The B-Story Of Our Lives

What was the first sitcom to feature multiple plotlines in each episode?

Joe S.

Unrepentant couch potato Noel Murray did a little digging (without getting up from his seat):

This is a good question, Joe, but tough to answer definitively, because so many old sitcoms have disappeared into the ether, never landing in syndication or on DVD. And judging by the shows that have survived, it seems like nearly every TV innovation—in structure and in content—was exhausted in the medium's first decade.

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That said, I had a hard time finding prototypical examples of the A-story/B-story sitcom structure, at least as we know it today. Even when, say, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton have separate story arcs in a Honeymooners episode, the action stays with Ralph, and we get Ed's story only in pieces, whenever he busts into the Kramdens' apartment to gripe about his day in the sewer, or whatever. The earliest examples of "multiple plotlines" per se that I could unearth were in My Three Sons, which in its later years split stories between star Fred MacMurray and his ever-expanding cast of kids and grandkids, primarily because MacMurray's two-months-of-work-a-year contract forced the producers to shoot his storylines ahead of time. (That's not to say that some one-season-wonder of yesteryear didn't beat My Three Sons to the punch, multiple-plotline-wise.)

In the same year that My Three Sons ended its decade-plus run—and while All In The Family and Maude were converting sitcoms into minimalist one-act plays—M*A*S*H premièred and reshuffled the structural deck. M*A*S*H has been so ubiquitous for so long that it's easy to forget how radical it seemed in its day, both for the way it blended humor and pathos, and for the way it used its sprawling cast, sometimes stacking three or four mini-stories into half an hour. And it would be remiss to talk about multiple plotlines in sitcoms without mentioning the two shows that set the pace in the '90s, shaking up the structure of the medium in ways still unequaled. One is Seinfeld, which weaved stories in and out of each episode with wild abandon, while using a zippy editing style and multiple locations to create an entire comic universe. And the other is The Simpsons, which radically toyed with three-act structure in the early going, often by starting an episode with one story and changing gears completely right before the first commercial break.

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Are there any sitcoms today that don't do multiple plotlines, at least most of the time? It would be interesting to see if any of today's writers could restrict themselves to a small cast of characters and one story for 22 minutes, week after week. It isn't so easy.

Some Criteria Are More Equal Than Others

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Did you ever realize that the Criterion Collection of films, while including some really great features (Seven Samurai, This Is Spinal Tap) also includes such mega-dreck as Armageddon, Chasing Amy, and Robocop? Explain! Xoxo,

Eric

In spite of your signoff hugs and kisses, cinephile Scott Tobias bristles at your impugning of Criterion's tastes:

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First of all, Robocop is a masterpiece and remains perhaps the most widely respected of Paul Verhoeven's American films, even though it doesn't draw the passion of a more polarizing work like Starship Troopers. For an esteemed company like Criterion, there are a lot of compelling angles into Robocop: The introduction of an unmistakably jaundiced European sensibility into Hollywood genre fare, a satirical slant on American corporate culture and violence, and a compelling battle with the MPAA. As a bonus, Verhoeven does some of the liveliest commentaries in the business, and he does another great one here with writer Ed Neumeier.

We here at The A.V. Club are no great fans of Kevin Smith, but for his defenders, Chasing Amy remains his most significant and probing work, an honest attempt to come to grips with male jealousy and its poisonous effects. Smith still hadn't learned what to do with the camera, and his script lacks discipline, but critics embraced this raw quality in all its profanity and emotional disarray. As Salon critic Charles Taylor put it, "You can groan at every misstep in Chasing Amy, and still walk out excited about the risks it takes."

Michael Bay is a more curious case. Criterion has produced souped-up editions of Armageddon and The Rock, thumbing its nose at the legions who view Bay as the personification of macho Hollywood hackery. But back in the late '90s/early '00s, several highly respected critics came forward with contrarian defenses of Bay's work, opining that his hummingbird editing style was essentially reinventing the language of cinema. While many brushed off Bay's action sequences as relentlessly hyperactive and incoherent, his defenders saw something abstract and experimental about the clash between his inarguably gorgeous images. Here's a telling passage from a 2001 article on Bay by Film Comment's Kent Jones:

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Some have characterized Armageddon, as well as the director's preceding film, The Rock, which contains some almost equally spirited assemblages, as a punishing experience. On the contrary. I found it lulling, almost tonic. For a brief instant I was transported into a state of altogether pleasing mindlessness.

Pleasing mindlessness. Isn't that what the Criterion Collection is all about?

The Evil That Lies Within Rides Again

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Okay, I vaguely remember this from the early/mid-'80s. It was a cartoon that had people fighting against some sort of large monsters who possibly looked lizard-like in and about the facial area… or not. The only thing that stuck in my mind is that one of said evil things would open up his (I seem to remember external and mostly empty) ribcage and sort of scream/moan "Decompose!" What the hell was this cartoon, and why on earth was a horribly creepy cartoon like this made for kids? I still remember being unnerved by it when I was a wee li'l lad.

Eric Dehm

Tasha Robinson responds:

This is yet another show we periodically get "please ID this memory" questions about, though none of the other vague "I remember cartoon monsters" queries were this specific or this pained. You're thinking of InHumanoids, a 1986 cartoon in which gigantic gooey monsters burst forth to the Earth's surface (with the help of an evil corporation) to attack humanity. Wikipedia has an extensive InHumanoids page, complete with images, a detailed history, and episode summaries, so there isn't much point into getting any deeper into the show here.

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Just a couple of details: The creature you remember was yelling "decompose" because it was his name—D'Compose—and like a Pokémon character, he was announcing himself. He had a lizardy face (each of the InHumanoids looked different) and a hollow ribcage which swung open on hinges, so he could keep human-sized prisoners trapped inside his chest. Why was such a creepy cartoon made for kids? Because historically, kids have proved that they like shows, books, and stories that creep them out—just look at the success of the Goosebumps book line, for instance. (Adults aren't exactly immune either, as the recent spate of torture-porn movies attests.) And Hasbro—which sponsored the show in order to sell a toy line, much as it did with G.I. Joe, The Transformers, and other such shows—was hoping kids would be drawn by the ghoulish gross-out factor. But apparently they weren't; InHumanoids only lasted a year, and only a few of the characters actually made it to toy-store shelves. Most, though not all, of the episodes are available on region-1 DVD.

Sex Gargoyle Waiting

Okay, so I saw this movie as a child. I was probably too young, but I saw it in the theater with my parents. The premise of the movie was that the main character for some reason or another turned into a gargoyle. Also, for some reason, the guy either needed to have sex to turn into a gargoyle or possibly sex prevented him from becoming a gargoyle.

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Brian

Nathan Rabin responds:

The movie you're asking about is 1987's My Demon Lover. It was an appropriately low-rent vehicle for the low-wattage charms of Scott Valentine, a comic actor who achieved modest fame in the '80s as Justine Bateman's dumb-guy boyfriend on Family Ties. Valentine played a street musician who transforms into a low-budget, not-terribly-convincing beastie-type creature when sexually aroused. This leads to complications. The film was released by New Line, which at the time was a relatively minor studio best known for putting out John Waters movies and the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. My Demon Lover wasn't a success, and Valentine returned to scattered television and movie work afterward. In her dismissive review of the film, Janet Maslin of The New York Times described Valentine as a poor man's Bobcat Goldthwait, which doesn't seem intended as praise.

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Next week: In defense of Richard Pryor, in search of Johnny Depp's directorial debut, and in the pages of an imaginative bestiary. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.