Somebody† once said that “comedy has a time and a place”, meaning that specificity is funnier than ambiguity.
At least, that’s what I think it means.
Sitcoms should be set somewhere, not just a generic town but Surbiton or East Cheam or Torquay. Locating the characters in a physical location helps define them, the range of stories and the type of humour.
They should also be set some-when. This is something I feel quite strongly about, not just where comedy is concerned but for all genres. When I read a script the first thing I want to know is when it’s set. It’s hard to get a decent mental image of someone ‘dressed in their Sunday best’ or ‘polishing his new car’* if you’ve no idea whether the script is set in the ’20s or the present day.
I expect to read the time period in brackets at the end of the first scene header.^ If someone doesn’t include the time then I guess it could be read as default Present Day, but just like a story where you don’t see a character’s face makes me suspect it’s a character who’s being deliberately kept secret, not reading the time period makes me wonder if it’s a deliberate trick.
Now I’m expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me, if it doesn’t happen it’s always faintly unsettling. On screen you can see instantly roughly when a story is set (assuming it’s not opening at a present day ’80s fancy dress party or something) so why not mention it right off the bat?
Similarly, keeping the location vague rarely makes it feel inclusive because either that place looks like your home town or it doesn’t.# Knowing where in the world the story takes place as quickly as possible helps the viewer concentrate on the story.
I’ve been watching two TV programmes recently which having confusing time periods: Sex Education and Star Trek: Discovery.
The first episode of Sex Education confused the hell out of me. The adults are wearing ’50s clothes in their ’50s houses. The kids are wearing ’70s clothes. Except those kids who are wearing ’80s clothes, driving a new ’90s car. The school looks American but everyone’s talking in an English accent. The English accented Head Boy is even wearing an American Jacket.
When the fuck is this set? And where? What am I watching?
Which is fine, I guess. For some reason this is the look they wanted for the show: deliberately confusing. The problem I have is while I’m being confused by all the visuals I’m not concentrating on the characters or the story. I’m not empathising with anyone because I’m trying to figure out the basic details, the minimum information I need to get started.
I’m not sure this is a great idea.
Similarly, ST: Discovery – what the fuck is going on there? Two seasons in and I still keep wondering why it’s a prequel? I mean, why? What possible benefit is there to telling a prequel story when everything on screen tells you it’s set sometime after Voyager? It’s almost like they got to the end of production before someone decided to make it a prequel.
“But it’s clearly a sequel, it looks nothing like the pre-Kirk era.”
“Fuck it, it’ll be fine. Just change the dates on the screen. Ooh! And call those new aliens Klingons!”
“The aliens which look and act nothing like Klingons?”
“Yeah, fuck it. Just dub everything into Klingon. People won’t notice.”
I just don’t understand why? So they can introduce Spock’s hitherto unspoken of sister? Why is she Spock’s sister? Why is that important? What does it add beyond a quick nod of recognition followed by weeks of … wait a minute. It’s not even like they’re filling in any details we’ve longed to hear about for years.
I mean, at least the Star Wars prequels told the origins of characters we already knew. I’ve always thought a Star Trek series set aboard Pike’s or April’s Enterprise would be cool. I felt ’90s ST became a little too utopian for effective drama, all those well balanced, nice people weren’t great for storytelling. A prequel show has the opportunity to be a little more ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’. Less tech is more interesting, let’s see how they cope without stuff … but a prequel with more tech?
I guess the difference between these examples (at least for me, I’m aware my opinion isn’t valid outside my own head) is I care about the characters in Sex Education. I relate to half of them and can see my friends reflected in the rest. It may not look or feel like anywhere I’ve ever lived but the characters feel familiar and once I’d gotten over the weirdly conflicting visual information I was hooked.
Discovery, not so much. I mean, the characters are okay … but they keep doing nonsensical things which make it hard for me to believe in them. I think the show has many problems (and the odd nugget of joy) but a good chunk of them would be resolved by not being the prequel it doesn’t look like.
I guess the point I’m trying to make (apart from character is king) is why add more confusion than is necessary to tell the story? If something’s not meant to be a mystery, don’t make it one. Don’t deliberately try to confuse the audience$ about things which don’t need to be confusing.
Not knowing when or where something is set is disorientating. If there’s no story need for doing it, why do it?
† Was it Galton and/or Simpson? Or maybe Barry Cryer? I can’t remember. Maybe it was me? Sounds a bit too clever for me.
* I would never write something like this because a car tells you a lot about a person. The kind of person who polishes a new Ford Ka is a very different to the kind who’s just bought a new Lamborghini. Probably. Unless they’re the kind of person who’s got one of every car ever made, in which case they might be equally happy with whatever they’ve bought.
^ Which, I suppose, makes it the second thing I want to know since it immediately follows the location.
# I think this is only true of a story which takes place in your home country. Or one you know well. As a kid I had no concept that Hill Valley was geographically adrift because I just assumed all American towns look like that. Take the town in Gremlins, for example, that looks nearly identical!+
+ Yes, I know. That’s the joke.
$ Or me. Don’t try to confuse me. I confuse easily and then cry about it.