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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Black Sitcoms: Narrative & Ideology: Analyzing And Deconstructing In The House

By Waiching Liu

The sitcom is a short abbreviation of the words, 'situation comedy'; a form of comedy featuring reoccurring characters in a common environment, be it the home or the workplace, accompanied by jokes and running gags, which form part of the dialogue. First originated on radio, sitcoms have- up until say 2005- became one of the most dominant genres and forms of narrative (entertainment), especially in the United States.

The sitcom is essentially penned as the 'comedic drama' lasting for approximately 30 mins, including adverts and running a full 20 mins excluding them. 

There has been a lot of work and studies on race and media; most of those are focused around the representation of Black men and women. This is due to the strong presence of the African American counter-culture that has existed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, for example, that provided different - yet positive role-models for Black Americans to relate to on TV. These role models appeared in response to the early racial stereotypes of Blacks, such as the notorious 'Black face', as far as back as the 1930s & 40s that were deemed derogatory and out-of-date. 

Means Coleman once said that because of its (as in sitcom) sub-generic distinction results in the core casting of African- American characters who exist to 'illuminate Black cultural, artistic, political and economic experiences' ( pg 142, Mary M Dalton, Laura R. Linder). 

In other words, what she is indicating here is that Black sitcom characters are created and portrayed on TV by creators, writers, producers in order to highlight and denote life & the hardships in America as experienced by African Americans to their viewer-ship, as well as towards other minority groups. They showcase what Black sitcom humour is all about and that fans enjoy taking to heart their culture being mocked in good taste via humour. But that through situation comedies, they can relate to the character's well being & status, and thus proving they are NOT one-dimensional. 

The 1990s up to the mid- 00s saw a high percentage of African American sitcom series; both on major U.S TV networks such as Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, as well as UPN, a cable-based broadcast network that caters towards Black viewers. Whilst these shows resonated with Black audiences, for the exception of The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and The Cosby Show, many of them didn't attract a huge mainstream following. Although they still gained a good, solid Black viewership throughout (Mary M Dalton, Laura R. Linder). 

Such practices by networks and advertisers to create more shows for White audiences led to a charge made by American civil rights organisations, who accused the networks of denying minorities a bigger participation in general TV production. The recent decline in (Black) sitcom production, as well as the interest in reality TV on national TV in the U.S has led to viewers shunning the main networks in favour of Cable channels and even You Tube, which air classic sitcoms that don't appear on NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC any more (Dr Alvin Poussaint). 

There have also been some concerns aired by some members of the Black community over the negative depictions of Black people on TV and how Reality shows have made them out to be the laughing stock of society. This coupled with hardly any positive Black sitcoms and sitcom characters on mainstream U.S TV, and one can understand why such a case as this has validity and truth to it. 


Ideology is in other words the ideas behind the text; a set of beliefs, concepts, beliefs underpinned by the institution or process and leads to social relations (Media Know-All). 

Ideological discourse looks at the issues debated or addressed in various forms of media and the rules taken on these subjects form a basis of our social rules and practice. Issues include education, employment, gender, race, class, age, personal responsibility and politics.


Narrative is an organisation of events, given to a series of facts. Whereas plot refers to events that take place within the story off-screen, narrative tells stories and events that take place on screen. In every narrative, there is a beginning, middle and end. Narrative is important as it acts as an organising principle that helps us make sense of the world (48, Wall, Rayner). Narrative and story-telling functions as a way of interpreting the world and in growing up as adults, it helps us to form our own social values.

Bulgarian theorist Todorov proposed that the concept of narrative follows the following formula: equilibrium > disequilibrium > equilibrium.  

All narratives begin peacefully with people getting on with and enjoying life. A firm sense of social order is established. but afterwards, comes a force of disequilibrium or disruption. something bad has happened or a problem arises.Eventually, in the end, it gets resolved, everyone is happy, harmony is restored and thus, we have a new equilibrium (50, Wall, Rayner). 

Narrative Codes

Roland Barthes proposed 5 types of narrative codes: Hermeneutic, proairetic, semic, symbolic, and cultural. 

Hermeneutic codes are plot elements of the story that haven't been explained. 
Proairetic codes are plot events that imply further action. For instance, a character confronts an adversary and the audience wonders what the resolution of this predicament would be. 
Semic codes are signs that express cultural meanings. It allows the text to show what is happening, as opposed to 'telling and explaining' by describing material things. 
Symbolic codes (see next paragraph for explanation)
Cultural codes designate any element in a narrative that refers to knowledge that is either historical, moral, social, cultural, mythological or scientific. This knowledge is prescribed in a way that it explains how the world works as shared and seen through the eyes of that particular group (Narrati - Narrative Structure). An example of a cultural code would be in A Different World and the fictional historically Black college named Hillman College. Hillman College is a cultural code, in the sense that it is an educational institution for predominately Black students, established in the U.S, with the intention of serving the Black community. The show accurately reflected the social and political life on Black campuses. The Black students, and professors taught and learned about Black history, African American social ideals, in addition to the programme tackling serious matters at the heart, such as racism and Aids. 

