Sitcoms have long been a mainstay of the American television diet. From TV's earliest days, when a pre-Ralph Norton Jackie Gleason starred in THE LIFE OF RILEY and Gertrude Berg yelled out "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom" from her apartment window in THE GOLDBERGS, viewers have loved laughing at their favorite characters. Lately, however, TV sitcoms have been getting a bad rap. I'm here to say that maybe that sentiment is (at least a little) unfounded.
Since NBC's powerhouse of sitcoms began to break apart in the late 1990s, critics have claimed the end of sitcoms. By early 2000, only EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE and THE SIMPSONS were consistently touted by critics as funny sitcoms worth the time to watch. I would (and did) agree; most 30-minute sitcoms by that time were vapid joke-fests with little or no attention paid to character-driven comedy. It seemed that TV would probably never again experience the joy of watching a solid, two-hour block of comedy programming as it did when CBS owned Saturday nights in the 1970s (ALL IN THE FAMILY, MARY TYLER MOORE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and a steady rotation of less successful sitcoms) or when NBC put up its "must-see" Thursday night block in the 1980s (THE COSBY SHOW, CHEERS, WINGS, and several other hits) and again in the 1990s (SEINFELD, FRIENDS, FRASIER, WILL & GRACE and other moderately successful hits). However, I am here to tell you that we may have not one but two sitcom blocks worth watching for the next few years, especially if the two networks involved don't screw with their schedules too much.
The first block is on ABC on Wednesday nights. Lately, ABC has experienced mind-numbing failure on that night scheduling anything at all for the last two years; in fact this fall, ABC put forth an entire night of new programming for Wednesday. But most of their programming that night is (or has the potential to be) among the best on television. From week to week, I find myself laughing out loud at ABC's smart Wednesday comedy line-up (with one notable exception); I would recommend you check them out yourself and see if you don't agree. Here is the Wednesday comedy block as it now stands, along with my thoughts about each series:
HANK (8:00pm-8:30pm; not to be confused with the forgotten 1965 sitcom of the same name starring Dick Kallman): This show is the one notable exception. How Kelsey Grammer, whom I admire as a performer for his comic timing, could have thought that this typical fish-out-of-water dud would ever make anyone laugh in 2009 is beyond me. Let's face it, Kels: this kind of sitcom, with an unlikeable lead (self-made New York businessman forced to move to rural Virginia and make a go of it among his in-laws and the local rubes) wasn't even funny ten or fifteen years ago, and it isn't funny now. When a sitcom is populated with a shrillish wife, stereotypical kids and dumb neighbors, all of whom deliver loud, brayish (and truly badly written) one-liners in the name of "character," while a captive studio audience imposes an annoying laugh track (a trick that hasn't been used successfully, imho, since SEINFELD was on the air), it's probably time to see what you've Tivoed that will fill the gap in your viewing until 8:30. Luckily, ABC and most viewers have recognized this sitcom's failings (and it's complete dissonance from the rest of ABC's Wednesday sitcoms), and the show has already been cancelled. Let's hope HANK's replacement will be worth watching.
THE MIDDLE (8:30pm-9:00pm): Patricia Heaton of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (and also late of Kelsey Grammer's last flop, BACK TO YOU) stars as a harried mom trying to make ends meet in small-town Orson, Indiana. Neil Flynn of SCRUBS (which ABC may bring back mid-season, sans Mr. Flynn) plays her no-nonsense but understanding husband. This is a smart sitcom in the MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE mold that consistently gets me laughing, especially when Atticus Shaffer, the family's pint-size genius son, is on-screen. His character, with his Pee Wee Herman looks and his yet-to-be-explained whispering asides, is a comic gem among a stable of consistently funny characters. Even Heaton's co-workers and boss (played with relish by Brian Doyle-Murray, a favorite of mine) contribute to the laughs in this well-written look at modern life in an uncertain economy. Ms. Heaton indeed pleasantly surprised me that she can ably carry a sitcom on her own. Let's hope this one survives.
MODERN FAMILY (9:00pm-9:30pm): This is my favorite ABC Wednesday night comedy. It's an ensemble comedy centering on three very different family units: a young mother (Julie Bowen of BOSTON LEGAL), her husband (Ty Burrell of the afore-mentioned BACK TO YOU), and their three kids; her remarried father (Ed O'Neill of MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN and L.A. DRAGNET), his much younger new bride from Colombia (Sofia Vergara of DIRTY SEXY MONEY) and her adult-like son; and her gay brother (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of DO NOT DISTURB) and his very funny partner (Eric Stonestreet). The comedy derives from each unit's interactions with each other as each struggles to maintain its own version of a "modern family." The interplay is decidedly wicked, the dialogue is sharp, and the commentary on our society's changing values is spot-on. Each actor delivers hilarious performances, whether they're during the course of the action or in documentary-style asides to the camera. I absolutely love this one, so don't miss it.
COUGAR TOWN (9:30pm-10:00pm): Courtney Cox (FRIENDS) returns to sitcoms with this smart, sassy and very adult look at a 40-something mom entering the 20-something dating scene. I must admit that I wasn't at all interested in watching this one, but the show's writing has improved since the first episode, and its attention to character vs. bawdy humor just for the sake of it has gotten me hooked. This show, set in Gulf Coast Florida, also comes close to ensemble-ness with its quirky supporting cast, played expertly by Christa Miller and Ian Gomez (both of THE DREW CAREY SHOW) as her sex-craved neighbors in the cul de sac, Busy Philipps as her young co-worker at the realty office, Dan Byrd as her teenage son, Josh Hopkins as her lothario-ish neighbor across the street, Brian Van Holt as her good-ole-boy ex-husband, Carolyn Hennesy as her older (but still sexually active) boss, and Nick Zano as her much younger (and often clueless) 20-ish boyfriend. The comedy derives from Cox's struggles to find love as a single middle-aged mom amidst a bevy of younger competitors and a steady influx of friendly advice from her neighbors and family. This laugh track-less sitcom is a worthy closer to a very good night of comedy (HANK notwithstanding).
