8 Worst Sitcom Tropes That Can Ruin Great TV Shows

Summary

  • Sitcom tropes like casual sexism and objectification of women should be retired as they perpetuate harmful stereotypes and don’t align with evolving cultural values.
  • The “will they/won’t they” trope in sitcoms, while creating tension, often relies on unrealistic obstacles and silly miscommunications that are no longer appealing to today’s audiences.
  • Sitcoms should avoid using overly precocious children as the constant voice of reason to adults, as it is unrealistic and limits the development of these characters.


Sitcoms are a beloved genre of television, and while tropes are an expected tool for storytelling some of them have become too tired or problematic to still be used. Whether it’s because the cultural landscape has changed and the jokes that used to be considered okay aren’t anymore, or that too many shows have utilized the same format, and they’re no longer engaging, certain tropes must be put to bed. It can be devastating when a series that has many great qualities includes an unfortunate line of dialogue or characterization that sours the whole show.

A trope in film and television has come to be a catch-all term for a visual shorthand that cues the audience what to expect from a character, situation, or setting. When something is used often enough to be considered a trope, its appearance, like the femme fatale in film noir, immediately tells the audience who that character is without having to include any exposition. As wordy and unnecessary exposition is something that slows down the pace of a show, tropes can be an effective tool, but they should always be examined for bias.

Related

10 Most Common Sitcom Tropes Of The 2020s

While many of the sitcom tropes that exist in the 2020s have persisted for decades, they still haven’t gotten old just yet.


8 Casual Sexism/The Womanizer

How I Met Your Mother; The Big Bang Theory

Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother

Release Date
September 19, 2005

Seasons
9

Writers
Carter Bays , Craig Thomas

Directors
Carter Bays

Though Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) has been defended as a parody of toxic masculinity in How I Met Your Mother, it doesn’t change the fact that rampant sexism was a core part of the show, as with almost every television show made ten years ago and beyond. There are many ways that sexism and “the womanizer” became a central archetype in television, and it’s a sitcom characteristic that won’t be missed. While societal relationships with the treatment of women and minorities have begun to change, it’s difficult to unlearn lessons that were taught through what seems like harmless television.

The treatment of women as objects, and the characterization that the behavior of men treating them that way is something to be emulated isn’t a suitable punchline for a joke. While it’s not necessarily the job of a TV show to teach moral lessons, a show as popular as a network sitcom needs to be aware of its impact on those watching. Even if it isn’t as overt as Barney’s behavior, there are plenty of small moments of gender discrimination all over television.

7 Will They/Won’t They

Friends; New Girl

Friends

Release Date
September 22, 1994

Seasons
10

Writers
David Crane , Marta Kauffman

Directors
David Crane , Marta Kauffman

Showrunner
Marta Kauffman

Where To Watch
Max

While some TV couples can keep their appeal after the “will they, won’t they” stage ends, few are so lucky, especially in sitcoms. Keeping the audience guessing over whether the central couple will finally admit their feelings and get together is an easy way to create tension and stakes without doing a lot of narrative work. However, keeping the couple apart often involves silly miscommunications and unrealistic obstacles that push the boundaries of believability. Overall, audiences today are less interested in dramatic, sappy romance and want to see two adults be able to admit their feelings when they have them.

6 Overly Precocious Children

Full House; Modern Family

Michelle and Uncle Jesse in Full House

Full House (US)

Release Date
September 22, 1987

Cast
Bob Saget , John Stamos , Dave Coulier , Candace Cameron Bure , Jodie Sweetin , Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen , Lori Loughlin , Andrea Barber , Scott Weinger

Seasons
8

Children are smart, complex human beings and should be treated that way, but having very young children be the constant voice of reason to the adults around them is more than unrealistic. Though the maturity levels of adults on television are often lower than those in real life, relying on children to give them advice and act like a parent has been done too many times, and toes the line of problematic. Unfortunately, this also makes the children unlikable characters, through no fault of their own, and leaves little room for them to develop as they age.