Analysing narratives in TV shows, movies involves disseminating technical, verbal, symbolic codes, as well as structure. Technical codes are anything to do with camera angles and movement, such as props, lighting, sound, shots, composition, framing, editing, design & layout. Verbal codes are written and verbal language, the dialogue. Symbolic codes are signs that indicate significant, cultural or connotative meanings. A scruffy- haired person wearing rags as clothes as a symbolic code,  may signify that s/he is homeless and poor (Media Know-All). This is structured in a way that organises meanings. Binary oppositions such as male/female, young/old, black/white act as a symbolic code. 

Analyzing And Deconstructing In The House 

I am going to analyse a sitcom titled 'In The House', which was broadcasted on NBC in 1995, and later on moved to UPN in the U.S. I chose this show to critically disseminate and examine because it is one of the very few sitcoms I watched that I enjoyed, encompassing a family unit and a single character, who was the main lead of show, thanks in part to LL Cool J and led also by veteran actress Debbie Allen, who many identify her as Lydia Grant of Fame.

I also chose this series because I thought there were many ideas that could tie in with the theory, & thus, during the analysis of the episodes, I encountered upon and discovered some interesting findings and results. 

The family component of the show: 

The main breadwinner in the household is Jackie Warren; a divorcee and working mother from Chicago, Illinois played by Debbie Allen, who has 2 kids named Austin, her young son and a teenage daughter,Tiffany. At this point in time, her ex-husband, Milton is now living with girlfriend and orthodontist, Sasha, who is 10-15 years younger than Jackie by comparison. By day, Jackie works for a law firm as a legal secretary for an obnoxious boss, Heather Comstock. 

The fact that the Warren family are Black, irrespective of the fact In The House is a Black sitcom is irrelevant, given that the Warrens could've been Caucasian and the premise of the show would've been the same regardless. 

Characterizations and representation: 

Marion Hill is a professional American football player for the Oakland Raiders, who gets injured and who is hired by Jackie to become a full-time, live-in nanny for Austin and Tiffany. He is very philosophical, spiritual, laid- back and very calm. And yet he for one refuses to take off his baseball cap, especially when he is requested to do so. The cap has no magical powers - yet he insists on wearing it or a skull cap, as opposed to showing off his bald head. He is very reliant on his baseball cap, well, perhaps is too reliant on it. The cap can be seen as a symbolic code; in the sense that it is part of what makes Marion who he is, which is different and unique to everyone else as a person, similar to say Austin and of him wearing glasses.

In contrast Jackie is tough, disciplined, who can be temperamental, but she has shown on a few occasions her fun and soft sides to her personality as well. Her sense of humour is often used to sarcastically mock Marion, as well as her ex-husband Milton. 

With regards to the relationship of Jackie and Marion, during the first 2 seasons of 'In The House', it is somewhat reminiscent to Angela and Tony's in 'Who's The Boss?'. However, it was a strictly business relationship and there were no romantic hints throughout the show that implied Jackie and Marion were and are going to be a couple. 

That includes the moment when Jackie pretends to be Marion's girlfriend & makes out with him in a restaurant in front of Tonya in Futile Attraction in season 2! 

The representations of the characters, for the exception of Austin, are not that stereotypical: Jackie is somewhat similar to the Clair Huxtable from Cosby Show- figure (there were rumours that Jackie was based on Debbie Allen's real- life sister, Phylicia Rashad), whereas Austin resembled a geeky but younger Steve Urkel from Family Matters meets Arnold Jackson of Diff'rent Strokes and Tiffany was your above average teenage girl, who was into boys. Later on in the series, a character named Tonya - who we first see as Marion's physiotherapist- joins the ranks and becomes their new neighbour. 

Tonya became Marion's stalker and later on in season 3, his best friend when Kim Wayans becomes a permanent cast member up until season 4. According to Boyd, he likened the character, Shenehneh from the Martin Lawrence sitcom, Martin to Tonya, noting their striking similarities in both their appearance & attitude; the hair extensions, tight short skirts, boasting about men.The only difference is that unlike Tonya, Shenehneh comes across as being more aggressive, obnoxious and lacking in grace and sophistication (pg 203).      

