Thursday, July 13, 2006

TV: Top Ten Sitcoms

Because everybody's wild about lists, here's my list of the top ten sitcoms ever. YOU WILL LOVE IT!!!

Some things didn't get considered for the list because I simply don't have enough (or any) exposure to them -- like most non-American shows, or some of the older, black & white classics like The Phil Silvers Show. They're in no true order, though they're probably pretty close to the order I'd rank them from one to ten if you twisted my arm. And no animated programs. Why? Because I said so.

  • M*A*S*H: Sure, it got preachy toward the end, by which I mean every season after about the first. Sure, it lasted about seventeen years longer than the actual Korean War. Sure, it asked you to suspend your disbelief enough to accept Loretta Swit as the hottest woman ever. But my god is it funny. You had your Marx Bros.-inspired anarchy, your clever wordplay, your smart dumb jokes, your sloppy drunk jokes, your physical comedy, all executed by great characters with terrific timing. And it had heart, and drama, and pathos; at times, it could get suprisingly dark. After all, this is a sitcom whose theme song is called "Suicide Is Painless." At times -- most of the time, really -- I will say this is the best sitcom ever.

  • Cheers: At other times, I will say this is the best sitcom ever. Another very smart show that excelled equally in intelligent banter and dumb jokes. For the first half of its run, a lot of it was about the Sam & Diane romance, which the writers managed to keep fresh and funny through five years of ups and downs, incidentally introducing along the way the longest-running prime time character in TV history, Frasier Crane. Then: the big shake-up, when Shelley Long departed, which might've doomed a weaker show. Instead, Kirstie Alley stepped in with hardly a hitch, and the show continued for six more years, never dropping in quality all the way to the end. If you don't wish you could've been part of that gang, shouting "Norm!" along with everybody else -- you're dead to me.

  • WKRP in Cincinnati: A classic right from the start, with hilarious and unique characters (including, of course, former Object of My Affection Jan Smithers as Bailey). "Turkeys Away," one of the funniest episodes of any show ever (featuring the immortal closing line, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly"), was only the 7th episode of WKRP; this show had it going on from day one. It's a long-running pet peeve of mine that the exorbitant expense of renewing the music rights, which lapsed years ago, are holding up a DVD release of this great show. Tangent: it's kind of funny (in a sad way) to compare how the networks treated this show, and Cheers. According to IMDb trivia, in its debut week, Cheers was the 77th-rated program of the week -- dead last. But the network championed it, and it survived eleven seasons. On the other hand, WKRP's fourth-season finale was ranked #7 for the week -- and in a shocking decision, surely made by someone who didn't "get" the show, it was cancelled. Can you imagine a network cancelling a top ten show these days? How TV has changed.

  • Seinfeld: My memory of this show sometimes plays tricks on me. I'll think that somehow it doesn't hold up that well, or maybe that it actually wasn't all that great to begin with. Then I'll catch a repeat, and be floored at how brilliantly funny it is. Has any other show ever been as quotable as Seinfeld, or introduced as many phrases and ideas into popular culture? [EDITED to answer: yes, The Simpsons. But that's it!] And done it through characters who are all, essentially, bad people? You still love them, sure -- but you'd hate to have them as friends.

  • Taxi: For a show to be blessed with three incredible comedic performers all at the top of their game is a rarity. Here we had Danny DeVito as the meanest boss ever, Louie De Palma; Christopher Lloyd as the drug-damaged Reverend Jim Ignatowski; and of course Jeff Conaway as aspiring actor Bobby. WAIT! Check that. I mean Andy Kaufman as lovable mechanic Latka Gravas (and occasionally his alter ego, Vic Ferrari), who was later joined by the great Carol Kane as Simka, Latka's love interest. This is one of the only shows ever, by the way, to be cancelled by one network (ABC), and picked up by a rival (NBC).

  • Barney Miller: I think this sitcom sometimes gets overlooked in the roster of all-time greats, but believe me, it deserves a spot. It grew tremendously from its first season, which was more gag-heavy, and which split time between the precinct and Barney's home life; in later years, it became a more thoughtful, character-based show, where the people grew and developed, all while retaining the show's humor. Plus: dig that jazzy theme song!

