Return to Zero: The Art of the Sitcom


by Alexer Asuncion

Television can be overwhelming. I mean, just look at all of the daunting narratives spanning multiple seasons in some of the largest names in recent Television history such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and The Walking Dead (2010-2022). Even worse, the flood of “binge-worthy” shows that we see on streaming services like  Stranger Things (2016-2022) and The White Lotus (2021-2022). With all of that in mind, it seems pretty difficult to dive into a new show to talk about.

That’s where the Sitcom, or Situational Comedy, comes in. The sitcom is the best friend of television genres. It’s safe, always there for you, and very non-committal when it comes to time. This is thanks to what I dub the “Return to Zero” Formula that’s present in almost every major sitcom.

What this “Return to Zero” Formula describes is the nature of most sitcom narratives finding a solid conclusion to the problems raised within the episode by the time the credits roll. This means that a lot of episodes ultimately don’t matter in the larger scope of the show’s story. The formula is everywhere; way back to Three’s Company (1976-1984) and as recent as Regular Show (2011-2017). Is it the perpetual motion machine of writing, or is it just laziness? Let’s go over some different sitcoms, and how they utilize varying degrees of resets between episodes.

Live-action sitcoms have had decades to perfect their craft, and we still see the same resolution structure being utilized all throughout; however, it may not always be utilized the same way. Rather than performing a hard “Return to Zero” reset at the end of every episode, some series’ prefer to find a reason to resolve their plotline and then save the consequences for later episodes. 

Let’s take a look at the longest-running live-action sitcom in television history, Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-2022). One of the running plotlines, still present since Season One, is the relationship between Charlie Day’s aptly named character, Charlie, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis’s recurring character dubbed, “The Waitress”. 

Throughout the series, we see them in a one-sided romantic situation, in which Charlie is fawning over the Waitress, with many episodes placing their “relationship” as its main focus. The two of them have had numerous interactions, from failed proposals to conceiving children together, but their relationship manages to remain nearly the same when the resolution finally rolls around. 

A great example of this is in Season 7 Episode 2, The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore, where we see Charlie and The Waitress have an amazing time, really displaying solid development in their relationship; however, once it comes time to begin resolving plotlines, we learn that this warmness was just the result of an ecstasy trip. The Waitress, very clearly uncomfortable by the whole situation, puts distance between the two of them, and once again, Charlie is stuck chasing the Waitress in other episodes. Return to Zero.

Next up is the animated sitcom, where the only limits are your imagination and production budgets. If there’s any medium that really utilizes these between-episode-resets, it’s animation, and with all of the wacky hijinks that animated characters find themselves in, it’s easy to understand why. 

One show that does a phenomenal job at reaching imaginative limits and then bringing the story back down to Earth is Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks (2005-2014). Let’s look at one of their best episodes, Season 3 Episode 23’s The Fried Chicken Flu. In the beginning, we see our main cast of Robert and his boys, Riley and Huey, on an average afternoon. A fried chicken restaurant begins promoting a new recipe that causes an outbreak of a seemingly deadly virus, forcing the cast into quarantine. Throughout the episode, we see a plethora of characters makes a plea to stay at their residence, to which Huey begrudgingly agrees. Tensions rise, boundaries are crossed, and eventually, we see the whole situation escalate to the point where Robert and the boys are driving uncontrollably through the streets and into a news anchor. Despite all of this mayhem, however, the next episode makes no reference to any of the events that occurred. Once again, we watch, we enjoy, then we return to zero.

Is this lazy writing? Just a waste of 22 minutes? That’s up to you, but you can’t deny that it’s a safe way for us to engage in playful and imaginative storytelling with characters that aren’t disposable, but rather ones that we’ve grown to learn about and love over the course of multiple seasons and adventures that they take the audience on. The non-committal nature of the relationship between these shows and the consequences of their characters’ actions is an underappreciated art that offers a warm home to any viewer that dares to dive into the wonder that is the sitcom.


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