Sticking up for Stick in the Muds

In sitcoms populated by large casts of diverse characters everyone is on screen at any given time to perform a specific function. The job the characters perform is to A.) Move the plot along in (hopefully) an organic, character driven way and B.) To be funny. Usually, there is a character in these sitcoms (sometimes more than one) that serves as the moral epicenter for the rest of the characters. Without these “Stick in the Muds” (or S.I.T.M’s as they will be known through the rest of this post) these worlds would function without boundaries or, at the very least, without the reminder that boundaries exist. How would Homer know that stealing cable was wrong without Lisa protesting outside the house? How would Jenna and Tracy ever get anything done without the guiding hand of Liz Lemon? Would the town of Pawnee function without Leslie Knope? S.I.T.M.’s are usually women who act as the moral center of the show; they are sometimes motherly figures, while the world around them functions solely on the id.

The truly unfortunate thing about S.I.T.M.’s is that, although they serve an important function on a show, they are often hated by both the rest of the characters on the show as well as the audience. (Why can’t everyone always have fun all the time? Because we can’t, damnit, that’s why!). But I have grown, over the years to love them. I didn’t used to be this way, seeing these characters as boring and immovable and unchangeable in their convictions. But over the years I’ve learned that I am a S.I.T.M. myself, hoping the people around me will act in a very specific way, in keeping with my own moral code.e beauty of the best S.I.T.M. is that they are always trying to do right for themselves and for the betterment of other people and humanity as a whole. And, although, their heart is in the right place for doing this, they are always barking up the wrong tree. The humor comes when everyone around them just want to have a good time. What’s great, and essential, about S.I.T.M.’s generally, is these characters get themselves into trouble by thinking they know what is right, when they are actually completely mistaken.

Diane Chambers arrives at the bar in the first season of Cheers as a university student (Diane would correct me here and say, “an university”) who was jilted by her fiancée. She then takes a job at Cheers as a waitress despite any experience (or really any other reason – always an odd justification for me). From the outset, Diane butts heads with almost everyone at the bar but most especially with her immediate romantic foil, Sam Malone. The reason for the constant arguments is that Diane is highly educated and sees her intelligence as an advancement over the patrons and employees at the bar. While the rest of the bar shouts “Norm” upon his entrance, Diane insists on greeting him with a “Norman” AFTER everyone else is finished. Diane is of higher class than the rest of the population of Cheers and she feels the needs to spout wisdom wherever she sees fit to educate her coworkers and the clientele. Of course, this is not necessarily accurate and Diane eventually grows and comes to find that the bar is full of wisdom of its own.

S.I.T.M.’s usually get themselves into the most trouble when they believe they are doing one thing but are really doing something else. The humor is always heightened in the situations because SITM’s always believe what they believe with all of their might (and even if they don’t, they have to go with it anyway for fear that they will be found out). In the episode “Endless Slumper” a baseball player named Rick Walker comes into the bar and we find out that he is in the midst of a horrible slump. Diane suggests that he does yoga to help center him and calm him. Rick mistakes this (with Sam’s help) for Diane talking about having sex (with her no less!). Diane pushes further and explains the benefits of these exercises and the scene ends with Rick taking her into the back office for a quickie. We don’t see what happens in the office though we do hear a loud noise and the two swiftly leave the office looking angry and embarrassed.

We can’t talk about Diane without discussing her on and off relationship with Sam The characters were originally conceived with a Tracy-Hepburn dynamic and, although this changed with the casting of Shelly Long, it was revisited when Long left the show and Kirstie Alley was brought in as a replacement. The screwball comedy dynamics are still a big part of the way Cheers works and the “will they won’t they” relationship with Sam and Diane is a key to this. Otherwise, the way Diane chastises Sam would have less weight and would be less filled with glee and delight on her part. Because, really, that’s the thing:  the best sitcom S.I.T.M.’s derive pleasure by not letting their friends/lovers/co-workers get away with anything.

An example of this is when, in the episode “The Boys in the Bar”, Diane attempts to teach the bar patrons a lesson about homophobia. A former teammate of Sam’s, Tom, writes a memoir that serves as a way of outing himself. Tom comes to the bar for a visit and, after learning about his sexuality, the patrons, headed by Norm, express fear that Cheers will turn into a gay bar. Sam has his own concerns saying “men should be men” but ends up, after talking it over with Diane, allowing the two men he assumes are gay to stay and have a beer on the house. Diane does the crowd one better by playing along with the gag until the end of the episode where she explains that the two men that the crowd thought were gay weren’t at all. The episode is dated and it makes everyone (save Diane and Sam) out to be complete idiots but it is affecting nonetheless. It also turns Diane, who usually means well and is educated but doesn’t really know what’s going on, into a hero.

