Environmentalist Characters Are Always the Punchline on Sitcoms, and It's Time to Change That

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Feb. 4 2022, Published 4:33 p.m. ET

30 Rock
Source: Netflix

While there has certainly been an increase in TV and movie characters becoming more socially conscious in recent years, there have not been nearly enough eco-friendly sitcom characters on TV.

In fact, a few tropes have emerged in relation to environmental storylines — and while they occasionally make for some laughs, writers often paint environmentalist characters as obsessive and judgmental, while pushing the narrative that living sustainably can cause more harm than good.

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A TV character will become obsessed with environmentalism — for one episode.

One trope is for a main character to become obsessed with one minor environmental injustice, and spend the entirety of one episode enraged and taking action; but by the end, they decide to give up on caring at all, because they realized they became a bit too consumed by the issue.

This happens on the Season 6 episode of How I Met Your Mother, called “Garbage Island.” Marshall watches a documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which inspires him to propose an environmental project to his team at the corporate Goliath National Bank, dive into a dumpster to fish out the plastic can rings that Lily discarded, and help enact a recycling initiative at MacLaren's bar… which Wendy the Waitress complains about, since she suddenly has to carry heavy bottles to the recycling center.

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That said, Marshall eventually achieves his goal of becoming an environmental lawyer, and does briefly express his desire to protect the environment in many other episodes throughout the series. So why not just give him more consistent character traits to reflect that his passion, rather than characterize him as an eco maniac in one episode?

How I Met Your Mother
Source: Hulu
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This trope also happens on New Girl in “Menus,” a Season 3 episode. School teacher Jess proposes Ocean Conservation Day to her school’s principal, and is crushed when he turns her pitch down. So, she aims her frustration at the Chinese restaurant that keeps stuffing stacks of takeout menus under her front door, calling it an “eco disaster.” She gets into a heated battle with the restaurant’s manager throughout the rest of the episode, and in the end, her crusade for the restaurant to stop handing out so many paper menus has a bad ending — it causes the manager to fire the menu guy. (Ocean Conservation Day does happen in the end, though.)

Jess is a character who loves animals (she cries pretty much whenever she sees a cute dog) and always stands up for injustices, and it would have been fantastic if she had gotten to express a passion for environmentalism more throughout the show.

New Girl
Source: Netflix
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Many other shows cast guest stars as judgmental, lunatic environmentalists.

Similarly, TV shows will occasionally bring in a new character, whose “game” is that they are fanatical about being eco-friendly, often attacking other characters for not doing as much as them.

For instance, in Season 2 of 30 Rock, Jack hires a man named Jared to be Greenzo (played by David Schwimmer), a new eco-conscious mascot for NBC. The character quickly progresses into a maniac, harshly judging Cerie for leaving the fridge open for a few seconds, and Liz for not shutting down her computer overnight. ("Do you even bother to compost your own feces?" he asks her.) By the end of the episode, Jack fires Greenzo, but Greenzo then shows up to a TV taping drunk, causing utter chaos.

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We also see this trope in the Season 5 episode of Modern Family, “Under Pressure,” in which Mitchell’s judgmental environmentalist neighbor (played by Jesse Eisenberg) confronts Mitchell for things like running the AC, watering his lawn, and using disposable diapers on his daughter. The two get into a battle of trying to prove who is more eco-friendly, with Asher making environmentalists seem like nitpicky wet blankets. In the end, they eventually come to a truce — but the storyline was a bit off-kilter, considering Mitchell works as an environmental lawyer for much of the series, and even wins a California Bar Association award for his work in the field in Season 3.

Modern Family
Source: Hulu
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And finally, there’s the Janitor’s storyline in “My Inconvenient Truth,” a Season 3 episode of Scrubs, in which he watches Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He quickly becomes obsessed with his new role of Environmental Officer at the hospital, encouraging others to carpool and shut off lights, and enacts dangerous punishments for violators, like licking batteries and eating lightbulbs. But by the episode’s end, he loses interest in the gig.

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TV is ready for a character who is zero waste, a climate activist, or vegan — for the entire series, and not as a punchline.

So many people are resistant to making changes that will benefit the planet, and when sitcoms continue to frame environmentalism and sustainable living as nothing more than punchlines and annoying phases that do more harm than good, it reinforces that mindset to viewers.

Caring about protecting the planet — something that everyone on Earth will benefit from — should be one of many traits in a TV character, and not simply a one-episode storyline. In the near future, we’d love to see more sitcom characters who add to the humor of the show while having true, grounded passions for things like protecting the planet, living sustainably, being vegan, or taking climate action.

Green Matters’ new book, Green Living, is the perfect guide to living an eco-friendly lifestyle for people at every stage of the process. You can order Green Living here.

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