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Life is a Sitcom: How Our Reality Mirrors 'Burn Notice'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 4, 2014 |


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I think most of us in these parts have a profound dislike for the sitcom style of television. I don’t necessarily mean the multi-camera setup on sound stages with the maniacal laugh tracks that don’t seem to match any actual expression of on-screen humor. Well, not totally, though such shows do map almost one-to-one onto those I mean. I mean the sitcom idea of life, in which after 30 minutes all problems are solved and the universe resets to where it was at the top of the hour. Next week will be a different situation, but the setting, the context, all else will remain exactly the same from episode to episode, season to season. Small changes occur, but big events rarely do. The world and its characters are fundamentally static.

It makes for painful and terrible storytelling, and it’s not just confined to increasingly obsolete comedies.

I have a bad habit of reading episode summaries of shows that I’m far behind on, but am curious as to where they end up. Not shows that really capture me, though I don’t wage holy wars against spoilers. But shows that I have a small interest in, that I’ll more likely than not catch up on through reruns on some cable channel half out of order instead of ever seeing on Netflix or Amazon.

So I was reading how Burn Notice ended, having last regularly watched it somewhere around halfway through its run, but wondering whether poor Michael Westen ever managed to get out of Miami, and whether Fiona ever reacquired the Irish accent from the pilot. See, nothing ever changed on the show. The individual episodes are fun, but at the end of the day, Michael’s still going to be in Miami helping people and he’s going to have his buddies helping out, subject to actor attrition more than any actual evolution of the story. The side characters and antagonists gradually become indistinguishable as you read forward, interchangeable as cogs.

The thing is, most of the time , life works more like these static shows than it does like the well-told stories that we prefer. We get up in the morning, five days a week, same place, same time, same commute. The people at the office are the same, save for when they get swapped out for almost identical people through workforce attrition. And we wake up after seven seasons and the most tragic thing isn’t that we’ve become something we loathe, but that other than accidental and inevitable changes, we’re exactly the same person we were seven years ago.

And sure, we can point to the changes, to the evolution, if we’re forced to, but it rarely has the dramatic growth that protagonists of good dramas have. Our days fade into each other like the midseason episodes of a procedural, with a few very special ones sticking with us, maybe changing the course of our lives, but week in and week out, the day resets each morning just like on laugh-track comedies. Eventually there’s change, just like eventually Michael gets out of Miami, but those are the exceptions and they tend to be sudden the way series finales are rather than gradual over the span of the season of our lives. Most lives are static until the drama hits like a tidal wave and we find ourselves on an entirely new show.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it seems like a horrific condemnation of the triteness of common lives. There’s that old Chinese curse that was probably made up for a B-movie in the sixties: “May you live in interesting times.” High drama is not the soil that yields happiness.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.


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