[Duke University Press; 2024]

If the title hadn’t already hooked me, the cover would have. Closures: Heterosexuality and the American Sitcom, by Grace Lavery, features an early publicity photo for the show Married . . . with Children. Katey Sagal—vixen-like, with voluminous red hair, thick eyeliner, pink lip gloss, and oversized green earrings—pouts toward the camera lens, while a youthful and clean-shaven Ed O’Neill raises his eyebrows and opens his mouth as if to speak. Sagal’s bare shoulder is exposed; she appears to be clutching his tie. These two characters are frozen in frame, forever on the cusp of resolving their interaction. The cover image is perfect, because this perpetual lack of resolution is the site of Lavery’s investigation. “The sitcom dwells in the present continuous,” Lavery declares in her heady opening salvo, “where the family is always on the verge of disintegrating and always in the process of being repaired or reconstituted.” From the same raw situational material, week after week, the show must rupture into a crisis that is, by the episode’s end, resolved. Therefore, the sitcom depends on “social settings—whether of family, friends, or the workplace—capable of sustaining not a singular closure but closures, plural.”

The sitcom takes marriage and the nuclear family as ends in themselves but cannot dramatize them as such, thanks to the recurring demands of its serialized form. Lavery, best known for her 2022 speculative memoir Please, Miss: a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis, surveys the sitcom as a vehicle for the reproduction of the heterosexual family, even as it enacts heterosexuality’s precarity.

Lavery’s project, as I understand it, is to examine the body of work of the sitcom from her own critical perspective, which is “committed . . . to the program of family abolition” and to recognizing “heterosexuality . . . [as] an organ of power.” Heterosexuality and the family are two of the American sitcom’s overarching frameworks, and Lavery intends to see how the episodic nature of the sitcom destabilizes, reasserts, and propagates these values.

The sitcom formulaically depends on external agents—a step-parent in a blended family, a half-sibling who introduces the subversive temptation of incest, “and all the many other sitcom characters upon whom the imposition of heterosexual relations generate[] powerfully contrarian practices of anti-familial eccentricity”—to consolidate and reinforce the centrality of the heteronormative nuclear family. This argument is, in fact, simpler than it seems: any kind of “normative” social construct requires a deviant scapegoat who can be visibly punished for their refusal or inability to conform. The Shakespeare scholar David Sterling Brown (recently interviewed for Full Stop by Claudia Rankine) makes a similar argument regarding racialization in Shakespeare’s plays, stating that whiteness is managed through the “purging of the white other who does not conform to the dominant culture’s norms.” Due to the unresolved nature of the sitcom, the deviant other cannot be purged (and therefore eliminated from comic possibility), but is repeatedly leveraged for norm-reinforcing laughs. One example of the deviant other is the irreparably awkward Urkel from Family Matters, whom Lavery also interprets as what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson refers to as “the identified patient,” an individual “tasked with the role of maintaining what Bateson called ‘family homeostasis’.” These external agents—including the slew of aliens from My Favorite Martian(s) to Mork of Mork and Mindy, as well as Alice in The Brady Bunch, a “figure of butch competence . . . intrinsic to the logic by which compulsory heterosexuality persuades itself to soldier mordantly onward”—provide enough friction to chronically disrupt the family unit and allow it to reassemble without actually developing.

Lavery argues that the serial nature of the sitcom leads to the exploitation of every conceivable detail as a fresh opportunity to stress and then restore the constraint of the situation, be it family or friend group. “The sitcom exists in order to unfurl the narrative and logical implications of one etic element at a time, to show how a pipe, or an egg, or a gun, or a dishwasher can pressurize the prevailing pressures of a given show but then relent, such that those premises remain ductile enough to be challenged again.” This singular quote is replete with allusions to images Lavery invokes earlier in the book: the pipe, from a close reading of Leave It to Beaver; the “egg sitting” trope in Sister, Sister and other sitcoms; Chekhov’s loaded rifle; and the impotent dishwasher pressurized in the pilot episode of Home Improvement. The relenting that Lavery names is a kind of tenuous compromise, as characters relinquish their petty frustrations to the authority of a larger governing principle, often portrayed as a moral imperative: the law of hospitality, personal integrity, the bonds of family and marriage. Lavery, as a queer theorist, resists and problematizes the sitcom’s implicit assumption of the automatic goodness of marriage and family ties.

