Domcom: Character-Based Situation Comedies


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed times since 30 May 1996.


The characters in all types of domcom are more like human beings than those in actcoms. They are not so one-dimensional and stereotyped: no scatter-brained conniving wives; no perpetually confused and angry husbands; the neighbors are people, not s tooges or henchmen. They experience real emotions: grief, not wailing; love, not panting desire.

In addition, all characters are important, not just the star or main characters. The main character is not necessarily the pivot point of every plot: the supporting characters are central to the plot much more often than in an actcom. Also, soluti ons are not always provided by the main character: they are sometimes provided by supporting characters or even transients. For example, in an episode of THE BRADY BUNCH, Jan's aunt, a transient character, proves that Jan is not ugly. In an episode of EIGHT IS ENOUGH, David, a supporting character, pushes Mary into realizing that she is trying too hard in medical school and is making everyone miserable in the process.

Supporting characters are much more important in their own rights. They are not strictly underlings to the main character. They lead dramatic lives of their own away from the main character. They are often involved in plots of their own.

The supporting characters in a domcom are the children, neighbors, friends, and the parents' co-workers (In domcoms of the 50s and 60s the wife rarely had a job that took her out of the house. However, as women moved more and more into the workplace , so did the wife in domcoms.)

The children are the characters that have most of the problems, usually associated with learning about living in a social world. The relationship between parent and child, and the children themselves, is good and loving. Though there is sibling riv alry and hostility, there is even more love and support.

A major problem with television's series programming is solved by having the children as the characters with most of the problems. For a piece of drama to be gripping for the audience, it must take place during the major event in the life of the pro tagonist. For OEDIPUS REX to take place while Oedipus was on the road, rather than at the moment when he discovers the truth about himself and his life, might be interesting, but also might leave the audience asking, "So what?" For E.T., THE EXTRATERRES TRIAL to be about E.T.'s trip to Earth, rather than about his meeting and surviving his encounter with humans, would lack immediacy and tension. Hamlet's life at school could be fascinating, but is nothing compared to the dramatic impact of his desire to revenge his father's murder. Thus it is clear to see that whatever happens to the character, the piece should be about the most important thing to happen to him/her/it in his/her/its life.

What this means to series television is -- it's impossible. If what happens in this week's show is the most important thing that can happen in the character's life, then next week's show is an anticlimax, as is the next, and the next, and the next, if there is a next (if the audience loses interest, the show loses its contract).

However, what if the characters with the problems are children? Children are incomplete adults, still learning about the world around them. Therefore, every problem they have is potentially the most important event in their lives to that point. Ne xt week's problem can be even more important. This solves a major problem with the dramatic quality of series television. It is now possible to tell a story every week that is the most important thing in a character's life without having to change chara cters.

Other supporting characters in a domcom rarely have problems of their own for the family to resolve, but merely act as comic intensification and foils for the main characters. Though they rarely have problems of their own they are often instrumental in the solution by either providing a sounding-board for another character to discover the solution or by discovering the solution themselves. A prime example is Tim Allen's next door neighbor on HOME IMPROVEMENT. Although his face is never seen, he al ways has a perspective on Tim's problems that gives Tim a new approach.

Transients are most often the cause of a plot problem or complication, coming into the show for one episode to create a problem for one of the main characters or children. They play roles ranging from total stranger to rarely seen relative, and thei r problem, often the most important event in their lives, is resolved through their interaction with one or more members of the family.

The number of transients is kept to a minimum: the interest is in the family's reactions to the problems, not the transient's problem. For example, in an episode of ONE DAY AT A TIME, Schneider is confronted with someone to whom he once said, "Keep in touch". The man shows up, just out of prison. Schneider, Ann and Barbara are all apprehensive about having him around, but as they get to know him they realize they were prejudging him. He turns out to be a nice but socially unskilled person, havin g spent half his life in jail. They get him a job, which solves his problem, although the next moment the police come to take him back to prison for having left it without the formality of being released. Schneider, Ann, and Barbara resolve to visit him, having discovered something about themselves, that they tend to be prejudiced and resolve to avoid it in future.

As can be seen from the above example, it was not the convict's problems that were the focus of the episode: it was the family's reactions to the problems. The resolution of the episode was not for the convict, who ended up right where he started, in prison, but the effect on the family and their new knowledge about themselves.

