Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Bob Newhart Show 1-11: I Want To Be Alone

A few days ago I started reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.  Turkle's argument, or at least part of it, is that at the same time social interaction becomes ubiquitous because of all the Facebooks and Twitters and what have you, we ironically begin to live in a world where we are isolated from each other and only communicate through our machines.  In this world both togetherness and solitude both fall to the wayside, and what emerges is a kind of social half-life where we are constantly, well, alone together.

I mention this because this is the type of society that creeps up on you unobtrusively until you realize how different things use to be.  And that was exactly my experience watching this episode of The Bob Newhart Show, a sitcom from 1972, back in the day when The <star's name here> show meant something other than a late-night talk show.  The plot concerns Bob's increasing social exhaustion and his desire to be alone.  This is certainly a feeling I've had before, being a natural introvert, but still it shocked me to see this narrative on screen -- you would never see it on a contemporary sitcom.  The young-professionals sitcom still exists, of course (the most notable examples are Friends and How I Met Your Mother, which are good points of comparison) but its characters live in a regime of constant youthful activities, the neverending sociality of the college campus.  These characters are never alone[1], and if anything their worries are about not getting out enough or being cool enough.

So for a sitcom like Bob Newhart -- a mainstream comedy in the age of monoculture, where there were three channels all trying to offend you the least -- to dedicate an episode to a desire for solitude is remarkable and to me a bit alien.  I mean, Bob doesn't even have a particularly busy social life.  He talks to his coworkers during the day, goes home to his wife, and sometimes has a dinner party.  It's not like he's out at the club every night like I assume the cool youths are today[2].

Still, it's not like this is out of character for him either.  Robert Hartley (the why-bother pseudonym for Newhart's character) has always stood a bit apart from the more gleeful and open members of the cast.  Newhart's performance is a big part of it -- instead of delivering the punchlines with a big smile and a hammy voice, he does it quietly and with a rather resigned look on his face.  More often than not he seems like the last sane man on Earth, and one can imagine how that would create a need to be alone.

Of course, the people in this episode do misconstrue Bob's desire for solitude -- not as strangeness, but as a rift between him and his wife Emily, even as (when he checks into a hotel for a weekend) an affair.  But there's no genuine frission here -- Emily supports Bob's desires, and is remarkably unsuspicious.  If Bob and Emily are suggested to have an ideal relationship, then it's a relationship that's fueled by mutual trust and a recognition that even the closest bond can sometimes use time apart.  (It's also worth noting that its a relationship whose major trait seems to be Emily supporting Bob's desires and needs.)  The only difficulty is that the supporting cast -- all flawed and clueless in some kind of way -- don't understand this kind of relationship.

This ties into another part of the show that seems foreign from a modern perspective, which is just how much these people like each other.  MTM Productions, the studio behind Bob Newhart (named for its most famous show, Mary Tyler Moore), didn't really do unlikeable characters -- even the dimwitted Howard and Carol are portrayed as basically good-natured, and all of the characters seem to genuinely like each other.  Even on relatively warm-hearted shows like The Office today, you get a lot more sniping and bickering than you would here.  In part this can make Bob Newhart kind of dull -- everything's so hunky-dory that it's hard to hold any real interest in the plot, because there's no possibility that any threat to these characters' relationship would really come to anything.

To understand why this is requires an understanding of the sitcom genre, especially the warm version of it that MTM specialized in.  As I've mentioned before, the sitcom essentially invites us into its home, encourages us to identify with its characters.  Sitcom characters are the friends we wish we had, the ones that are always funny and never dull or annoying.  They are meant to be basically like us, ordinary people, except ones that we can have a good time with without any commitments or consequences.  To sensationalize a bit, the sitcom is to friendship as porn is to love.