5 Mockumentary Style

The Office; Parks and Recreation

Michael Scott Stares into the Camera Blankly in The Office Season 5 Episode 13

The Office

Release Date
March 24, 2005

Cast
Mindy Kaling , Jenna Fischer , Kate Flannery , Ed Helms , Craig Robinson , Paul Lieberstein , Ellie Kemper , B.J. Novak , Angela Kinsey , Oscar Nunez , Rainn Wilson , Brian Baumgartner , Phyllis Smith , Leslie David Baker , Creed Bratton , Steve Carell , John Krasinski

Seasons
9

Story By
Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant

Writers
Mindy Kaling , Paul Lieberstein , Michael Schur , Ricky Gervais , Greg Daniels , B.J. Novak

Directors
Greg Daniels , Paul Lieberstein , Paul Feig , Randall Einhorn , Ken Kwapis

Shooting a series as if a documentary crew is filming the characters was a revolutionary style when it first came on the scene. It allows the show to include talking head interviews which provide insight into the internal dialogue of the characters, but overusing this tool can grow boring. After The Office, several shows followed the format because of how easy it was to get a laugh if a character acknowledged the cameras and proved that they were in on the joke of the show. Someday, this trope might get revamped for new audiences, but for now, it’s been overdone.

4 Body-Shaming

New Girl; Friends

Schmidt when he was younger and overweight in New Girl.

New Girl

Release Date
September 20, 2011

Cast
Zooey Deschanel , Max Greenfield , Hannah Simone , Damon Wayans Jr. , Lamorne Morris , Jake Johnson

Seasons
7

Writers
Elizabeth Meriwether

Showrunner
Elizabeth Meriwether

Perpetuating stereotypes of any kind is a harmful way to use a platform, but belittling people for their physical appearance, and using ploys like cheap jokes and fat suits is a low point for any series. In shows like New Girl or Friends, a main character is shown in flashbacks wearing a fat suit, and it’s supposed to be a joke or embarrassment. Why or how this is supposed to be funny is beyond most viewers, and can easily hurt or ostracize others. Though TV series rely on such humor much less often, it must be stopped completely.

3 The “Tomboy”

That 70s Show; How I Met Your Mother

Eric (Topher Grace) with His Arm Awkwardly Around Donna (Laura Prepon) in the That '70s Show Pilot Episode

that 70s show

Release Date
August 23, 1998

Cast
Topher Grace , Mila Kunis , Ashton Kutcher , Mark Brazill , Laura Prepon , Wilmer Valderrama , Debra Jo Rupp , Kurtwood Smith

Seasons
8

Writers
Mark Brazill , Bonnie Turner , Terry Turner

Streaming Service(s)
Hulu

Showrunner
Gregg Mettler

Several of the worst offenders of sitcom tropes boil down to sexism, both in external jokes and the internal characterization of the female roles on screen. A popular trope for woman characters is having them be a “guy’s girl” who abstains from the “traditional” female interests and traits that would make them undesirable to their male love interests. This stereotyping is harmful for many reasons as it assigns value to living up to the standards of the male gaze and frequently pits the female characters of a show against each other.

Related

How I Met Your Mother: 5 Ways Robin Breaks Boundaries (& 4 She Doesn’t)

Although Robin did conform to a few stereotypes on How I Met Your Mother, there were several ways where she managed to break boundaries.

2 Regressive Character Development AKA Flanderization

Joey (Matt LeBlanc) Looking Shocked After Realizing the Truth about Chandler and Monica in Friends

Many TV characters have been Flanderized beyond recognition, meaning they have gone from well-rounded individuals to caricatures of how they were once written. The term comes from Flanders of The Simpsons, who began as a normal next-door neighbor who went to church and followed religious teachings, to become an intense evangelist as his only defining trait. Lots of sitcoms have fallen into this particular hole, like Joey (Matt LeBlanc) in Friends and Pierce (Chevy Chase) in Community.

Joey started as a regular guy who would misinterpret situations for comedic relief and wasn’t the smartest in the group. However, this quickly devolved into having his intelligence regress to the point that he needed everything explained to him, and lost all of his defining traits. As with Pierce, who was always a figure on the show who delivered divisive and racy dialogue, but became downright offensive by the end of his time on the show. This was a strange move for Community, a show that typically tried to subvert tropes.

1 LGBTQ+ Identities Played For Laughs

Friends; How I Met Your Mother

Only in recent years has the LGBTQ+ community been recognized and respected by sitcoms, and media in general, instead of being used as a punchline. However, it took many years to get to this point, having diversity in the romantic relationships shown on screen, and taken seriously. Though all people of marginalized gender and sexual orientation have been subjected to prejudice on these shows, lesbian relationships have faced particular scorn. Referred to as a fantasy or fetish of the straight men in the series, it is a symptom of not only homophobia but underlying sexism within a show’s structure.

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