Sunday, 17 June 2012

The best sitcoms on TV

The Best Sitcoms on TV

It’s hard to list anything in order of best to less, simply because everyone has different tastes. I’ve decided to list in groupings of the ‘Very Best’, ‘Best’, ‘Good’ and ‘Average’. The others take care of themselves by diving quickly in the ratings and not being renewed.

But how do you line up the acerbic ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’ with the family friendly ‘Big Bang’. You can’t. ‘Californication’ will have its haters because of its subject and language and ‘Wilfred’ will have devoted fans, even though it’s only one joke. The same is true for the family friendly ‘Last Man Standing’ and many others with their own particular subject matter and slant on life.

So here we go, not just a grouping of categories, but an explanation of what you get, the good and the bad for each. Remembering this, as with everything, comes with the influence of my personal taste, although I hope I’ve been as fair and unbiased as possible.

The Very Best

30 Rock – 30 Rock is a hyper fictional setting that can easily be seen to resemble Tina Fey’s time as head writer on Saturday Night Live. Tina’s Character Liz Lemon runs ‘The Girlie Show’, a comedy skit show that isn’t above stooping to the lowest common denominator for laughs. Dealing with executives who only care about the bottom line and a crazy cast of maniacal egos, 30 Rock gets top spot not for its ability to be funny, but for its quest to be funny and also relevant to a social commentary of whatever is going on in the world at the time of production.

Modern Family – is the right show at the right time. Some ideas are just good – and this is one of those. Let’s find a group of people, all related in some way and within their group create diverse and growingly familiar family groupings. Jay the divorced successful patriarch is now married to the gorgeous younger wife, his gay son and partner, appropriately adopting a foreign child and Jay’s daughter who heads up the archetypal nuclear family of 2 parents and 3 kids. It’s relevant, funny and subtle in amongst more obvious humour and it’s those subtle moments that lift it to the very best.

The Big Bang – A Chuck Lorre creation and probably had its birth from the UK’s ‘The I.T. Guys’. Not to say Chuck lifted the idea because Big Bang is a slick vehicle with good plotlines and strong, well defined characters and ‘The I.T. Guys’ is a more surreal, exaggerated caricature styled show that wouldn’t work anywhere but England where the population of complete nutters is high and allows odd characters to thrive on TV. Big Bang is funny because it has found the one group of people it is still politically correct to laugh at – the socially inept. Not specific to any gender, race or other comically protected group – these oddballs, who verge on high functioning autistic are lovingly rendered and it’s because of that they’re so easy to like.

The formerly Very Best (Now a bit Tired)

The Office – Everyone knows the story, The Office is a Ricky Gervaise creation and comes from a transcribing of the UK show that has now extended around 150 episodes longer than the original UK series. It’s struggled since Steve Carrell left, mainly because it was a show built around its lead. Without him they have tried all sorts of new character to gather the threads and take it forward, Ed Helms, Catherine Taite and James Spader. But just like the socially inept boys from the Big Bang, Steve Carrell’s manager, Michael Scott, just like Gervaises David Brent, was and remains one of the great comic sit com characters and try as they might, the show has felt rudderless since his departure.

The Simpsons – Everyone knows the Simpsons is a masterpiece in terms of television history. It ranks alongside the Flinstones and will be remembered just the same. But after so many seasons it’s inevitable that it’s rarely got anything significant left to say.  

The Best

Parks and Recreation – The perfect example of a sleeper. From some of the same creative minds that guided the early seasons of The Office, the first season with the wonderful Amy Poehler, wasn’t very good. Why? It was almost identical to the office with a simple gender switch of the lead. But those creatively in charge saw this before the audience did and subtly repositioned so by the second and certainly the third season they had their own original vehicle that has gone from strength to strength as her character Leslie Knope, a loveable, but a-typical over achieving first child, addicted to rules and procedure, makes a run for a seat on a local council of the saddest town in the world.

