The American sitcom is a staple unlike anything else in the television landscape. The formula is simple: 20 minutes of comedy around a single location with interesting characters and endless joy to be experienced.
The American sitcom is a staple unlike anything else in the television landscape. The formula is simple: 20 minutes of comedy around a single location with interesting characters and endless joy to be experienced. This format has had several reincarnations from the 1970s cop shows to the cynicism of Seinfeld in the 80s followed by the longest-running sitcom of all time The big bang theory and now there is Netflix with several interesting characterizations. The influence of the sitcom on pop-culture is unparalleled in terms of language, styling, or even our understanding of architecture that happens to be an inseparable feature within the permanence of a situational comedy. The entire show usually takes place on the same soundstage and set. The residence– provided the show is set in a house– becomes a character in itself within the narrative of the show. This is particularly noteworthy as the content of the narrative is informed by the space the characters regularly inhabit and vice-versa. In domestic settings– where most of humanity spends their time, especially after the pandemic — domestic architecture and planning in American sitcoms can be an interesting device to understand our collective aspirations of domesticity and the dynamics at play that inform our day-to-day life as domestic beings.
Three broad types emerge in the kinds of houses that American sitcoms usually feature: one, the apartment; two, the stand-alone residence, and three, the imaginary. Each has a specific character that informs its narrative and architectural discourse. Each presents a different story and a different aspect of our collective aspiration to find the perfect house.
First, the apartment.
The ideal apartment in a big city. The millennial aspiration of a working urban lifestyle. Living with one’s friends in a small yet functional space with all necessary amenities. The fun bachelor or bachelorette pad. This type is the embodiment of an independent lifestyle of young working individuals in a city who wish to domesticate themselves in a concrete jungle and make a little corner of a building their haven. This aspirational setting is popular among young city dwellers who have grown up watching characters they love living in apartments like these in American sitcoms. The best example for this is, of course, FRIENDS– the sitcom that informs the millennial and post-millennial generation of a perfect New York life: friends, a job, lovers, and the perfect two-bedroom where all your friends come to hang out. This type frames a dream of a life that working individuals around the globe are living now. It puts the comfort of indoor space at the forefront — one that is personalized, egalitarian to some extent, and still connected to the larger city. Characters personalize their space: the kitchen-sized closet of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the city, the architect’s corner of Ted Mosby in How I met your mother, the boyish callousness of Joey and Chandler’s apartment and a certain adult vibe to Monica’s in FRIENDS. The apartment becomes the extension of the person’s being with their person plastered over its walls. This apartment type can almost be looked at as a metaphor for the liberal individualistic existence that pop culture has been popularising. The sitcoms that it features in celebrate this urban life. It puts the person before the collective. This can be a cue for architects and designers to design more adaptable and personable spaces for a growing young population.
Second, the detached house.
The glorious villa where families come together. The ideal Californian villa with a backyard garden, a front lawn, and a pool. The contemporary villa with a McMansion look. More than a spatial aspiration that this type presents, it embodies the idea of how other people or the context inform our living. Think about the beach house from Grace and Frankie or Two and a Half Men. Two opposing personalities inform the spatial dynamic and it plays on how we experience the house. While the common spaces become more congenial — think the terrace in Grace and Frankie– one can still find individuality in the spaces. The example set by Modern Family with a family living across three houses in suburban Los Angeles makes for an exploration of how spaces that essentially form connections within the families are the primary sources of domestic bliss that one is looking for. Different age groups, different generations gather for parties and get-togethers around the pool or the living rooms. As viewers of this familial joy, we make connections to where the family gathers and it is the place where more of the family can come in.
Third, the Imaginary.
This gets interesting. Since storytelling and especially visual storytelling like film allows for creative freedom that extends beyond real-world restriction. This is where the architectural imagination runs wild. The production design can be narrative architecture. One can think of Flinstones or the Jetsons. Something like ‘the Good Place’ gives us an entire post-death world where aspirations of a house become a reality. The ideal home for every individual becomes a reality with a different kind of house. Someone gets a Victorian mansion. Someone gets an avant-garde building. This world-building allows for architectural juxtaposition and a certain idealism in finding what everyone wants from their house. The sitcom plays on these aspects of having achieved an ideal whereas housing by its nature is not ideal but a