As you may have heard, the fine folks over at Vulture are following up last spring’s Drama Derby (determining the best TV drama of the past quarter-century — The Wire, unsurprisingly) with the Sitcom Smackdown, an attempt to pin down television’s best situation comedy since 1982 (the year of Cheers’ debut). It’s the kind of project — from choosing of semi-finalists to justification of exclusions to ultimate crowning decisions — guaranteed to get people all worked up (that might even be why they do it!), and your Flavorwire is no exception. It’s hard to argue with too many of their Sweet 16 (which includes 30 Rock, Louie, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and Arrested Development), but man did they leave a lot of great stuff out. The logic for some of their also-rans can be found here, but when many of our favorites weren’t even on that list, we decided it was time to offer up some alternates — great sitcoms that don’t get their due, there or elsewhere.
This writer’s most strenuous objection to Vulture’s Sweet 16 is Sex and the City — which I realize is a popular favorite, but remains to these eyes/ears, as Chuck Klosterman best put it, “four peculiar-looking women pretending to talk like gay guys.” And besides, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte couldn’t hold a Cosmo to Julia, Suzanne, Mary Jo, and Charlene, the ensemble of sassy, funny, whip-smart women at the center of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s uproarious Southern comedy. For five seasons (we’re not counting the last two, when the four OG cast members were busted up), they had the flawless timing and exquisite chemistry of a great comedy team — and, unlike SATC, these shows haven’t aged a day.
Bored to Death
Jonathan Ames’s bizarre, charming, and hilarious HBO comedy never got the attention (or certainly the ratings) it deserved, considering how smart and well-crafted it was — to say nothing of featuring Ted Danson’s best work since Cheers. His characterization of the Graydon Carter-esque George Christopher bounced perfectly off Jason Schwartzman’s novelist/Craigslist private eye, and once the show’s writers started teaming them up with Zach Galifianakis’s wry comic book artist, it made for one of television’s most endearing trios.
Just Shoot Me
The ‘90s television landscape was so utterly flooded with workplace comedies that it would be easy to write off Steven Levitan’s seven-season NBC laffer as yet another Drew Carey Show/Spin City riff. But it was a smarter, tighter show than its ilk, with a well-balanced ensemble cast (Laura San Giacomo, George Segal, Wendie Malick, the perpetually underrated Enrico Colantoni, and just exactly enough David Spade) and some surprisingly piercing satire of gender roles and the ubiquity of the straight male gaze.
Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist
Most people remember Jonathan Katz and Tom Snyder’s six-season classic for either its squiggly animation style or as a showcase for the stand-up comedians who sat on Dr. Katz’s couch (and it was, admittedly, a great place to hear new talents; this writer first became aware of a gifted young comic named Louis C.K. via Dr. Katz). But its real comic genius, the reason it’s still worth revisiting today, lies in the ensemble scenes, capturing Katz’s byplay with his snappy receptionist Laura (Laura Silverman), his drinking buddy (Will LeBow) and their favorite barkeep (Julianne Shapiro), and especially his son Ben, voiced to rumpled perfection by H. Jon Benjamin. Their oft-improvised one-upsmanship never gets old — and since this was Benjamin’s big break, you can thank Dr. Katz for Archer and Bob’s Burgers.
Forget Angela Chase; Daria Morgendorfer was our 1990s teen-girl id, and this MTV animated sitcom, which began as a humble Beavis abd Butt-head spin-off, became one of the most reliably funny, consistently relatable, and slyly misanthropic television shows of the era. (But seriously — I’m not the only one who started watching regularly because I thought Janeane Garafalo was Daria’s voice, right?)
Everybody Hates Chris
Its title made it sound like a spoof of Ray Romano’s venerable hit, but Chris Rock’s four-season treat was never appreciated for what it was: the heir apparent (with some extra hard edges) to The Cosby Show, a Brooklyn-set family comedy that merged a comic genius’s distinctive sensibility with genuinely likable characters and a nice dose of ‘80s nostalgia.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
But in terms of sheer laughs, there were few matches for this here story all about how Will Smith’s life got flipped, turned upside down. The characters were broad types — street-smart kid, spoiled rich girl, clueless “white-acting” black teenager, uptight patriarch, etc. — but over the course of its six seasons, Fresh Prince got at the humanity of those types, and revealed star Smith to be one of the most charismatic comic performers on the tube.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Everyone acknowledges the greatness of Garry Shandling’s HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, and its inclusion on the Vulture list is presumably why his other pay cable sitcom is absent. But that’s bunk — there’s a one-great-show-per-person rule? (This flawed logic is used to explain the absence of Curb Your Enthusiasm, since that’d be two for Larry David.) Larry Sanders couldn’t have happened without It’s Garry Shandling’s Show — and for that matter, neither could Seinfeld, Curb, or The Simpsons, many of whose creative personnel started here. But that’s not why It’s Garry Shandling’s Show should be on a list of our best sitcoms; it’s because it was wickedly intelligent and wildly innovative, achieving the latter (paradoxically enough) by reaching back into the history of television comedy, with a show that mimicked the presentational storytelling and personal, character-based comedy of Jack Benny while utilizing the ingenious fourth-wall breaking of his contemporary George Burns. It was a series that showed how inventive TV comedy could be, as long as its creators were willing to think outside that square box.
Here’s our only pick that also made Vulture’s also-ran list, and we only bring it up because of the shady logic they’ve trotted out for its exclusion. To wit: “Important and smart at the time, but so topical that it now seems quaint at best, unwatchable at worst.” Two things here: First, yes, of course, we’d hate to have a super-topical show on the same list as South Park. Second, we have yet to see an “unwatchable” episode of Murphy Brown, and believe you me, we’ve seen them all. For ten seasons, Diane English’s oft-controversial workplace comedy gave us the best newsroom ensemble this side of WJM, handily dispensing laughs, wisdom, and some of the best running gags in modern sitcom history.
Fine, this one’s a cheat; the Vulture list draws the line at a three-season run, and Judd Apatow’s show lasted a mere 17 episodes, a single (and, as was the network’s fashion, out of order) season on Fox back in 2001. But if the rules preclude naming Undeclared on of our best sitcoms, then those rules are meaningless, man. In that handful of episodes, Apatow and his talented creative team (including Greg Motolla, Nicholas Stoller, future Girls co-EP Jenni Konner, and co-star Seth Rogen) beautifully captured the joy, angst, thrill, and heartache of kinda, sorta, almost being a grown-up for the first time. Stylistically, it’s the clear forerunner of Apatow’s film efforts, and like his inaugural show Freaks and Geeks, the before-they-were-stars casting is kinda bonkers (Rogen and Charlie Hunnam were regulars, while Jason Segel, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart, Jenna Fischer, and Felicia Day all pop up).
Those are the sitcoms we think don’t get enough love — what are yours?