Curb Your Enthusiasm – Curb is nothing like anything – possibly a nod to the great ‘Larry Sanders Show’ – this is ground breaking TV in that it uses a storylined plot and actors capable of improvising their own humour and brilliance to the outlined situations. But it’s Larry David’s alter ego, a man Larry has said in interviews he wishes he had the guts to be, who annoys, frustrates and aggravates every moment of life that he grinds through. Be prepared to cringe and shift many times at very relatable familiar situations and see how Larry makes them worse. The big plus is the content. Some of Curb’s subject matter is hard to believe could even be suggested by a sane mind for discussion, let alone dramatically created for broadcast. Only Larry could dream up a typo in a bereavement notice that declares to the world not that the passed love one was a dearly beloved Aunt, but a dearly beloved cunt.

Episodes – Matt LeBlanc throws off Joey once and for all and proves he's a good actor and a funny funny comic, poking fun at himself with the help of two of the team from the UK’s very funny Greenwing. If you haven’t had the pleasure - then see this one. It’s in the form of entourage and just as funny in a laid back sort of way.

Last Man Standing – Two decades after starring in a sitcom about being a grunting man in a house with little grunting men, to the aggravation of the men’s poor wife/mother, Tim Allan is the star of a sitcom about being a grunting man in a house of women where his partner and daughters aggravate him with all things estrogen fuelled. And it’s funny in a very family friendly way. Don’t expect too much outside the classic sitcom parameters, but give it time and even the most avid cynic will be won over by its quality writing. It’s also important to pay dues to Tim Allan. He may be a second tier movie actor in that he’s more of a foil than a lead, but he’s a quality comic performer and the fact he’s pivotal in his second successful sitcom is proof enough.

The Formerly Best (Now a bit Tired)

Two and A Half Men – It started as an in joke about Charlie Sheen. Then Charlie become a parody of himself and self-destructed and so did his show. With Aston Kutcher it is struggling on because it’s such a cash cow for Chuck Lorre, but like many a past champion, it has stayed around a few years too long.

South Park – Suffering from the same symptoms as the Simpsons, South Park still has its moments. But it’s hard to rely on shock value humour when they’ve been shocking us for so long. It still has some extraordinary moments flowing from the minds of the perennial eight year olds, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but you get the feeling ‘side’ projects like the Tony award winning, “Book of Mormon” are taking priority these days. Gone are the days of such brilliant comic moments as trying to get Tom and John to come out of the closet.


How I met your Mother – The content is funny with a standout performance from powerhouse performer Neil Patrick Harris playing Barney Stimpson as the straightest man whore on TV, but most find the set up and narration tedious and why those kids listen to such long stories from Dad is anyone’s guess.

Cougar Town - The title is all you need to know about this one. It could have been Demi Moore in the lead, but it's Courtney Cox and she's still funny. The writing is fast and not at all forced. It's funny without pushing the Sex in the City creativity, but it's fun. Want to see what middle aged divorced women do when let off the leash? Watch this.

Californication – A lot of people will be put off by Hank, played by David Duchovney. He’s a loveable arsehole who is well redeemed by his ongoing love and commitment to his ex wife and daughter. A writer of novels and films and stunningly successful, if Hank can’t find a way to self destruct and turn success into failure, no one can.

Always Sunny In Philedelphia – I’ve never quite known what to make of this one. Sometimes it’s not to be missed and other times they miss altogether. It feels like the creators have said let’s see if we can write a sitcom with characters who have no redeeming features or sense or morals. And they’ve done a fair job. Danny DeVito is, as always, brilliant in a ‘ought to be committed’ way. In racing form guide terminology – not the worst.

Hot in Cleveland – this is a star vehicle for Betty White, ably supported by her three co-stars who have all had supporting roles in other shows of note. There are many funny lines, many stereotypes mined for all their comic potential and in the shadow of the long forgotten ‘Green Acres’ – it’s a study of what happens when trendy city folk head to the sticks and discover a simpler happier life.