All characters, with minor exceptions, are sympathetic. The plots do not arise out of a protagonist/antagonist conflict, but a mental and/or emotional conflict within a character, and attempts by the character and his family to eliminate the conflic t. At most, a character, usually a transient, will be a personalized representation of the conflict, and thus appear unsympathetic. However, with the resolution of the conflict, any antipathy toward this character will disappear as it is realized that e ither his motivations were misunderstood or he is to be pitied rather than despised.

One thing that distinguishes a domcom from an actcom is the competency of the characters to cope with problems. The parent does not always have the answer but does always have some explanation by the end of an episode. The children have an amazing degree of understanding of human nature and the problems of children and parents.


The following sections discuss the differences in the characters in the three types of domcom: standard, single-parent, and pseudo-domcom.

Standard Domcom

The standard domcom is one which uses a complete family as the basic unit. That is, there is a father, a mother, and children.

The main characters in a standard domcom are the parents. The father is the head of the family, in keeping with the idealized middle-class American family. He is a fount of wisdom, firm but gentle, and the final decisions rest with him on all matte rs financial, the general running of the household, and discipline. In other words, he is a benevolent dictator, the breadwinner and provider for the family. He may be occasionally unsure of what to do but he is always willing to try and do his best.

The mother is the father's right hand. She runs the home, handling the details of cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc. She maintains order in the home, deferring to the father in most matters of discipline, providing the emotional facets of all proble ms, leaving most of the logistics to the logical and rational mind of the father. As Mrs. Brady says on THE BRADY BUNCH, "I don't have to be logical--I'm a mother." The mother is the wellspring of comfort and mother love, and attends to the emotional we ll-being of the family.

In recent years, as women have become more individual and independent, the wife has occasionally assumed the traditional "husband" characteristics, contributing more to the financial and disciplinary well-being of the family. At the same time, the husba nd has contributed more to the emotional aspects. On THE COSBY SHOW we often see Claire Huxtable handling discipline, while Cliff Huxtable provides comfort and emotional support to the children. Nonetheless, the standard characteristics of husband and w ife detailed above still hold true in the majority of shows and episodes.

Primary among the supporting characters are the children, who range in age from about six to about seventeen.

At least one child will be very young, rher innocence and lack of experience providing many plot problems and complications as rhe learns about the world around rher. For examples, there is Kathy on FATHER KNOWS BEST, Nick on EIGHT IS ENOUGH, Patty on THE DONNA REED SHOW, Cindy and Bobby on THE BRADY BUNCH, and Rudy on THE COSBY SHOW.

At least one child will be old enough to experience problems with growing up in society. This child is learning not only about the world but the people in it, and experiences problems with friends, the opposite sex, money, egotism and snobbishness. For example, there is Bud on FATHER KNOWS BEST, Tom and Elizabeth on EIGHT IS ENOUGH, Jeff on THE DONNA REED SHOW, Jan and Peter on THE BRADY BUNCH, and Vanessa on THE COSBY SHOW.

The other children, if any, will be older, beginning to cope with adult problems. The parents will guide rather than dictate solutions to these children, and the character will most often discover rher own solutions. In addition, this character wil l help with the raising of younger children, providing examples, good or bad. For example, there is Betty on FATHER KNOWS BEST, Nancy, Susan, Joanie, Mary, and David on EIGHT IS ENOUGH, Mary on THE DONNA REED SHOW, Marcia and Greg on THE BRADY BUNCH, and Theo and Denise on THE COSBY SHOW.

If a show has a long enough run, four or more years, you will often see a new child added to the family in order to maintain the age spread as the original children (read, the actors playing them) grow older and move into new slots. For example, FAMILY TIES had the age spread the first few seasons with Jennifer, Mallory and Alex. However, as these three characters aged, a new child, Andy, was added. Andy provided the youngest, Jennifer moved from the youngest to the second slot, Mallory moved to the o lder teenage slot, and Alex became a new slot, the young adult.

Other supporting characters are most often the parents' friends or family. They are often professional people (doctors, especially). They will aid in the raising of the children by offering advise and encouragement. Rarely do they provide anything in the way of plot problems and complications. On those shows in which the main characters are the children rather than the parents, such as FAMILY TIES, other supporting characters are often the children's, rather than the parents', friends.

There is extensive use of transient characters, portraying in particular friends of the children. Through these friends the children can explore various ways of learning about life: peer pressure, success and failure, other families.

Single-parent Domcom

A single-parent domcom has a family broken for some reason, such as the death of one parent, or a divorce. Thus, the basic unit is that of having either a father or mother, but not both, and one or more children that the single parent must raise.