The second comedy block is on NBC on Thursday nights. The Peacock network has redefined its traditional night for sitcoms into a smart, well-written and exceptionally funny line-up. The best part: there's not a single studio audience laugh track to be heard among the lot to interrupt the comedy:
COMMUNITY (8:00pm-8:30pm): This ensemble comedy about a successful lawyer (Joel McHale of TALK SOUP) forced to return to a small community college to complete his degree is a wonderful gem among this season's offerings. The quirky characters, from TV-obsessed (and very odd) Abed (Danny Pudi), to always-happy Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), to sexy-but-smart Britta (Gillian Jacobs), to shy-and-reserved Annie (Alison Brie), to former football jock Troy (Donald Glover), and to old-but-not-out Pierce (Chevy Chase), all contribute to a rogues gallery that ranks up there with that of CHEERS or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Asian actor Ken Jeong as a militaristic Spanish teacher (?!) adds a particularly funny punctuation to the procedings as the characters struggle through his class by meeting in homework sessions, where most of the comedy is centered. McHale's snarky self-assuredness definitely works here, especially when one of the other characters gets one up on him. This is probably the best new sitcom of the season; it's definitely a worthy foundation on which to build up NBC's Thursday night line-up.
PARKS AND RECREATION (8:30pm-9:00pm): This is the second ensemble comedy set in Indiana this season; the other is THE MIDDLE (see above). This series (from the producers of THE OFFICE) is about a parks and recreation department in fictional Pawnee. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Amy Poelher stars as the head of the department, a small town booster who struggles to run her "empire" with cockeyed optimism, despite the banality of her surroundings. This sitcom, now in its second season after a brief summer try-out, also features several quirky-but-likeable characters: her stiff-as-a-board boss (Nick Offerman), her materialistic, hedonistic co-worker (Aziz Ansari), her true-blue friend Ann (Rashida Jones, late of THE OFFICE), Ann's former boyfriend who lives in a pit behind her house (Chris Pratt of EVERWOOD), Ann's current boyfriend (Mark Schneider), and the young office secretary (Aubrey Plaza). Poelher and the cast deliver very funny performances in every episode, using the same successful techniques of improvisation and documentary-style dialogue as its sister sitcom, THE OFFICE. This is a solid winner.
THE OFFICE (9:00pm-9:30pm; 2005 American version): This show, now in its sixth season, hasn't lost any of its touch. Based on the 2001 Britcom of the same name which starred Ricky Gervais (the American series' executive producer), this one is funnier than the British version, due mainly to Steven Carell's top-notch portrayal of Michael Scott, an incredibly clueless and inept boss of a small Scranton, Pennsylvania paper company, Dunder-Mifflin. If you've never seen this show, catch up on the earlier seasons so that you can truly enjoy the interplay between the office mates. The office staff consists of voice-of-reason Jim (John Krasinski), Pam the secretary (later a salesperson, played by Jenna Fischer), weird, by-the-book salesman Dwight (the hilarious Rainn Wilson), his sometimes girlfriend Angela (Angela Kinsey), the office matron Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), the closet drunk Meredith (Kate Flannery), the office temp-turned-divisional director-turned-salesperson Ryan (B.J. Novak), his sometimes girlfriend Kelly (Mindy Kaling), slow-witted Kevin (Brian Baumgartner), mysterious Creed (Creed Bratton), crossword fanatic Stanley (Leslie David Baker), gay Oscar (Oscar Nuñez), and sleepy-eyed HR director Toby (Paul Lieberstein). Dwight is easily the funniest of the bunch, but everyone contributes to the hilarity with knowing glances, subtle asides and especially looks of disbelief when Michael does something stupid, which he inevitably does many times in each episode. This series has never, ever failed to make me laugh out loud.
30ROCK (9:30pm-10:00pm): Set at NBC's headquarters in New York City, 30 Rockefeller Center, this in-joke sitcom, now in its fourth season, about the perils and pitfalls of weekly television production, is a TV afficianado's dream. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, head of a comedy-variety show being taped at NBC's 6th floor studios. She holds sway (whenever possible) over her needy cast members (Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski), lazy writers (Scott Adsit, Keith Powell, Judah Friedlander, and others) and even an innocent-eyed NBC page from Georgia (Jack McBrayer). Her biggest struggles stem from her interactions with NBC head Jack Donaghy, played with perfect comic timing by Alec Baldwin. The dialogue is sharp and fast, the references to the in-house network are funny and revealing (the show is shot on location at 30 Rockefeller Center and at studios in Long Island), and the pace is frenetic and sometimes over the top. I find myself often having to rewatch episodes to catch dialogue I missed the first time. But it serves as a true mark of comedy greatness when I do, because I laugh just as much the second time. This is one of my faves.
I hope you'll agree with my assessment that not all is lost when it comes to sitcoms. At least two networks, ABC and NBC, are cranking out some true winners. If you haven't already, take a look at the seven good sitcoms listed above and let me know what you think.