Happy Endings – this is about six friends, close friends, living close lives in Chicago. They do not go for coffee at Central Perk. It’s slick, it’s funny, it taps all the modern demographics. Still being renewed into a fourth season and is likely to grow in popularity. Soft comedy, but quality.

New Girl – A very good first season and hopefully they’ll keep this going. I have to confess I really enjoy watching Damon Wyans Jr and was a little disturbed when he pulled out of this after the pilot to take a spot on Happy endings, but in the end they recast well and it didn’t make much difference. New Girl is the girl taken into a share house/apartment with three guys who have to readjust to living with a woman. A good scenario and well written and plotted. They do seem to be following a formula which is both good and bad – the formula being, whatever happens in the episode, the boys make some sort of sacrifice to support the ‘New Girl’ – cementing their new friendships by episodes end and giving a feel good quality that is a strong plus. But if they keep doing it for every episode they’ll be headed for trouble. Again using form guide vernacular – one to watch.

Awkward – This is a standard, but quality, MTV teenage sitcom about the nerdy girl Jenna played by Ashly Rickards. Her coming of age discovery is that character wins out over superficial qualities and attracts the sort of people of character who are more worthwhile as friends than the standard plastic in-crowd kids. Watch out for the ‘fat-bitch’, played by Marly Tarlov in a standout performance to both pity and hate, as she bullies all and sundry in an effort to feel better about herself. The only let down is that Jenna's coming of age journey is on track in every way but one, her inability to shake off her crush on the jock asshole, the uber popular Matty, while ignoring the far more suitable and charming Jake who obviously has a huge crush on Jenna. Wake up girl! But maybe that’s why I want to keep watching.

I Just Want my Pants Back – Sometimes out of nowhere comes a solid sitcom that grows on you and this is in that category. Filling the age group where 'Friends' began, this is a gritty modern serial sitcom following the trials of 20 somethings struggling to get a foothold in a world that now rewards hard work and the effort of gaining a good education with nametag menial work that degrades and kills the soul. Well on its way to move up into a higher category if it continues into a second season with the strength of the first.

Two Broke Girls – Can you say two and a half women? The half being a horse kept, implausibly in the yard of an apartment – huh? Max is a working class girl trying to make good with her cupcake business and Caroline is a Paris Hilton type whose father ponzied away the family fortune, thrusting her into unfamiliar territory, living a regular life. Throw in a plethora of single entendres and you have this one pretty well covered. Out of one hundred – of course – it’s a 69.

The Middle – Another standard family setup. Two Parents, three kids and and each of different characters. It does struggle without any real strength in scenarios from episode to episode outside of a very buddhist ethos, that life is struggle. Closest to Roseanne, in that the family is lower middle or even working class and struggling for every cent. Everybody Loves Raymond's Patricia Heaton is great as the mum and the janitor from scrubs, Neil Flynn rounds off a quality parental pairing, and the kids are all quirky as they need to be. The lazy shirtless son, the braces wearing nerdy goody goody daughter and the certifiably odd younger son makes it all feel a little formulaic. But these are the negatives that take away from good writing and performances. There is a little labored bitterness in this, an underlying resentment to the struggles children bring, but some will relate and find that very funny – and it is funny in a Malcolm in the Middle style, off centre family way.

Suburgatory – It takes until the very end of the pilot before you can see this may have a hope. Not that it doesn't have some mild amusement throughout the pilot, but it feels like the creators have thought more about the concept than the story or the characters. Tessa is a smart, cool girl from the city, at least in her mind. Her mother has done a runner and after her dad, George finds condoms in her room, he overreacts by moving away from the evil city and out to the suburbs. Tessa's too cool for everyone, sneering her way through the pilot before finally showing some heart and depth in the final few minutes. Along the way we get every suburban cliche possible, smashing us over the head with the idea that suburbanites are all clones of each other. Things like daughter and dad reading books entitled, The Emancipation of a minor for her and Adopting out a Child for him, while amusing, feels forced in what appears to be a teenage coming of age journey where miss uppity from the city will come to value what is on offer. If you like this genre I'd go for Awkward over this, but they're much of a muchness.