Cultural identity in the show can be best defined by the characters' binary oppositions: (Jackie) parent/ (Marion) non-parent, male/female, law/sports, pessimistic attitude (Jackie)/ optimistic attitude (Marion); (Austin) brother/ (Tiffany) Sister, geeky/girly. 

Although it is a Black sitcom, there are different classes, ages, social statuses that the characters are represented by throughout the series.

The ideologies of the show 

It is about a mother and her kids, who live in a house in L.A owned by a single guy, whose sports career was blighted by a serious injury that has put him out of action. We see the relationships forming and developing between Marion and Jackie, as well as Marion and Jackie's kids, particularly Austin, who is the only male. Marion would offer wise words of encouragement to him, especially during times where he has been bullied at school. One could say Marion was a father-figure like character to Austin, given the absence of Austin's father, Milton in the kids lives since their parents split up & of Marion filling the shoes of Milton. As the series progresses, we see Jackie become more subtle, sensitive and caring compared to the earlier episodes of season 1 where she was very bossy, uptight and sarcastic. 

We see the effect that Marion has on these people, as well as the changes and developments made by Jackie, Austin, Tiffany both as individuals and in their lives, due to or as a result of Marion's presence. 

Equilibrium/disequilibrium theory model applied to pilot episode
  • state of equilibrium/status quo > Marion takes care of the kids, whilst Jackie goes off to work.
  • disruption of the ordered state by an event > Later that day in the evening, when she returns home, Jackie receives a message from Marion on her answering machine that Austin was involved in an accident and was admitted to hospital. Out of worry, she rushes to the hospital to be with her kids. 
  • recognition that a disruption has taken place >Jackie is upset with Marion over the situation and the two get into an argument.
  • attempt to repair the damage of the disruption > Jackie sees her son bonding with Marion and realises she had made the wrong impression of Marion. In the evening, she then approaches him in person and apologises.   
  • return to equilibrium > Marion and Jackie make up, and the episode ends.

Codes model applied to episode 'To Die For' 
  • Proairetic > Curtis and Marion go into a business venture and together they create and plug Marion's protein drink. Later on, they manage to persuade Jackie to join in on the act, which she does. 
  • Hermeneutic > During the segment, Buff drinks the protein drink and literately passes out and dies on national TV. Marion, Jackie and Curtis are left bewildered.  
  • Semic> After he dies, people wonder if Marion's drink may have played a role in Buff's death. Marion blames Curtis for what happened. 
  • Symbolic > Buff's widow turns up at the house and announces that the drink had nothing to do with his death. It was that he died of a heart attack and he lived an unhealthy lifestyle. Jackie is disappointed when she found out Buff had a wife, having lusted after him, Marion is relieved that he was cleared of his death and apologises to Curtis. 


- Black sitcom characters are devised and depicted on TV by creators, writers, producers to highlight and denote life & the hardships in the U.S experienced by African Americans to their audience. 

- The binary oppositions in sitcoms can be best identified via the characters and the different personality and appearance traits they display. 

- Cultural identity in 'In The House' can be defined by the characters binary oppositions; sports star/legal secretary, mother/nanny to name. 

- Narrative models can be applied to any text (TV programme, movie, comic book for instance) and texts can be analysed in such a way that enables the reader to establish and disseminate social, cultural, wider meanings. The structure of narrative exists to show the reader/viewer the order and manner of which the narrative and the events within the narrative are presented and shown. 

- Each narrative has a beginning, middle and end: all is calm at the beginning, then something happens in the middle and by the end, everyone is okay again. 

- The problem/enigma that takes place, and of which the character needs to address, becomes the driving force of the narrative because it propels the story forward. When the character faces a problem/dilemma, s/he has to find a way of addressing it and not avoid it. That way, it brings closure to the narrative.  

- As an audience, we see the effect that Marion has on these people, and the changes and developments made by Jackie, Austin, Tiffany as individuals and personally in their lives, due to or as a result of Marion. 


  • Why TV is so segregated?- Dr Alvin Poussaint 
  • U.S watches TV in Black and White- Guardian, Feb 2003 
  • Chapter 10: The Hidden Truths In Black Sitcoms- The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed - Mary M Dalton, Laura R. LinderBlack sitcoms and the 1990s 
  • African American stereotypes in Prime-Time TV African Americans and Popular Culture- Theater, Film & Television By Todd Boyd
  • Media know-all, Key concepts in media studies: Ideology
  • Media know-all key concepts in media studies: narrative
  • AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction for AQA, 3rd edition - Philip Rayner, Peter Wall, Routledge, 2008
  • Narrati - Narrative Codes, 2006 

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