The main character in a single-parent domcom is usually the parent, such as Andy Taylor on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Occasionally, however, it is the parent and the child. Tom Corbett and his son, Eddie, on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER, is an exam ple of this.

Most shows of this kind use a widower. This appears to be due to an assumed effect on the audience, that men are less competent to raise children and thus there is a greater poignancy in a father trying to be a mother as well.

The supporting characters include the children, the surrogate parent, and friends. The children are usually young (six to twelve years of age). If the show has a long run the children naturally grow up, and new young children are brought in. For e xample, on MY THREE SONS, which ran for 18 seasons, the oldest son grew up, got married, and moved out, so they adopted a new youngest son. This maintained the age range for interesting plots (and incidentally insured that the title remained applicable).

The surrogate parent is a member of the cast that fulfills the role of the other, non-biological, parent. There are, of course, two types of surrogate parents: surrogate fathers and surrogate mothers. Surrogate fathers are usually well-intentioned but bumbling. Schneider, on ONE DAY AT A TIME, is constantly offering advise and assistance to Ann on the raising of her two daughters. The advise is often inapplicable and the assistance obstructive. Nonetheless, it is obvious that he believes that what he says and does is for the best. Bub, and later Uncle Charlie, on MY THREE SONS, played the wife to Steven Douglas' husband. Bub/Uncle Charlie did the cooking and housework, and provided some of the emotional support for the children.

Surrogate mothers are warm and loving, stable and dependable. When they are not it is for the purpose of plot complication or problem. For example, Mrs. Livingston on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER is always there, warm, smiling, gentle. On one e pisode she was in danger of deportation to her native Japan, and little Eddie had to cope with the prospect of losing her and try to understand the wonders of government. When Tom manages to get her permission to stay in America, Eddie is ecstatic, but a lso more aware of life in the big world.

Occasionally there is a hybrid form of single-parent domcom, in which there is a parent and a surrogate parent of the same sex. KATE & ALLIE and MY TWO DADS are example. In this case the role of parent and surrogate parent trade off. In some episodes K ate is the surrogate father to Allie's mother, in other episodes vice versa.

The parent's friends are often bumbling but well-intentioned, providing a foil for the parent's level-headed competence. Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and "Uncle" Norman on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER are examples of this type of friend.

Friends are almost exclusively of the same sex as the parent. The parent will rarely have a friend of the opposite sex. Anyone of the opposite sex turns out to be an employee, an employer, a co-worker, or a love interest.

Transients brought into a single-parent domcom are usually important. For the parent they are either a love interest or a family complication for the parent, the child, or the surrogate parent. For the child the transients are brought in to introdu ce questions or problems for the parent to answer or solve. For example, on JULIA, Earl introduces the problem "Is Santa Claus black or white?". On an episode of THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER, Eddie wants to marry his babysitter, who in turn wants to marry Tom. This is a problem for Tom to solve.


The characters on a pseudo-domcom are a set of adults who bear relationships to one another that are analogous to those in a regular domcom. An example is THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, in which Mary, Lou, Murray, Ted, Georgette, Rhoda, Phyllis and Sue Ann take the parts of the family, Mary as the usually calm and level-headed single parent surrounded by children older than herself.

Occasionally an actcom will mature into a pseudo-domcom, as why the characters do what they becomes more important than the mere fact that they do it. A prime example is CHEERS.

CHEERS, a pure actcom for the first few seasons, matured as the characters began examining why they did things. Sam, an inveterate, egotistical skirt-chaser has tried everything he can think of to get Rebecca into bed. He sees his opportunity when Rebe cca has lost the love of her life and is vulnerable. He moves in, then suddenly stops as his conscience (something he never had the first few seasons) bothers him: how can he take advantage of someone who needs a friend to talk to, not a roll in the hay ? Sam bolts from the room and calls Rebecca from the lobby of her apartment house, knowing he can't be a friend while in the same room with her -- his old reflexes are too strong. Sam's examination of his own character, realization of a moral dilemma, a nd decision to do something different from his normal behavior patterns, are factors that make this episode a domcom rather than an actcom.

Although most episodes of CHEERS are actcom, many are domcom, with the characters in the bar taking the roles of parents and children, swapping the roles around according to the dictates of individual episodes.

The only difference between a regular domcom and a pseudo-domcom, once the concept of the pseudo-domcom is understood, is that the character of parent, surrogate parent and child(ren) in a pseudo-domcom will often rotate between the characters.

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