Closures reads like a zany amusement park ride through a fantastical, queer, broadcast-network-nonspecific Disneyland. The roller coaster car stops alongside an animatronic diorama of Tim Allen threatening to spackle his Tool Time co-host’s butt-crack shut. The car progresses along a generic but idyllic streetscape populated by all the iconic girls- and boys-next-door (“Topanga, Willow, Donna Pinciotti . . . Urkel, Roger, Skippy”). It careens through the economically improbable pads, lofts, and hangouts of the friend-group sitcoms, and finally jolts into cubicle-partitioned workspaces, which are the capitalistic co-optation of what Lavery previously described as “the heterosexual grid of absolute obligation.” Over the course of the ride, the laugh track fades out and is replaced by the cringe pan: “a kind of failed fetishism, in which the camera is not able to dispel the traumatizing effects of having seen the unseeable.” Closures is intelligent, surprising in the specificity of its examples, and above all, immersive. The great delight of the book lies in Lavery’s intellectual and aesthetic survey of the sitcom, from the Addams Family and Amos & Andy (which premiered on television in 1964 and 1951, respectively) all the way to its structural unraveling in shows like Bojack Horseman and Rick & Morty. Rather than moving chronologically through the history of the sitcom, the book progresses thematically and situationally, starting with the nuclear family and neighborhoods and ending with the workplace show and the postmodern cartoon. Lavery’s ability to make cross-show allusions and arguments, to map genre-wide patterns and harmonies, while invoking theorists from Lauren Berlant to Freud, shows that the sitcom is a deeply worthwhile and arguably neglected site for inquiry. As a reader, I found myself laughing aloud at certain dynamics Lavery identifies and, elsewhere, eagerly turning pages to see how her arguments would coalesce.

I also found myself repeatedly marking words and grabbing my phone to look up their definitions. My first vocab word was “pleonastic”—which means “using more words than are necessary to express meaning; redundancy,” as when Lavery states, “I don’t use the phrase ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ because I consider it pleonastic.” The book’s greatest shortcoming lies in its overuse of academic and/or obscure language. This is the jargon problem: when specific terms have developed as linguistic shorthand for complex concepts, use of that specialized vocabulary can clarify the discussion for subject-matter insiders, but such unfamiliar terms are likely to obfuscate the matter and alienate outsiders. For example, Lavery casually invokes an argument about how the girl or boy next door “promises to minimize the threat of exogamy.” The word itself is etymologically straightforward: exo– as the prefix for outside and –gamy as the suffix for marriage, exogamy therefore meaning marriage outside the clan or group. Where Lavery does her readers a disservice is by neglecting to define the term within her own ideological framework. Even after I checked the word’s definition, exogamy’s value-position in the text remained unclear: a fixture of heteronormativity to be scorned, or a radical refutation of tribal hegemony? Such linguistic ambiguities undermine the overall coherence of Lavery’s arguments, and I found myself wishing for more precision.

Ultimately, reading Closures felt like participating in a critically rigorous act of play. Exuberant and incisive, Lavery’s work expanded the way that I think about sitcoms and the social frameworks they depict. In the final section, “Parallels,” Lavery writes about what we seek from culture: “the agreeable fantasy that the world is salvageable, compensation for the violence one experiences in one’s life, hope.” She places the sitcom alongside pandemic lockdowns, long covid, gun violence, and online forums filled with nihilism and hate speech. By repositioning the sitcom within the world, Lavery allows the reader to recognize how the unresolved stasis of the heterosexual family in the sitcom corresponds to our national political holding patterns. She also allows the sitcom, which has loomed so large, to return to its proper scale: not a vehicle for salvation or damnation, but simply a mode of entertainment. “Of course it’s fucking political,” Lavery writes. “Everything’s political. But genre does something that ‘the political’ can’t, or won’t, and that’s better than nothing.” 

McKenzie Watson-Fore is a writer, artist, and critic currently based in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. She holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Write or Die magazine, Psaltery & Lyre, Belmont Story Review, and elsewhere. She can be found at MWatsonFore.com or drinking tea on her back porch.

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