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The Sitcom Renaissance Has Arrived – And No, We're Not Joking

Shows like Channel 4's 'Stath Lets Flats' show audiences can care about the half-hour format – it just needs specificity.

by Lauren O'Neill
05 September 2019, 8:30am

Image courtesy of Channel 4

If you’re the sort of person who has just clicked onto an article about sitcoms, you don’t need me to tell you that the funniest show on British TV right now is Jamie Demitriou’s Channel 4 comedy Stath Lets Flats. It’s a programme of many charms – the desperately sweet, dippy characters, Demitriou’s uncanny aptitude for physical gags, and the phrase “Oh my crump” all come to mind. But best of all, Stath Lets Flats isn’t trying to do anything complicated. It’s just a really funny, straight-up, workplace sitcom.

With an ensemble cast and a half-hour slot on a major TV channel, Stath Lets Flats is a reminder that the sitcom is still capable of great (not to mention critically acclaimed) things. For the last decade or so – as reality formats have grown in number, and prestige dramas have ruled screens – British sitcoms haven’t really impacted culture the way they used to (the same is true in the US, save for anomalies like Veep and Broad City). This is potentially because viewing habits have changed, but it’s also because sitcoms just haven’t felt very cool: there’s been much more on the Miranda end of the spectrum than say, the People Just Do Nothing end.

Though some very good sitcoms, like PJDN and This Country, have squeezed through the cracks since 2010, ever since the end of The Inbetweeners there’s not really been a show that has permeated culture in the same way – or indeed in the way that great sitcoms from Only Fools and Horses to The Office have in the past. With shows like Stath Lets Flats, then, Channel 4, who are longtime proponents of the sitcom, seem to be determined to demonstrate that the half-hour comedy can still be a success. Indeed, over the last year, the network has had both critical and commercial success with comedy, but especially sitcoms. As companies use their bespoke streaming services to battle for our attention, might a by-product be a new, more relevant sitcom era?

You might think so, taking a first look at Derry Girls, Lisa McGee’s clever, warmhearted show that sets 90s teen nostalgia against a backdrop of Troubles-era Derry. The first episode of its second season aired in March, and attracted 3.2 million viewers – this made it Channel 4’s biggest comedy launch in 15 years. Since then, it’s been syndicated by Netflix, giving it a new life and viewership in the USA and beyond: it’s a proper, bonafide hit. Elsewhere, Roisin Conaty’s fun, silly GameFace (which recently ended a second season that promisingly saw it move from E4 to Channel 4), and This Way Up, Aisling Bea’s show about mental illness and recovery, have also gone down well with both critics and audiences.

Channel 4 has a great history with sitcoms: along with the BBC, it’s the UK’s major incubator of Funny Half Hours™ – since the 1990s, it’s been behind Father Ted, Green Wing, Nathan Barley, Spaced, and arguably the greatest British sitcom of all time, Peep Show. In a climate dominated by streaming, it’s good to see that traditional programming in the UK is still interested in finding something different, and, crucially, modern.

Streaming services seem to be constantly loading up with tried and tested sitcoms – for example what Netflix has done with Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – potentially to support their own original programming. While there’s nothing wrong with offering audiences home comforts or the shows they liked when they were kids, the tidal wave of older programmes regaining relevance in turn feeds into the larger problem of America’s current obsession with remakes, reboots, and reruns.

Much of the US’s cultural production eventually trickles through to us in the UK, which means that British audiences too feel the strain of Rebootmania. For their part, Channel 4 seems committed to commissioning original programmes to offer an alternative to what we’ve seen before (give or take the wretched Big Bang Theory reruns that haunt E4). Often their strategy feels like it follows a model of identifying a talented comedian or performer and allowing them to create a show according to their ideas and capital-’v’ “Vision” (of the current crop, Stath Lets Flats, GameFace, and This Way Up – helmed by Demitriou, Conaty, and Bea – follow this pattern). This necessarily leads to a modernisation of the format.

At the end of last year, Jack Bernhardt wrote for The Guardian that “The sitcom is not dead, we just need to get its reputation out of the 70s and celebrate the great writing and performing talent we have today,” but I’d argue that this is already happening, particularly when networks hand the reins over to young comics. Certainly, sitcoms like Mrs Brown’s Boys on the BBC do little to make the sitcom feel relevant, but a show like Stath Lets Flats – with its Greek-Cypriot immigrant main characters, and constant play on that thoroughly millennial scourge, the estate agent – does the exact opposite. Instead, it shows younger viewers the world they live in, and makes it extremely funny – while also refusing to fall into any of the prejudices exemplified by older iterations of the sitcom form (think of the casual homophobia of Friends, or the racism of Love Thy Neighbour, or Til Death Do Us Part.)

That’s not to say, however, that audiences have fully caught on yet. Despite Stath Lets Flats' absurd originality, its viewing figures suggest that its following is a cult one (it opened on Channel 4 in 2018 with 460,000 viewers for its first ever episode, which was down almost 300,000 from the average of 770,000 viewers for the slot that the show aired in). In fact, Derry Girls’ widespread success has made it the exception, rather than the rule.

And, really, that's because sitcoms are often slow burners. Even Peep Show, now treated with reverence in British comedy, only managed about a million viewers an episode by its fourth season, and even came close to being cancelled. Obviously we now know that Channel 4 chose to keep it alive. And still the network seems to put its faith in new sitcom talent, offering UK audiences new comic perspectives, whether the success has been critical, commercial, or both. Oh, and if you haven’t watched Stath Lets Flats, it’s time.

@hiyalauren