Us humans are emotional sickos. Our cruel, Neanderthalic nature is happy to humiliate the weak and the other – tribalism, survival of the fittest – as we oust those who are different. And this is where the sitcom steps in for it validates this instinct in a modern, socially acceptable context; we are allowed to laugh at the misfortunes of others because that is the mercy which the writers bestow upon us. We’ve all likely made a twonk of ourselves at work but never quite managed David Brent’s level, and I like to think that unironic continuations of childhood birthday rituals are only carried out by Peep Show’s Sophie Chapman.
On the face of it, the point of a sitcom is to entertain: to evoke laughter, to make us cower and wince and experience gratitude that we are not the ones suffering at that moment. Even in universally relatable sitcoms like Motherland, there is relief that we view the farce, rather than experience it. However, plot and characters require conflict for a more wholesome, realist text and part of my dissertation research has been focused on the sadness of sitcoms where ‘character wants’ run deeper than eating crimble crumble in peace. Allow me to indulge, therefore, in what I deem to be some of the saddest moments of the situational comedy.
This Country, series 2, episode 6: ‘Family Loyalties
Martin Mucklowe convinces his daughter, Kerry, to ‘go into business’, hire a lock-up in her name, and store over 100 Dyson vacuums on his behalf. When the trail becomes red hot, he then convinces her to confess to the police to save himself from prison.
Sadness rating: 8/10
Kerry’s vulnerability and naivety is like no other sitcom character that I can think of. The Cotswold village setting enhances her isolation, and her craving for love stems from her father’s emotional abuse. Her stubborn loyalty is all too easy for Martin, a man incapable of empathy, to exploit as she will evidently do anything to please him.
Sad quote: ‘Yeah, but you do you love me, though, don’t you, Dad?’
Fawlty Towers, series 2, episode 6: ‘Basil the Rat’
Manuel gets a new pet, but what he believes to be a Siberian hamster is actually a common rat. The rat escapes as the hotel inspector issues a warning that the hotel could be closed with immediate effect if hygiene standards don’t improve.
Sadness rating: 6.5/10
A more subtle approach to sadness, but heart-breaking all the same. In this final episode, Manuel, who hails from Barcelona, still struggles with the mores and expectations of Britain and, vitally, of Basil Fawlty. Despite the bullying and physical abuse, he names his pet after the boss who has become a warped symbol of reliability and familiarity, and therefore of home.
Sad quote: ‘If he go, I go.’
Mum, series 2, episode 3: ‘June’
Cathy hosts a barbeque and invites the whole family. That’s basically it and the key is in the simplicity.
Sadness rating: 10/10
A difficult decision, this one, seeing as the premise of Mum centres around Cathy prematurely losing her husband, Dave, to cancer. Each character suffers their own version of sadness throughout the series, but in this episode Dave’s parents suffer it through a burger and seventeen seconds of silence. There is a certain sweetness to remembering those we’ve lost via conversation and stories, but it is those quiet moments that get to the root of grief.
Sad quote: ‘They’re talking about David.’
Blackadder Goes Forth, episode 6: ‘Plan F – Goodbyeee’
After three years of sitting in the trenches, the time has come for Captain Blackadder and his comrades to go over the top.
Sadness rating: Infinity/Infinity
Even now. Even though I’ve seen it a million times. Even though the 1980s set design means that the backdrop of fields is horrendously out of perspective. Maybe it’s the dramatic irony of the audience’s historical knowledge, or the slow motion, or the piano version of the well-known theme tune followed by three poignant hits of a drum as the scene fades into a field of poppies. By this point, we have followed the characters for centuries and the ending evokes empathy like no other sitcom ever has.
It is awful and terrifying and so very, very sad.
Sad quote: ‘Good luck, everyone.’