  • Arrested Development: Ah, what might have been. I'm still feeling the loss of this, the best sitcom of the new millennium. Only three seasons and gone. What a tremendously talented cast, what incredibly smart writing. Every episode built on the one before it, and on ones from previous seasons, too, rewarding faithful viewers with layers upon layers of comedy.

  • NewsRadio: One of only two sitcoms for which I've religiously purchased the DVD sets (the other is Arrested Development). Phil Hartman was my comedy hero. And the rest of the actors weren't too shabby, neither; every character was perfectly cast, and capable of generating huge laughs.

  • Mama's Family: Psych! I don't think so. Not only is this the worst sitcom ever, this is the worst thing ever to have existed. It is a blight on the human race. It burns, it burns. Let's move on.

  • The Larry Sanders Show: Brilliant material at exactly the right time, riding the wave of Johnny Carson's retirement and the Late Night wars. Fantastic cast, featuring at one time or another Janeane Garofalo, Scott Thompson, Jeremy Piven, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and of course the big three: Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, and the awesome Jeffrey Tambor as "Hey Now!" Hank Kingsley. Any actor would kill to be in one classic sitcom; Tambor got two (the other being Arrested Development, of course. Or The Ropers, depending on your taste).

  • Newhart: Speaking of actors who starred in two classic sitcoms.... I pick this show over The Bob Newhart Show because it was of my time; I grew up with Newhart in the '80s, but managed to mostly miss The Bob Newhart Show in the '70s. Plus, Newhart still stands as the sitcom with the greatest final episode ever -- in which, you may recall, Newhart woke up from his dream of running a Vermont inn to find himself in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, back in The Bob Newhart Show. Genius.

Here's ten others that didn't quite make the cut (although if you asked me on another day I might move one or more of them up the ranks).

  • Fawlty Towers: From his subtlest quips to his most outrageous outbursts, Cleese's Basil Fawlty is easily one of the funniest characters ever to be seen on TV.

  • It's Garry Shandling's Show: Best theme song ever!

  • Ellen: Some couldn't stand her for her rambling digressions; I loved 'em. Plus, Jeremy Piven was great, and I was so in love with Joely Fisher it's not even funny.

  • Night Court: On recent re-viewings of this show, I have to admit it doesn't hold up as well as others. But John Larroquette remains amazingly funny, and Markie Post eternally hot.

  • The Drew Carey Show: Frequently groundbreaking, even more frequently side-splittingly hilarious. Should've ended a few seasons earlier, though. Gets my vote for best supporting comedic duo in Ryan Stiles and Diedrich Bader as Lewis and Oswald.

  • Frasier: More smart, sly humor from the Cheers team.

  • I Love Lucy: Lucy was the Queen, no question. More than 50 (!) years later, these shows stand the test of time. Even 150 years from now, the "Vitameatavegamin" episode will be remembered as a high point in television comedy.

  • Roseanne: Brought a touch of lower middle class realism to the sitcom genre. John Goodman is incredible, and yes, there was a time when Roseanne was a true comedic force.

  • Soap: One of my earliest memories of TV is the exorcism episode of this crazy satire of soap operas. Richard Mulligan could always crack me up with one goofy look.

  • Happy Days: Yes, yes, it jumped the shark. But when it was good -- and it was good for many years -- it was very very good.

And here are five more for which I have a great deal of fondness and admiration, but I just haven't sampled enough episodes for them to become personal favorites (though if I were to judge just from the handful of episodes I've seen of each, all of them could very well make the top ten at a future time):

All in the Family
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Bob Newhart Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Andy Griffith Show

I've only seen episodes numbering in the single digits for each of these shows (yet I've seen every Gilligan's Island twice). BLASPHEMY!

I can see you're dying to tell me what I got right, and what I got wrong. Share some of your personal favorites, or rip on some of mine. Point out the ones I've forgotten, or should have forgotten. Leave a comment!

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by