted not just in me having to pay out my insurance deductible with little hope of getting any of it back, but also in getting both myself and my 90-year-old passenger subpoenaed as witnesses. The icing on the reality-is-sitcom cake? The fact that I’ve since spent the better part of the next two weeks all but begging the police in two whole counties to take the other owner’s dropped front license plate off my hands. (One front desk officer, I am not kidding, literally threw her hands up in horrified refusal when I tried to hand her the plate less than an hour after the original accident. The laugh track basically played itself!)
All of which is to say, when a trend started to emerge earlier this year of ostensibly dramatic shows making the classic laugh-track sitcom format central to their respective in-world realities—first with Disney+’s WandaVision in January of 2021 and then with AMC’s Kevin Can F—k Himself in June—the effect ended up feeling a lot more natural than many of us might have anticipated. I mean, a traumatized superhero processing her grief by thrusting a whole town into a magical sitcom fantasy world? Sure! Why not! An emotionally-battered New England wife only able to conceive of her misogynist Masshole of a husband by seeing his world as existing on an overly lit multicam soundstage? Of course! Makes perfect sense! In the real world, Rudy Giuliani capped off 2020 by staging a tantrum of a press conference in the parking lot of an unknown Philly landscaping company at the exact same moment Biden’s victory was officially called. The whole damn world’s a sitcom!
That said, I think there’s a bit more to the narrative trend started by WandaVision and Kevin Can F—k Himself than the simple recognition that reality is (too often) a joke. For one thing (as TV scholars are likely to point out), the “Trapped in TV Land” trope has been around for decades, everything from Day By Day (1989) to My Name is Earl (2004) to Legends of Tomorrow (2020) taking gleeful advantage of the regenerative jolt of energy (not to mention fun) that comes from throwing a bunch of fan-favorite characters into a goofy fake sitcom for an episode or two. The broader “Show Within a Show” trope, meanwhile, has been around even longer, examples stretching all the way from CBS’s The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) to the second season of HBO Max’s The Other Two (2021). Hollywood, famously, loves little more than mythologizing itself. Making TV about making TV is pretty much the Platonic ideal.
The thing about tropes, though, is they’re made to be broken. Or, if not broken, then subverted. A subverted trope, like a solid punchline, can give an audience a window to the kinds of underlying truths that might have been impossible (or worse, narratively tedious) to tease out through a more traditional lens. Which is to say, sure: A single episode of Kevin Can F—k Himself splitting its time between the grim-dark psychodrama that Allison (Annie Murphy) inhabits when she’s alone, and the bright, slapsticky sitcom that takes over whenever Kevin (Eric Petersen) and/or his buddies are in the room would, more or less, get the point across—e.g., that, regardless of the last few years’ handful of ostensible #TimesUp victories, modern American society still rewards narcissistic man-children like Kevin, even (or especially) at the expense of the long-suffering women in their lives.
Dragging that same exhausting formula out for the entire season, though? Literally packing the nonsense shenanigans of a whole-ass multicam episode into every single longer Breaking Bad-esque outing? That ends up making Allison’s reality so much bleaker than a straight Breaking Bad approach ever could. I mean, the sheer relentlessness of it! Not only does the show have the audience suffering through it at the same time that Allison does, in some cases—like in Episode 4, “Live Free or Die”—we’re stuck watching what Kevin and crew get up to when Allison’s not even there. The charmed way that Kevin walks through the world haunts us, just like it haunts Allison. There’s no escaping it for her (at least, in her mind), which means there’s no escaping it for us, either.
WandaVision, though wildly different in both tone and intended audience (kids: do NOT watch Kevin Can F—k Himself), uses its protracted take on the “Trapped in TV” trope to accomplish almost the exact same thing. Only, where Kevin uses multiple abrupt genre-transitions each episode to unsettle its audience and build a mounting sense of dread that doesn’t even start to resolve until the final few minutes of the season finale, WandaVision builds its dread by hermetically sealing the audience inside Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) fantasy world for the duration of its first few episodes—period-appropriate ad breaks included. Your mileage may vary as to whether it was dread you felt building, or just a sense of supernatural mystery, but given how thoroughly that series took over the pop culture discourse for two straight months, something was building.
Interestingly, even though the mystery of what the sitcom world was was revealed to the audience midway through the season, the visceral feeling of imprisonment never went away. Rather, in revealing that Wanda had trapped an entire town of innocent people inside their own minds just so she could have enough puppets to populate her dream reality, that viscerality just kept skyrocketing. Sure, as with Kevin, the sitcom-within-a-drama device could easily have been dispensed with once the “point” was made. By doggedly seeing it through to the end, though, WandaVision let that gut feeling of something just being wrong with Westview just grow deeper and deeper, until there was no way out but an Apocalypse.
What’s so fascinating to me about both of these examples is how effective the multi-cam sitcom format ends up being as a generator of dread. I mean, it’s not hard to see the darkness crackling at the heart of the worst examples of the medium—the forebodingly frenzied laughter that ramps up over Kevin’s title card break really underscores how it feels to watch something like Kevin Can Wait or The Ranch and realize that someone, somewhere, thinks these jokes are funny. But that’s the thing: Sitcoms are shows based on jokes, they’re meantto be funny! And yet, aside from the live television coverage of a literal attempted insurrection, truly nothing this year has been a darker watch for me than the final few episodes of WandaVision, or the entire run of Kevin Can F—k Himself. And, much like with the surrealist Adult Swim special Too Many Cooks from 2014, it was the sitcom of it all that got them there.
Interestingly, as Paste’s own Garrett Martin recently pointed out, Chris Elliot took his own stab at this “sitcom as drama” approach all the way back in 1986, with his short-lived detective drama/family sitcom, Action Family. Whereas Kevin Can F—k Himself and WandaVision are using the formula to add both complexity and nuance to their respective narratives, Action Family was “purely a formal exercise, the kind of postmodern twist on TV stereotypes that Elliott employed on Late Night with David Letterman in the ‘80s and, later, in his timeless sitcom Get a Life. All it wants to do is make you laugh while breaking the rules of TV.” In Elliot’s case, it seems, it was the drama of it all that made the comedy work. A trope subverted in the opposite direction!
I can’t decide if I think this embedded, dread-inducing sitcom device will turn into a larger trend, or if the fact that both WandaVision and Kevin Can F—k Himself used it within a few months of each other is just an especially eerie coincidence at the end of a couple of especially eerie years; reality, as we’ve established, is strange. But I do know that over on linear Disney, Trevor Moore’s Just Roll With It, a prank/improv show disguised as a sitcom about a blended family who runs a Midwest radio station, is two seasons deep into putting its own spin on the concept. Thankfully, though, the only dread Just Roll With It is likely to induce is whether or not one of the stars will end up eating a cricket-filled donut, or be draped in snakes. And I don’t know about you, but after that Kevin Can F—k Himself finale, that’s honestly the level of dread I’m up for.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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