Aging Comedies: How Some Characters Age Better Than Others

How dumb was Joey on Friends, or Kelso on That 70s Show, or Haley on Modern Family? Depending on where in the series you look, you might end up with a different answer. As sitcoms go on, many of them exaggerate certain character traits. Characters that are dumb or weird are the best examples of this. As Friends lost some of its creative energy as it went along, Joey got stupider, and Phoebe got more bizarre. Similarly, while I really enjoyed the earlier seasons of That 70s Show, the show got tired as it went on. At the same time, Kelso went from a character who was like a dumb teenage boy that many people knew to a guy who is so stupid that you have no clue how he made it this far in life.

The reason that I have been thinking about this a lot recently is because of Modern Family. If you have read many of my reviews of the show, which I began posting here with its seventh season, you know how I have been disappointed with the show in its later years. Season nine has been especially disappointing, and a lot of that comes back to that tendency that I pointed out. After season seven, the series abandoned the character growth it had been working on for Haley, and in the ninth season she has become dumber and more vain. For example, in this week's 200th episode, she stares at her phone, which is in selfie mode, while her siblings reflect on how easy it is to film yourself in this day and age. Almost everything she does this season either has to do with how much she cares about her looks and what people think about her, or it has to do with her lower intelligence level. Similarly, while the series had advanced Alex from how awkward and nerdy she was earlier in the series, going from the girl worried about kissing a boy in season two's "The Kiss" to someone more confident, who dates a few guys. However, in the latest episode, a quick scene shows her feeding some cats when she was supposedly on a date, something she apparently does routinely.

Many comedies do things similar to that, particularly with their supporting characters. While they focus on having the main character or characters grow, they let the other characters become less nuanced and interesting. However, some comedies remain dedicated to all of their characters. One solid example of this is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The series focuses on Jake, so obviously he is a character that has grown a lot from the start of the series to the fifth season that the show is currently in. But he isn't the only one. The most obvious example of this is Captain Holt. Like how he has changed Jake, Jake has changed him. He is still the kind of person that says things like that all music in English is rock music, but he is much more open to not being so by-the-book now. The mysterious and guarded Rosa seems like the type of character whose traits many sitcoms would exaggerate as the series goes on, but in recent episodes "99" and "Game Night" she opened up to her co-workers and friends about something very personal. She behaves in a way very true to her character about it, but it's obvious she isn't exactly the same as she was at the start of the series. Meanwhile, minor characters Hitchcock and Scully haven't grown since the start of the series, but their traits haven't been exaggerated either. The two are just as dumb and lazy as they always were.

My personal favorite example of a sitcom that develops its characters further as it goes on is The Middle. I particularly like to use this one to contrast with Modern Family, as they both began in the fall of 2009, and they are both family comedies. If you were to watch an episode from the first season of The Middle, and then watch one from the current ninth and final season, you would see that these characters really are the same people they have been since the beginning, though the kids in particular have really grown and changed as time went on. In the beginning, Axl was a lazy teenage boy who doesn't express his emotions, Sue was overlooked, unpopular, and couldn't make any group she tried out for, and Brick was a really strange kid who read and whispered to himself but didn't like interacting with others. Axl can still be lazy, Sue is still a dork and a klutz at times, and Brick is still weird, but now Axl generally puts more effort into things and expresses more often how he cares for the people he cares for, Sue isn't as awkward as she once was, helping Brad get a date in the latest episode, and she has been juggling some romantic interests recently, and Brick, at the start of this season, looked forward to an exciting sophomore year of high school, and thought that it might mean meeting girls who are interested in him.

When I get frustrated with a show like Modern Family, I try to remember how great it is that there are shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Middle that don't rely on characters playing stereotypes, but give many of their characters moments to learn and grow. What sitcoms have you been impressed with as they aged? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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