Still, this expectations that sitcom characters are basically like us can make them valuable time capsules -- they embody who we think we are.  For Bob Newhart, the ideal is that of the young urban professional, the childless youth who still has his head on the right track.  Of course, Bob Newhart is not particularly young and not particularly cool.  In fact you could say that the show, premiering in 1972, is in some ways a conservative vision of the younger generation -- witty and indepdenent, but not really challenging the system or involved in social movements.  Bob and Emily don't have children, but aspire to in the future, and other than that they have a very traditional marraige.  The single characters all aspire to the ideal of relationships they present -- for instance, the previous episode is about Jerry getting engaged.

These young characters are also very carefully situated in an urban environment -- in this case, Chicago, a setting the show mentions frequently.  This is not simply Everytown, USA: it's a specific hip city, a place you wish you could be (unless you live in New York).  The opening credits, which show Bob travelling home through an urban environment, specifically foreground this setting, much as The Sopranos' drive-home credits would foreground suburbia decades later.  It's also worth noting that Emily is distinctly not out in this urban environment, but is in the home, the very image of domesticity.

(As an aside, Lorenzo Music is a fantastic freaking name.)

The characters' professions also play an interesting role.  Our main cast consists of a psychologist, a teacher, a pilot, a dentist and a receptionist[3].  These are, for the most part, all important what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up type of jobs.  (Although only the weird kids answered "dentist", and the troubled ones "psychologist".)  They're professions that one aspires to, that assure a kind of middle class stability.  Nobody in this show is working in a gas station.  The show doesn't spend much time on the characters' jobs [4] -- in fact, they almost seem tokenary, a random descriptor like names or hair colour, key to establishing identity but not something you really dwell on.  There's an earlier episode where they all do career day, and at times these careers can almost seem like Halloween costumes -- witness Howard's constant pilot suit.  This is awfully familiar to the ways careers are described and deployed in shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother.

For what it's worth, however, we do see some more of the characters' careers in this episode.  Towards the beginning we see Bob with a patient, a neurotic guy worried about his toupee.  All of Bob's patients so far have had to deal with comedically trivial problems, and while in part this is a simple effect of the genre it's also interesting to note how psychology is neutered to make it sympathetic to a mass audience.  Bob seems to deal with just the niggling little problems that annoy you but which you're ultimately able to accept about yourself -- for instance, the first episode of the series deals with a therapy group for fear of flying.  To venture into dealing with deeper issues and disorders would lead to a world outside of the technicolour cheer of The Bob Newhart Show.  This is not, after all, In Treatment.

We also get a glimpse of Emily here in professional mode, in a rather awkward school meeting scene.  Freed from her wifely role, she actually has a chance to engage in school decisions -- in this case about teaching sex ed to younger children.  It's a rather abrupt political topic to bring up for a show that usually tries to be apolitical, and the circular, almost joke-free dialogue shows the writers' discomfort.  But it's an interesting scene because it gives us an idea of who Emily might be when she's not in her usual role of understanding wife -- her identity removed from her relationship with others.  For her, solitude is not what she needed, but independence is.

All of which leads to a rather uncomfortable question: if this short separation is so good for Bob and Emily, might it not be a permanent good idea?  It's a rare sitcom acknowledgement that there are downsides to marraige, which go beyond the usual "please, take my wife" jokes.  Marraige is, after all, a state of never being alone and never being fully independent -- and that can be damaging.  In its own subdued, moderate way, "I Want To Be Alone" calls into question the ideology of compulsive sociality Turkle finds so disturbing, in part intentionally and in part just as an artifact of a different time.

Next Week: Plot twists abound on Homeland.

[1]Of course, this is in large part due to how central dialogue is to the entire sitcom enterprise -- you can't exactly have dialogue with just one person.  But I wonder if this simple formal fact has contributed a lot to the devaluing of solitude and introversion.

[2]If I sound like a bitter loner during this entry it's because, well, I am one.

[3]Okay, Carol the receptionist doesn't quite fit into this argument, but at the very least it's a white-collar job.

[4]I understand that later episodes delve a lot more into Bob's practice, but I haven't reached that point in my viewing yet.

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