Finding Effective Communication Through the Classic Sitcom

Growing up throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, like many others, I loved the classic sitcom.  I could not wait to see the next typical, tawdry storyline. The episodes were framed around these interestingly, unusual blended families and starts with a character introducing their current-life dilemma. The scene regularly involves the character desperately trying to solve their problems in creative, interesting and sometimes maladaptive ways, that commonly brings great comedic relief to the viewer.  As the episode ends, the character begins to recognize their problem and suddenly develops highly functional, verbal communication skills with others to find a resolution. It’s as if they skipped through weeks and months of therapy and can instinctively confront their raw emotions. The character’s sudden awareness often brings those warm mushy emotions such as resolve, gratitude, encouragement, acceptance, or any other glorious feeling we often seek out. We gain greater empathy of the character when we recognize their flaws and raw emotions and the character is able to establish self-reflection techniques that lead to greater truth and understanding, which by sitcom standard is not cyclical or habitual in nature.

Whether it’s Jessie Spano, from Saved by the Bell, who, in an episode in which she was abusing caffeine pills, realized her abusive behavior was a destructive coping skill she used to hide her true emotion.  When she finally found her authentic emotion she recognized feeling “so scared” of being unable to balance her schoolwork with her new singing group. Or a more recent television example might be Phil Dunphy, from Modern Family, who, throughout episodes, is desperately seeking love, acceptance and admiration from his family by engaging in countless perilous stunts such as publishing a philosophical memoire, Phil’sophy. In any classic sitcom episode, characters use their dialogue to find resolution to both common-day problems and more existential issues.

The question is why do we love this storyline of the classic sitcom. Could it be that we have such difficulty communicating effectively in our own lives and interpersonal relationships? Can the classic sitcom begin to teach us a thing-or-two about how to reach our authentic emotions?  If we begin to examine this through the lens of a therapist can we begin to grow into a more genuine, adept character and ward off future cognitive dissonance? So solely for entertainment purposes let’s take a look…

Communication experts state that communication is multidimensional. The goal of communication is to state or inquire, serving as a function to connect us with others. How we communicate isn’t just the language we use, it’s how we behave, react, and meet some pretty important needs.  The language and behaviors we use are rooted in our memory and our instinct as humans to adapt to our environments.  Often time our communication style is modeled after our earliest attachment figures, many times adapting to the dysfunctional communication styles of those caretakers.  No wonder why we often find ourselves at a loss when seeking out resolutions from our own personal and interpersonal dilemmas.

Whether it’s The Brady Bunch or Family Matters, let’s discover what our favorite sitcom stars have to teach us. The obvious traditional first step is acknowledging there is a problem. A good way to know we have a problem is being mindful when negative feelings begin to linger and continuously resurface, whether it’s resentment, frustration, loneliness, fear, and/or exhaustion, the list goes on. Knowing this emotion can help lead us to discover what historically caused us to manage our dilemmas so ineffectively.  We then can begin to practice stating what we actually expect, need, desire, miss, or want to discover.  Finally, don’t forget the need to examine and understand our audience and possibly environment within the context of the problem. Then we can adapt our message so it can be received accurately and as intended. We often disregard that those receiving the message have their own communication filters to personally sort through. Remember our sitcom stars don’t generally point the finger at their supporting characters own shortcomings or past failures.

So the next time we plop in front of our high-definition televisions to soak in some sitcom drama, remember to take some mental notes about the revelation of the character’s authentic self and the oh-so-cheesy play out of their transformational interpersonal communication skills. 

Ann-Marie Sands, LCSW, CADC

Clinical Director/Therapist

Clarity Clinic Chicago/NWI Clarity Clini

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