Friday, September 25, 2009

The return of sitcoms

Published last August 26, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Last Monday I wrote about how the clamor to make Senator Noynoy Aquino the next President of the Republic of the Philippines has shaken up the rather fragile state of Philippine politics. Whatever were there in the form of formal or informal agreements, mutual understanding, and coalitions prior to Aug. 1 have now become tentative and subject to renegotiation.

There are many things that can be said about this development and I am sure many pundits out there will try to read more into it. I meant to write about the whole phenomenon for today’s column, citing some of the comments I received in response to last Monday’s piece but I noted that most of the column spaces in various newspapers last Monday and yesterday have already been devoted to the issue. So I will just summarize what I meant to say as follow-up to last Monday’s column in three points.

First, what this development indicates is that we might have pretensions to having advanced political systems in this country. In reality, however, what we have is far from mature and stable; in fact, we often make up the rules as we move along.

Second, the outpouring of support for Noynoy Aquino may be largely attributable to the “Ninoy and Cory Aquino magic” but the younger Aquino’s non-traditional- politician posturing is a definite vector. His reluctance and seeming lack of enthusiasm even in the face of the groundswell support only serve to add to the air of mystique around him. While everyone else is jumping all over the place, aggressively and shamelessly volunteering themselves for the post, Noynoy is playing coy and uninterested. Many people interpret this to mean that the man has no personal or vested political agenda, which makes him the better choice.

And finally, what this development clearly highlights is that despite efforts made to reform the political system and to advance the cause of voter education in our country, the matter of choosing our leaders is still a largely emotional process for many of our voters—even among those who are supposed to know better. There is still a tendency to prop up cult-like images around certain personalities and political dynasties.

Having said that, I will now leave the punditry to other columnists and commentators and move on to more mundane stuff.

* * *

People who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s had limited options in terms of what they could watch on television. Cable TV and its smorgasbord of channels was still a decade or two away and unless one had access to satellite facilities, one could only watch foreign shows such as popular drama series in the United States by renting betamax tapes that some enterprising people put together. My family tried to follow one such soap opera in the United States (Santa Barbara) but gave up after 40 betamax tapes when it became apparent that the show was going to last longer than 50 episodes.

There were essentially two types of local television programs that were in vogue in those days: Variety shows and situational comedies more popularly called sitcoms. The list that follows spans a wide period of probably 20 years, but examples of variety shows that were popular in those days were The GMA Supershow and Superstar on Sundays, Vilma on Fridays, The Dick and Carmi Show on Mondays, etc. Okay, I am going to wear my heart on my sleeve on this one and admit that that mishmash of raging hormones, pseudo-talents and godawful fashion sense known as That’s Entertainment was the rage when I was in college.

I was, however, more partial to sitcoms as a growing boy, due largely to the fact that there was only one television set in the house—a black and white Radiowealth with a rotary button for switching channels and which came with its own cabinet—and my grandmother only allowed us to watch TV on specific hours at night, which was the time sitcoms were on.

Examples of sitcoms that my family and I followed religiously were John en Marsha, Joey and Son, Abangan ang Susunod na Kabanata, Chikachicks, Palibhasa Lalake, Iskul Bukol, Duplex, and Hapi Haus.

With the advent of the daily soap opera, weekly sitcoms died a slow death. Sitcoms didn’t really have a chance against daily soap operas, which offered more in terms of drama, action, plot twists, and yes, sex. Because they were only shown once a week, the plots of sitcoms were limited to simple conflicts that had to be untangled and resolved within an hour of airtime. This would often mean mindless, shallow and extremely trivial issues blown out of proportion. On the other hand, daily soap operas had all the time in the world to complicate matters to absurd extremes. It became almost obligatory for “dead” characters in soap operas to get resurrected. Or for a long-lost daughter to get reunited with her parents who have risen from abject poverty to become billionaires, after getting married to a brother who turns out to have been adopted. You get the drift.

I am happy to note, however, that the sitcom seems to be making a comeback. For a number of Sundays now, people in my house have been following religiously the travails of newlyweds Cecil and George. It’s a sitcom in the tradition of John en Marsha but updated to reflect current realities. The wife, George (short for Georgia), is a female cop while the husband Cecil (short for Cecilio), is an academic. The usual interfering in-laws include a snotty mother-in-law (Tessie Tomas) and a benevolent bear of a father-in-law (Al Tantay). The couple in the sitcom is real-life husband and wife Ryan and Judy Ann Agoncillo, who as everyone knows, tied the knot only recently. What makes the sitcom endearing is that the whole thing has “natural” written all over it; the Agoncillos don’t look like they are acting (they are on their honeymoon stage, after all) and the twists in the sitcom don’t seem all that implausible.

The material, of course, requires a parental guidance advisory. The sitcom tackles marital issues, after all; and the formula requires that each episode should end on a happy note. This means the couple end up in bed somehow. But credit goes to the people behind the sitcom particularly Director Joey Reyes for successfully keeping everything simple, clean, fun, and funny. Proof indeed that TV fare does not have to be complicated to be enjoyable.

Cecil and George is halfway through its first season and its relative success is indicated by the fact that not only has the competition come up with its own sitcom—it has scheduled that sitcom to air on the same time slot as Cecil and George. The competition is a sitcom entitled Show Me The Manny and stars Manny Pacquiao and Marian Rivera along with a host of comedians. Providing additional human interest is the Pacman’s own irrepressible mother, Dionesia Pacquiao herself.

Pitting the two sitcoms against each other puts viewers at the losing end but what can we do? That’s the way our media networks play their little games. As a result, we had to switch between the two channels last Sunday to try to catch snippets of each sitcom. Our verdict: Show Me The Manny still needs a lot of work to make it more natural and less contrived. And sadly, all that hype about Mommy Dionesia fell flat; the woman is not funny when made to act like someone else. She is funny being herself.

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