There was no way for Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) to protect his body after he was immobilized by a savage beating, but on Wednesday night’s episode, his mind took refuge in the most nonthreatening environment imaginable: a 1980s sitcom. The first 17 minutes of “Master Slave” fastidiously mimicked the look and feel of a vintage late-20th-century half-hour, with its static, two-dimensional framing and smeary DigiBeta palette.
According to Sam Esmail, who created the show and directed the episode, the idea was that after Ray (Craig Robinson), a still-mysterious figure who runs an online black market frequented by hitmen and human traffickers, had Elliot beaten senseless, Elliot’s dissociative personality, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), took over, and the sitcom was where Elliot waited until it was safe to come out again. But even in the cozy confines of his multicam fugue state, Elliot knew something wasn’t right. His dad was coughing blood, his mother kept coldcocking his sister—and where the hell was that disembodied laughter coming from?
The runaway viral success of 2014’s “Too Many Cooks“ confirmed what many already knew: Sitcoms are downright creepy. There’s still a substantial appetite for shows in the classic format, filmed on standing sets in front of a studio audience: The Big Bang Theory, which will go into its tenth season this fall, draws in excess of 20 million viewers an episode, and while Netflix doesn’t release viewing data, external studies suggested that its Full House reboot was massively popular, certainly enough so for the streaming giant to order another round of episodes. But they’re vastly outnumbered by single-camera comedies, which are shot like TV dramas and movies, even on network TV, let alone the rest of the virtual dial. Multicamera sitcoms are still hugely popular, but they feel like relics.
The idea that there’s something ugly hiding under the sitcom’s surface only attaches to the last few decades. The Brady Bunch and Happy Days may seem dated, but they feel escapist rather than unsettling. There was Todd Haynes’ Dottie Gets Spanked, a 1993 short film that details a young man’s erotic fascination with a 1950s sitcom modeled on I Love Lucy, but there’s nothing sordid or unnatural about the boy’s desire. Compare that to I Love Mallory, the ’80s-style sitcom pastiche from Oliver Stone’s 1994 movie Natural Born Killers.
I Love Mallory is styled as a standard TV take on suburban family life, All in the Family by way of Married … With Children: There’s a loud-mouthed patriarch, played by Rodney Dangerfield, a submissive mom, a wise-cracking younger brother, and, at the center, teenage Mallory (Juliette Lewis), who will grow up to be an enthusiastic spree killer. But the familiar sitcom argument over a teenage girl’s revealing dress quickly turns ugly and gets uglier still when it becomes clear that the tough-talking dad is sexually abusing his daughter. Stone departs from the visual language of the sitcom, cutting to bludgeoning close-ups of the mother’s helpless eyes and the father’s hands kneading his daughter’s ass, but keeps the laugh track rolling even though no one in the movie’s audience is actually laughing. In the forthcoming book The Oliver Stone Experience, Stone tells Matt Zoller Seitz that Mallory and her partner in crime, Mickey, are “the products of a numbed-out civilization,” and we know what that civilization’s favorite show is.
Mr. Robot’s sitcom interlude plays it comparatively straight, at least visually. Even the shot of a man’s body after a fatal car accident doesn’t violate the medium’s language; the tire tracks that run across his body are perfectly defined, as if the makeup artist just finished stenciling them on. For its TV broadcast, the show extended the illusion with a commercial break featuring a vintage Bud Light ad with dogs jumping through a flaming hoop. But Elliot himself wasn’t in on the joke: From the opening frame on, he grew increasingly disturbed by his fellow castmates’ inability to recognize what was going on around them, another variation on one of Mr. Robot’s core themes: When you alone see the truth, clarity is indistinguishable from madness. Eventually, Elliot’s father, who, like Mr. Robot, is played by Christian Slater, had to pull him aside and explain, “Sometimes lies can be useful, Elliot. Sometimes they can protect you.”
That’s as true now as is as it was during the heyday of TGIF, but some lies are more effective than others, and the particular version of innocence peddled by ’80s and ’90s family sitcoms is no longer a comforting fraud. It’s more like the going-through-the-motions version of domesticity your parents put on over breakfast after they were up screaming at each other all night. Those lies work for a while, but they can’t last forever, and when you look back, you always knew something wasn’t right.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, whose central character is the star of a (fake) popular ’90s sitcom called Horsin’ Around, is predicated on peeling back the sitcom’s facade and showing the real-life wreckage left in its wake. BoJack himself is a self-loathing mess who can only accept love in the form of applause; his former child co-stars are washed-up nobodies or downward-spiraling drug addicts. The show’s third season centers on BoJack’s push for a career-redefining Oscar nomination, but the campaign comes at the cost of BoJack admitting that the sitcom whose success is his only significant achievement is anodyne garbage, and it always was. Even the people who once loved the show have given up on it, although it has a new group of fans who enjoy it precisely because it’s bad.
On Mr. Robot, Elliot’s attempt to take shelter inside a sitcom is doomed from the start, and not even Alf can save it. In the show’s first season, he shut out so much of his own past that he didn’t even recognize his own sister, but now those memories have come back, and there’s no way to call up the good parts of his childhood without remembering the bad ones, too. Contemporary sitcoms have their escapist qualities as well, but they’re more likely to mix the bitter with the sweet on a regular basis than confine it to the occasional very special episode. You don’t have too look too far beneath the surface of Black-ish to see the trauma of racism, or scour Veep for commentary on our toxic political culture. It’s part of the shows’ humor, not extrinsic to it.
Many of today’s half-hour comedies will seem antiquated in 30 years, as will the vogue for self-consciously downbeat dramas about troubled antiheroes. But laugh-tracked multicamera sitcoms are a distinct art form, and one whose era is likely drawing to a close. Deconstructing them is an easy way to seem superior, but they’re easy targets, and hitting them doesn’t earn you many points. Three decades from now, TV shows taking shots at sitcoms may seem as dated as the sitcoms themselves.