Monday, December 17, 2018

The Sitcom Kid Formula

I thought I'd stumbled onto something big.

Andrew has been pushing me into writing for TV for a long time, but the task always felt daunting to me.  How could I possibly be expected to come up with an incredible premise and then flesh out a fully-realized script?


Andrew had already rejected several of my TV ideas, by the way.  One was to gather ten flat-earthers and offer a million dollars to the first one to get to the edge of the world.  The title would be "Competitive Edge."

Another was a show that was a cross between The Bachelorette and Maury, called "Baby Daddy," where a heavily pregnant lady would live with all of her potential baby daddies and then try to determine which one is indeed the Baby Daddy.  The sequel of the show would feature a fake pregnancy.  Oh, the glorious reality TV drama of it!

Also, Dog: The Ghost Hunter.  Basically you'd get Dog the Bounty Hunter on one of those paranormal shows and have him "talk to ghosts" and the ghosts would be voiced by various celebrities.  Imagine Toby Maguire faking a Victorian-era accent and having a conversation with Dog about the treasure buried in the walls of the castle... now THAT is good TV, in my opinion.

Anywho.  I stumbled upon the Holy Grail of TV sitcom formulas and thought, my God, I've uncovered the secret to success!

Turns out I'm not the first one to notice it.  Searching Google, I found posts from 4 or 5 years ago noting the same pattern.  But I'd like to talk about it anyway.

The formula is this:

In a family sitcom, the best formula for maximum hijinks and audience relatability is to have three kids, and the kids are, in order, dumb, smart, and weird.

Expanding on this:

Child One: Typically dumb, but often socially adept.  Often a jock or interested in sports, but struggles in school.  The least well-developed character with the least interesting plots.  A basic sort of character.  Most likely to be male if they're a jock, but female if they're a social airhead.

Child Two: A perfectionist and intellectual who does well in school but often struggles with moral dilemmas.  The most likely to have a "Very Special Episode."  A voice of reason who is often an annoyance to other characters.  Most likely to be female.

Child Three: A wild card.  Either super cute, weird, or a mixture of the two.  Most likely to have eccentric, exaggerated traits.  Likely to have a light-hearted, amusingly antagonist relationship with an adult in the show (such as Baby Sinclair and "Not-the-Mama" Earl, or Stewie and Louis, or Wesley and Mr. Belvedere).  Clearly expected to be an audience favorite.  Immune from most bad experiences, and overly precocious.  More likely to be male than female.

I think I noticed it somewhere between Modern Family and Malcolm in the Middle.  Both have the high-strung mom and the dopey dad, and the three main kids all follow the formula.  (Note that Malcolm has a fourth child that is not part of the nuclear household.)   The first kid in Modern Family, Haley, is a fashion-obsessed ditz, while in Malcolm, the first kid, Reese, is a slack-off bully who is always imminently about to flunk out of school.  The middle child, Alex and Malcolm, respectively, are not just smart compared to their older sibling, but geniuses in school, "black sheep" in the family because of their remarkable intelligence that supercedes even the parents.  And then you have the adorable, precocious baby of the family, Luke or Dewey, the goofball who gets the weirdest plots and wackiest stories.

If it were just a case of these two, I would argue that Modern Family clearly ripped off Malcolm.

Modern Family is incredibly formulaic, and Malcolm ran from 2000-2006, with Modern Family swooping in around 2009.  Underappreciated in its time, Malcolm was an irreverent sitcom with enough feel-good moments to justify its primetime existence.  Modern Family snatched up a lot of the same tropes and filled a hole, being just formulaic enough to be familiar and just edgy enough to remain relevant.

But it's not just these two.

Look at some older sitcoms. Mr. Belvedere began in 1985 and The Simpsons began in 1989, and both feature an older slacker-type (Kevin Owens and Bart), a middle perfectionist nerd (Heather Owens and Lisa), and a precocious baby with adorable B-plots (Wesley and Maggie).  Fresh Prince (1990) features Hilary (a popular, ditzy social butterfly), Carlton (an uptight, straight-A nerd), and Ashley (the adorable third child who eggs on Will).

It's not just humans.  In Dinosaurs, Robbie is a popular jock; Charlene is a high-strung perfectionist and golden student; Baby Sinclair is a bafflingly weird third wheel.

Idea for a show: Dinosaurs reboot.
We're overdue for one.  That show was a treasure.

Family Guy, a blatant Simpsons rip-off, also stuck to the formula: the oldest child, Chris, is a slacker, the middle child, Meg, is the reviled voice of reason, and the third child, Stewie, is a bizarre, eccentric egomaniac.

And if you think Simpsons doesn't fit the formula because Maggie isn't "weird" enough, think again.

Family Matters gave us Edward (the popular jock and slacker), Laura (the pretty perfectionist and straight-A student), and Judy, who, weirdly, disappeared without explanation from the series in season 4 or 5.  However, since the third "weird" character is apparently a necessary inclusion, we got a lot more screentime with Urkel.

Happy Days experienced a similar cast turn-over.  The original family had three child characters: Chuck, Richie, and Joanie.  Chuck went off to college and wasn't seen from again or even mentioned after season 2, but was replaced by Fonzie, keeping the group as balanced as a man flying over a shark on water-skis.


Hell, even the The Brady Bunch (1969) has the rule of three.  Marsha is the popular, pretty one Jan is plainer but smarter; Cindy is cute and has adorable B-plot adventures.

