My wife, The Duchess, excels at many things, but her main skill is increasingly getting me to watch terrible, terrible television shows. She does this with a combination of stick and carrot; on the one hand if I mock and refuse to watch a show, she can become surly. On the other, if I mock and complain enough, she will often magnanimously swap a slightly less-awful show in for a more-awful show.
This is how I wound up squirming out from under the rock of Dancing with the Stars and found myself watching The Great Indoors.
The Evergreen Sitcom Plot
Look, I like Joel McHale. I loved him on Community, and he’s a pretty funny guy and a charismatic actor. I’m glad he’s getting a paycheck. The Great Indoors is a mediocre sitcom, and the bar is pretty low for a CBS sitcom to begin with, so mediocrity is nothing to celebrate. It has its moments, yes, but in general it’s a pretty lazy show. Point in fact, one of the first season episodes was a classic Lazy Plot. Specifically, it was the “aging lothario is exhausted by younger lover” (ALEBYL) plot.
The ALEBYL plot is simple: The main character’s virility is challenged (or their vanity is stroked) and they choose to date a much, much younger person. The younger person then puts them through a gauntlet of activities they barely tolerate and can’t possibly keep up with, until they’re miserable. But! They refuse to admit this, for a variety of reasons. Hilarity ensues.
This old chestnut wasn’t new in 1989, when Cheers did it in the episode “Don’t Paint Your Chickens,” wherein Sam Malone dates a younger woman who is very athletic, and pretends to be up to her standards of constant, exhausting activity. It wasn’t new when 30 Rock did it in the 2007 episode “Cougars.” It wasn’t new when it was initially conceived, more or less around the year 1. It is, in fact, a prime example of Lazy Writing.
Part of the reason writers get away with this laziness, of course, is our short cultural memories. The earliest example I can come up with off the top of my head is from 1989—nearly thirty years ago, sure, but still pretty recent. The simple fact is the doom of men is that they forget, and a new generation of idiots thinks the episode of The Great Indoors referenced above is the first time this old plot was ever done.
The three examples I’ve offered here are all slightly different. Cheers isn’t so much concerned with the age difference as it is with the younger person’s higher athletic ability and energy. 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is practically an asexual character, and the relationship serves to underscore her (often hilarious) combination of intelligence and dire insecurity. The Great Indoors leans in to the currently hot topic of how ridiculous and silly millennials are when compared to older generations. All of them, however, rely on a fundamental concept of sitcom comedy writing: Old people feeling their age are hilarious.
Maybe I’m just bitter, being an old person. But then I didn’t want to stay out all night when I was 20. Once when I was about 25 a friend invited me to have dinner with her and some of her friends, and I was delighted … until she told me she’d see me at 10PM. For pre-dinner drinks. TEN FUCKING PM. I’ve been an old man longer than you’ve been alive.
Look, older generations are always going to be convinced that the kids are vacuous morons. Any story that gently pokes Olds in the ribs about their age while simultaneously mocking Youngs for their idiocy and ignorance will be a hit, and the ALEBYL plot fires on all those thrusters. You can expect to see it at least four more times on different shows before you die, and there are probably two dozen examples I’m not aware of.
So what’s the point? The point is, you can discover valuable lessons about tired old tropes and lazy writing anywhere … even terrible CBS sitcoms. Eyes open, kids.