Up All Night – A TV talk show producer, Christina Applegate, and for the talk show - think Oprah but smaller, and her husband lawyer played by the ever reliable Will Arnett, are a young successful married couple who have a baby. Then life changes as they know it and the lawyer becomes a stay at home dad. Mya Rudolph, possibly history's most unheralded comedienne, plays the big egoed talk show host and rounds off the three main cast neatly. This is a slick, quality sitcom and would appeal most to those who loved Mad About You. If you've just had a baby or can remember the change it brought to your life - enjoy!

Community – Another surprise hit that comes from a new trend of people being forced to retrain themselves through adult education and go back to school. But this is the last school on the list surely. A great cast, great performances, quirky odd ball characters that keep everything lively and some very big names doing the team thing in this ensemble piece. Chevy Chase, Joel Mchale, Ken Jeong – short of listing the whole cast, this is very worth the watch and an added bonus for those who love film and TV are the many episodes that take a well known film or television show and pay homage.

Wilfred – There’s this man, going through some sort of breakdown, who thinks his dog can talk and smoke bongs. That’s the joke in this whimsical little sitcom that began life unexpectedly as an 8 minute film festival short film in Australia. Was picked up by a minor network and developed into a series and then developed again for American TV starring the original dog, Jason Gann and for the US, Elija Wood, proving he’s up for comedy. It’s funnier than the one joke, but only through clever development. There are more laugh out loud moments in this than laugh out loud episodes, but it’s still worth the effort, especially if you’re high.

Whitney – On the strength of some of the funniest comic lines delivered by its star on the promo this is still a little bit of a let down, but after more than a few episodes I have worked out why and I may be doing this one an injustice - because I'm a guy. That's right, this is a chick flick condensed into neat little 30 second episodes. As a guy I find Whitney the character annoying. She hangs around with two friends who are also annoying. One is in love and one wants to make love and this is the scope of the 'friends' input. The guys are three, the financial adviser who seems cultured and intelligent and the cop who abuses his position to carry on like a jock frat boy. Then there's Whitney's boyfriend who seems like the perfect guy delivering the perfect relationship until Whitney find a way to test and question that relationship to see if it will survive. It's well acted and there are some funny lines, but for me, it's one sided and not very real. The arguments are real, but not the reaction of the guy/boyfriend. In the real world, Whitney would have to learn to take the good with the good or eventually, in the real world, her boyfriend would be placing her in the too hard basket and moving on.   

Mike and Molly – Oh, fat people. How funny are they? Another Chuck Lorre vehicle, or should I say reinforced chasis, ba-doom-ching! This one has plenty of comic weight from a sitcom heavy. This will satisfy anyone with a large appetite for funny one liners, but if you need to buy two seats to take a flight, you may not find it full of large belly laughs. Get the idea? This is a big fat sitcom that belches laughs.

Workaholics – If Californication is for an adult audience then this is the same style for the student body or those new to the workforce and fresh out of school. Basically three dickheads do stuff to alleviate their boredom of being stuck in a shitty job. Along the way they hump anything not nailed down and down any drug they can find. It’s got good performances and is funny in a contemptible way, but don’t say the word role model around any of these boys.

Retired at 35 - You can't build a decent show on a premise that doesn't work. I couldn't stop asking myself why a successful person, at 35, would leave the rat race and move into his parents retirement villa to live with them. Now if mum or dad had been ill, perhaps slowly slipping into dementia, then that would have solved this and despite it not being badly written and certainly well cast with curmudgeony George Segal as dad, I'm not in a rush to watch more. 

What have I missed? Let me know.

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