When I pointed it out to a friend, he immediately named two sitcoms and asked if they fit the rule.

The first was Home Improvement, a sitcom I'd completely forgotten about.  We checked Wikipedia and found this:  "Brad... is the oldest, most athletic and strongest of the three boys.  Randy... is middle child, ultimately the smartest of the three boys... [and] Mark... is the youngest and most sensitive of the three boys... [who] during adolescence began to adopt a more "goth" look and an anti-establishment kind of attitude."

Okay, so Home Improvement fit to a T.

The second suggested sitcom was a more recent one: Black-ish.

Again, from Wikipedia: "Yara... is the attractive, popular, stylish, and socially active member of the Johnson family.  Andrew "Junior" is... a so-called "nerd" who is confused by the world around him. Junior typically lacks teenage savvy and is often viewed disdainfully by his more shallow and self-aggrandizing father and siblings."  And the third child?  Twins.

By the way, the fake sitcom Horsin' Around features three orphans who are dumb (Olivia), smart (Ethan), and weirdly precocious (Sarah-Lynn).  (Side note: Sarah-Lynn has a catchphrase.  The third child is the most likely to have a catchphrase, another way to convince the audience that the youngest child is the cutest and most well-loved.)

I showed my theory to another friend who immediately said their favorite show, The Middle, also follows the formula.  I'll let Wikipedia describe the family for us one more time: "The Middle features oldest son Axl, a popular but lazy teenager, does well in sports but not in academics; daughter Sue is an enthusiastic young teen but chronically unsuccessful and socially awkward; and youngest son Brick is an intelligent but introverted compulsive reader with odd behavioral traits loosely hinted to derive from Asperger syndrome."

The Rule of Three wasn't always present, of course.  Leave It to Beaver (1957) had only two children.  Ditto Happy Days (1974).  As you go farther back, the less strict the rule becomes.  But more and more often, I see it cropping up.

My question once I noticed the pattern was why.  The dopey dad and the high-strung mom are easily explained; we like to laugh at those in authority, so of course the blue-collar, bread-winning dad needs to be a little inept, and the high-strung, practical mom as homemaker fits with what many of us witnessed growing up.  But why are there three kids and why do they fall into such a predictable pattern?  Why the seeming laziness on the part of the screen writers?

Ran out of coke?

I submit the following hypothesis.

The children are ordered as they are because it is the dynamic most capable of creating audience connection.

Follow me here.  First of all, giving characters familiar personalities make them instantly relatable.  And the two most common traits, the two most ubiquitous cliches of children, are the Jock and the Nerd.

Of course the Jock has to come first.  After all, the older child tends to bully the younger child.  By having the younger child be The Smart One, it puts the kids on even ground; the middle child can now outwit or get revenge on the older child.  The two are in a perfect, antagonistic relationship.  They're foils for each other.  They're complimentary.  Each child is now defined as different from the other one, and their responses to every situation are broken down into the two simplest approaches: brawn, or brain.

 Having two dichotomous main characters lends itself to almost limitless hijinks.

So why the weird third kid?  Simple.  We need a buffer.  Without the third child, audiences are going to start choosing sides in the eternal battle of Jock v. Nerd.  The oldest kid is often more popular in the show and more emotionally secure.  The second, despite being smart and usually right about how to solve problems, is often a social outcast within the family and often suffers from self-doubt.  The two are such opposites it would almost be impossible not to take a side.  But the third child is designed to be an audience favorite.  Cute, funny, and untouchable, the third child reigns as the undisputed favorite in most cases, taking on wild, absurd B-plots that offer us a break from the humdrum issues of the jock's failing grades and the nerd's inability to snag a date for homecoming.  The third child isn't just a buffer for the audience, but for the family as well.  The third child is a wild card who can align themselves with either the jock or the nerd as the plot requires, and act as either an antagonist or protagonist to either of the other kids, making the dynamic more complex and interesting.

Alas, attempts to introduce a third mouse in season 3 were not received well.

It's my opinion that we discovered the magic of the Wild Card Weirdo by accident.  Writers looked at Fonzie and they looked at Urkel and they said, "Eyyyy.  Did we do that?  ...actually, we might just be on to something, here."

The Rule of Three went from a casual trope in the '80s and '90s to de facto law by the naughts.  Even shows that don't feature children have started to employ three-character casts who follow the formula because the dynamic is so perfect. (Matt Groening, of Simpsons fame, would later apply the rule of 3 to his other works, like Futurama (featuring Fry, Leela, and Bender as the Dumb, Smart, and Weird) and Disenchantment (featuring Princess Bean, Luci, and Elfo as the Dumb, Smart, and Weird).

The thing is, I don't think the Sitcom Kid Formula is awful.  It works.  And if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?  Sitcoms are often used to explore current social issues and modern dilemmas and provide us with a sense of comfort that, within a half-hour, everything will be all right in the end.  The familiarity of the characters and stories is one of the strengths of sitcoms.  And it's not one that I think we need to change.  At the end of the day, TV writers know what speaks to the audience, and that's the dynamic of three relatively shallow personalities who bumble their way through a world of fake problems and simple solutions.

The world just isn't ready for Competitive Edge or Dog the Ghost Hunter yet.  And as long as we remember that the real world is more complex and nuanced than it is in sitcoms, there's no reason not to take comfort in the familiar formulas of primetime opiates.

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