S.I.T.M.’s usually wear their heart on their sleeve but Diane’s heart is everywhere on her outfit. In the beautifully acted and genuinely moving episode “Let Me Count the Ways”, Diane’s cat, Elizabeth, dies. The cynicism of the rest of the bar patrons is on overdrive in this episode and not only can they not empathize with Diane they make fun of her for taking the death of her family cat so seriously. We eventually find out that, as a kid, Diane had few friends and could only confide in her cat. Sam consoles Diane and eventually breaks down himself when she tells him her story. This episode works because most of the time Sam and Diane’s attraction is based on friction. “Let Me Count the Ways” shows us the softer side of Sam Malone that can only be brought out when Diane is genuinely vulnerable. Diane may have pressed and prodded Sam to be a better person by discussing moral causes, but it isn’t until she is hurt that he is moved.

Britta Perry on Community is a clear progression both from a feminist perspective and a cultural one to Diane. On the surface, the two actually don’t have all that much in common. Britta is always quick to take up a new cause, whether it be non-professional psychology, joining the Peace Corps or adopting one-eyed cats. Britta is much more of a quasi-hippie but, like Diane, she has led somewhat of a charmed life, comes from a good (albeit poorer) home life and is smart (though a mediocre student). Unlike Diane, however, Britta’s moral decisions are more personal than the result of good breeding or parental influence. Britta’s decision to drop out of high school was based on the fact that she thought it would impress Radiohead and this has shaped the rest of her life. She ended up in Greendale Community College but never lost that desire to impress people (or bands). Like Diane, she is deeply concerned that everyone thinks she is a good person and this often comes across as haughty and highfalutin.

Britta also has an on and off (mostly off) relationship with Jeff Winger, the Sam Malone of Community. Although the relationship has cooled off in recent seasons (Britta now seems to be taking up with Troy, the dim-witted, exuberant, ex-high school football star – definitely not a Frasier Crane) the intentions at the beginning of the series were clearly to pair the two off despite their seeming distaste for each other.

Britta became the wet blanket character over time but it was always under the surface. The group even coined the term “Britta’d” (in the episode “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”) after her constant complaining and moralizing. This, in and of itself, is a joke on the show because, although Britta is a moral counterpoint, all of the other women on the show should be bigger wet blankets than she is. Annie is prudish, high-strung and “proper” (more of a surface level Diane) than Britta. Shirley is the mother figure (and the only actual mother) on the show and is a deeply spiritual woman with a very specific moral code. The difference is that these characters do not demand that their friends behave in any specific way. Despite her buzz-kill persona and constant “Britta”-ing, Britta is not actually so straight-laced. We find out in “Remedial Chaos Theory” (one of the best episodes Community has ever done and the absolute best episode in Season 3) that Britta is at the very least a casual pot smoker.

On Community, Britta’s version of “The Boys in the Bar” is the episode “Early 21st Century Romanticism”. In this episode, Britta tries to impress her new “lesbian” friend Page by, essentially, dating her. This is meant to prove to the study group that Britta is not just ok with having a lesbian friend but also that she is, like, so over labels, too. What results is one of the funniest, most awkward television kisses I have seen and plays with television conventions of turning a lesbian kiss into an event. It turns out, in the end, that Page is not a lesbian but thought it would be cool to have a lesbian friend like Britta. Unlike Diane in “The Boys in the Bar”, Britta comes off as a fool at the end of the episode and her friends really don’t care if she has a lesbian friend or not.

My affection for SITM’s reminds me of something my good friend Lindsay once said about a similar character: “I love them because no one else does”. Of course, my love for Britta and Diane (and I think Lindsay’s love for the character she was referring to) goes far beyond pity. These characters remind us that as sure as we think we are about anything we really don’t know anything at all. Diane and Britta being adamant about anything just highlights their naiveté and longing to figure out who they are in the world. Wouldn’t all be so much easier if the people around us acted and behaved in a specific way? S.I.T.M.’s help remind us that we can’t mold and shape and design the way the people around us think or feel. But, damn it, we will give it our best shot.

And, because I think it is ultimately one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television or otherwise, I will leave you with this.

One thought on “Sticking up for Stick in the Muds

  1. Pingback: Channel Surfing – My Week in TV | The Golden Age of Television

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