With Fall comes the new TV season, and the foundation of TV is the sitcom. Sitcoms are about the central community in American life, the family. For that reason, sitcoms give us one of the best laboratories in storytelling for how to live in America today. They emphasize two things especially: 1) how people deal with the forces of society that constantly implode onto the family and 2) how individuals move through the various stages of life in a clumsy but dignified way.
Home Improvement is a good example of the current sitcom. form. Not just because it is so popular, but because it is a unique mixture of old and new.
To see how it works – and thus how to write for it – let’s look at it using the seven basic story steps.
Problem/Need: In many ways the sitcom., until recently, was a history of visions of the perfect father. “Father knows best” has always been the subtext; what changed was how to be a good father. We’ve gone from Jim Anderson to Rob Petrie to Archie Bunker (the first anti-sitcom) to Lou Grant to Cliff Huxtable. Of course the contradiction of this pattern is hard to miss; American Dad in the 20th century has for the most part been missing in action.
With Home Improvement our image of the perfect Dad has changed again. Like Cosby, he is the easygoing, friendly Dad, more a pal than a figure of authority. As a husband, he is his wife’s equal, not her superior.
But along with these admirable, modern qualities, main character Tim also possesses those familiar reptilian male qualities. His code is “more power.” He loves to watch sports, play games, and fix cars, and he tries to guide his three boys into traditionally male activities. Tim’s maleness is the fundamental weakness that gets him into trouble, and it is the key to the show’s success. One of the tricks to writing a spec Home Improvement then is to come up with a unique expression of male fear or weakness that Tim must confront in the opening scene.
Tim’s other great weakness is that he is incompetent. This expert at home improvement constantly screws up on his show, which makes it easier for the sitcom. writer to take any trouble situation to its final extreme.
Desire: The desire line on any TV show changes every week. Staff writers have the luxury of giving the episode’s main goal to any character on the show. But outside writers must structure their episode around the star. Luckily, on Home Improvement, that’s a blessing, because Tim is by far the best character. Again, the desire that gets Tim in trouble will almost always stem from his craving for “more power.”
In many ways the success of a particular episode of any sitcom depends on the quality of the desire line. On Home Improvement, this means 1) Tim’s unique goal of more power on the show must be a direct result of the particular male weakness you have given him for that episode, 2) the goal must get him into immediate trouble, and 3) Tim’s trouble, or nightmare, must build.
Opponent: Much of any show’s success rests on the ongoing comic opposition within the family. In other words, what are the fundamental distinctions that never go away on the show and make laughter possible? On Home Improvement, the fundamental comic opposition is masculine/feminine. Like Tim, wife Jill is also a combination of old and new. Although she has an outside job and is clearly Tim’s equal at home, she is never at her job and is concerned with tempering Tim’s and the boys’ excessive “masculinity” with some sensitivity and caring.
Matt Williams, one of the show’s creators, has said they wanted to explore the different approaches and even language that men and women use when handling the same situation. In one episode, for example, Tim is determined to find the address of a wedding on his own while Jill wants to stop and ask directions.
A second comic opposition is between Tim and his assistant on the Tool Time show, Al. As someone who takes himself and his work seriously, Al is the perfect foil for Tim’s sarcastic bite. The basic strategy for the scenes on Tool Time is to begin with some kind of positive, competent presentation of the power of tools and have it deteriorate into total incompetence and destruction.
A third comic opposition is between Tim and the boys. In and of themselves, the boys are not that interesting or funny. Their primary value comedically is to show how Tim is still a child. On a Christmas show, Tim objected to the boys giving some of their toys to a shelter because he still played with some of them. Extending the masculinity concept, the creators of the show have also made the two older boys rough, mischievous, and physical.
A fourth opposition is between Tim and his neighbor, Wilson. Wilson is a Zen man, Super-Dad to Tim’s Dad, giving wise counsel when Tim’s childishness gets the better of him. An ideal Home Improvement would use the masculine/feminine opposition as the main conflict of the episode, but also have a unique conflict between Tim and Al, Tim and the boys, and Tim and Wilson.
Plan: Like desire, the plan changes every week, depending on what the hero of that episode wants. On Home Improvement, this may involve a scam, like the time Tim took young Mark to the ball game instead of to the ballet. Or it may involve Tim uncovering a scam by his two scheming older sons.
In a sitcom with an active comic hero like Tim, a scam that goes bad is almost always connected to the desire line that gets the hero into progressively greater trouble.
Battle: The battle in sitcoms tends to be fairly tame. On Home Improvement the battle is usually a moment of confrontation where the truth comes out. But this moment of confrontation should never be a passive scene wherein Tim confesses. Instead it should be the culmination of Tim’s scheme where the house of cards he has created comes crashing to the ground.
Self-Revelation: Since sitcom. characters must return the next week essentially the same, they cannot have a deep self-revelation. But they do get a moral lesson. Because Home Improvement is set up to expose the prehistoric tendencies of males, the self-revelation tends to be about becoming civilized and sensitized. In this sense, Home Improvement is like a Western whereby the more highly-evolved woman, Jill, teaches her childish, roughhewn husband and boys what it means to be a grown-up and decent member of the community.
New Equilibrium: In sitcoms everything must end up the same. So this self-revelation is immediately followed by a joke in the tag that shows Tim’s irrepressible boyish nature. Though he has been temporarily improved, Tim will return next week still on his quest for more power and masculine bravado.
Home Improvement does not represent a major change in the sitcom. form, the way Roseanne and The Simpsons did. But it does give a remarkably up-to-date look at the new balance between men, women and children as men and women try to live equally while not denying their fundamental masculine or feminine natures.
In its own way, Home Improvement may be as much a fantasy of family life today as Father Knows Best was thirty years ago. But somehow when I watch this show it gives me hope that, far from being morally bankrupt, confused and weak, America’s husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, are finally starting to get it right.