Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” in my book, is up there with Sherlock as a source of a huge chunk of TV drama — the sci-fi serials that the networks have been trying in the past decade. Almost all of the “mythology” series that have sprung up since “The X Files” and “Lost” are spiritual cousins to the stories that Serling curated, adapted, and popularized for his show. You can see the themes that interested Serling — wariness of science, the mysteriousness of time, the animal instinct beneath the surface of ordinary people — on “Person of Interest,” “Revolution,” and “Fringe,” as well as “FlashForward,” “V,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Event.” All of these shows have precedents, either directly or indirectly, in episodes of the 1959-1964 classic. On the “Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for example, just as on “Revolution,” people are thrown into desperation and aggression when the power mysteriously goes out.
Dickens, of course, is inevitable in any conversation about the origins of today’s TV storytelling. He was among the first to write and publish his novels episodically, with regular cliffhangers and coincidences, as do most TV writers; and then he wound up with a completed novel with cohesive plots and subplots — that would be the DVD box set. He had a sentimental streak, certainly, but his stories were set among the hard inequities of society, where poverty and lack of education doomed people from birth. That’s why “The Wire” has been compared to Dickens so often, as both use fiction to explore institutionalized oppression. But shows as far-flung as “Oz,” with its view inside prison, and “Downton Abbey,” with its look at the relationship between the rich and the labor class, are also indebted to the master.
Oddly enough, one of the towers of the contemporary sitcom could well be the late Nora Ephron. With her movie “When Harry Met Sally,” for which she was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, she defined what is now the most common trope on American TV comedies. In nearly every ensemble of single characters, from “Friends” to “How I Met Your Mother” and “Happy Endings,” men and women are struggling to be platonic friends — and not succeeding. Obviously, Ephron did not invent romantic tension between friends, but she made it fodder for years and years of will-they-or-won’t-they TV.
Ephron exerts a subtle influence on sitcoms; vaudeville, not so much. A thick line goes straight from the brash entertainment of vaudeville, with its circus-like atmosphere, fast pace, rowdy tone, and mass-audience appeal, to the multi-camera sitcoms of today. With its crude yuks and machine-gun tempo, for instance, “2 Broke Girls” descends directly from the form, which thrived at the turn of the 20th century and provided a start for the likes of Fanny Brice, Bert Lahr, and Bill Robinson. “Malibu Country,” “Last Man Standing,” and all of the original sitcoms on TBS and TV Land — thanks, vaudeville.
In the past decade or two, TV comedy has relied more and more on single-camera stylings, without the need to keep live audiences giddy with one-liner-driven laughter. That’s where Surrealism — the first “Surrealist Manifesto” was written by Andre Breton — comes into the picture. Sitcoms such as “30 Rock,” “Happy Endings,” and, in the recent past, “Scrubs” have taken the fantasy sequences that David E. Kelley pioneered on “Ally McBeal” — remember the dancing baby? — and run with them. These sudden, brief flashes break from the conventional narrative and bring us inside characters’ consciousnesses. When a character feels like a deer in the headlights, we actually see that deer and those headlights. The metaphors become visible. These flights are especially common on animated comedies such as “Family Guy,” where the laws of gravity and sequencing are particularly easy to defy.
Who else? With the advent of the musical series “Glee,” “Smash,” and “Nashville,” the towers of drama could include “Show Boat,” which has been credited as the first musical with a dramatic emphasis. And reality TV reaches back to Allen Funt, whose “Candid Camera” popularized the use of hidden cameras perched over staged situations that are meant to make viewers laugh at others. Funt is certainly one of the godfathers of reality TV, although some might prefer to look back to something more primitive: The ancient gladiatorial games.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.