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It’s my favorite week of the year — PREMIERE WEEK! New programming on the networks and some of the basic cable channels as well, both from the old favorites and the rookie hopefuls. Last week we touched on the three best reasons to watch drama on the networks and next week we’ll begin our Top Ten Comedies of the last 25 Years ranking, which should be plenty of fun, but today we’ll take a look at comedy and then focus on some of the newer stuff that’s out there to check out. As always, look forward to hearing your own top threes @GuyNamedJason. Let’s get to it. Cue the laugh track, though only one of the three shows utilizes one.
1. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)
Parks won’t be back until midseason for what will be its final run, but the moment it returns, it automatically becomes the best comedy on TV. When first advertised, it had a definite “The Office” feel to it. As a result I pushed it aside a bit as I was still watching Carell and the crew and wasn’t sure this was a necessary addition to the NBC schedule. I caught up with the show between Seasons 2 and 3 and thank God I did because, not only does it make this list, it’s going to make our rankings on the big list as well, and you might be surprised just how highly it places.
I’ve never seen a comedy more consistently entertaining and more week-to-week laugh out loud funny than Parks and Recreation. If you tuned into the first season and weren’t thoroughly impressed, that’s because the show didn’t find itself until the early stages of Season 2, but when it did, wow was it incredible. In similar fashion to The Office, the show learned where its characters needed to be and how those individuals needed to act after mediocre early returns. If you’ll recall, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott character underwent a dramatic shift between Season 1 and the second season premiere. Focus groups made it clear that Scott was too stern, was mean, and upset people through his actions. Flash forward to Season 2 and Scott’s hair isn’t slicked back anymore and he’s a goofball as The Office embraced the subversive nature that made it a major hit for NBC.
Parks didn’t have mean characters, it just had flat, uninteresting ones. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has always been Leslie Knope, but she was so work-focused early on, it bled into a lack of emotion at times for anything outside the office. The biggest example of the early issue was in the character of Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), who was simply annoying as he pined after his ex-girlfriend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and eventually moved into a pit outside her house. Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman, along with Poehler, were the early stars of the show, as we barely even knew April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) at that point and definitely didn’t know Donna (Retta) yet. Maybe most importantly, the setting of the show, Pawnee, Indiana, and all it’s nooks and crannies, hadn’t been developed and we hadn’t gotten to know the city.
So that’s what it was, a decent but unspectacular show that hadn’t discovered its groove. Then came Season 2, and in particular an episode guest starring Fred Armisen. Parks department officials from Boraqua, Venezuela, visited their sister city, Pawnee, and hilarity ensued as a result of the intense cultural and financial differences between the two cities. From that episode on, Parks and Recreation was off and running. All the characters became fully realized and then it was a matter of the show’s creators and executive producers, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, as well as the writing team, to nurture everything we saw and continue to expand upon it.
If the broad strokes of the timeline sounds like another famous NBC sitcom, it’s coincidental, but the comparison is correct. Seinfeld was funny in the first season but it wasn’t really Seinfeld yet. That’s the same way to view Parks, though I’d posit Parks was funnier in the beginning than Jerry’s show was in its early stages.
NETFLIX now streams Parks and it’s a great time to catch up if you haven’t, because, even if you’re watching a lot of the stuff that’s on, I’ve got no problem telling you that none of it’s as funny or as clever or as well-done as Parks and Recreation. It’s the hidden gem of this entire generation. It’s never rated well and while Poehler has been nominated several times, she’s never won an Emmy for Leslie Knope. But from top to bottom, that cast is picture perfect and the writing is impeccable. Once Rob Lowe and Adam Scott joined the team, it hit a new level of quality and the writing got even better. As the show continued, the story resulted in new recurring irritants and conflict catalysts, most notably the standing ovation worthy Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), who first appears in Season 5.
I don’t want to go into storylines or anything else, because I really want you to watch Parks if you haven’t. It’s got emotion when it needs it, handles the big moments very well, and I can’t recall the last episode since Sister City that I didn’t at least “like.” It’s truly magnificent as a sitcom, as a mockumentary, and when it delves into the political realm, guess what, it’s still outstanding.
Oh, if that’s not enough, it features arguably the best character in comedy (along with a guy we’re about to discuss), the incredible Ron Swanson (Offerman).
2. THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS)
I fell for The Big Bang Theory during the cold open to the pilot and it still has my heart. No doubt, some of you are rolling your eyes, and I’ll try to explain why. It’s become hipster-fashionable to rip Chuck Lorre’s megahit, and I’m not even sure it’s because of Big Bang itself. Lorre is the executive producer of Two and a Half Men, a show I’ve never enjoyed, and one that despite its ridiculous ratings and Emmy wins for Jon Cryer, raised the ire of people who believed comedy should be higher-brow. No question Men is low rent in that category, but the biggest issue with that program is it was predictable and virtually never surprising. It just wasn’t very good. But it seemed everybody watched it.
But Chuck Lorre created plenty of sitcoms, including Grace Under Fire and Dharma & Greg for ABC, the fairly ambitious Cybill for CBS, and the new run of Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mom, the latter of which began last fall. Lorre is a hit-maker and as a result, the 61-year-old Long Island native is an easy target. But here’s the thing, and I want to make sure everybody pays attention to this…
The Big Bang Theory is not Two and a Half Men. The Big Bang Theory is always good…always.
The show began its eighth season on Monday night and I enjoyed both episodes greatly. Truthfully, with the exception of a short run in Season 4, that’s been the story since day one. Jim Parsons, now 41, walked away with a Lead Actor Emmy last month, his fourth for the role of Sheldon Cooper on CBS. The Cooper role isn’t an easy one to play, because it requires rapid dialogue full of large words and technical jargon while generally displaying nearly no emotion or a tone of derision.
A good comedy needs a quirky character, and while Sheldon is the prime candidate, the show itself is a conglomeration of oddballs that coagulate into one beautiful mix. Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch), Amy Farrah-Fowler (Mayim Bialik), and Stuart Bloom (Kevin Sussman) are all nutcases in their own way. In stark contrast to Two and a Half Men, Lorre and co-creator Bill Prady have done great work with The Big Bang Theory in terms of crafting clever jokes and telling stories that aren’t expected with conclusions that might not be obvious midway through the episode.
Unlike Parks and Seinfeld, Big Bang worked from the beginning, largely because of Parsons, Johnny Galecki, and Kaley Cuoco. Two young, nerdy physicists who see a goddess move across the hall from them and the immediate “I really want this girl to like me” attitude of Leonard Hofstadter (Galecki) and the complete disinterest from Cooper combine for two potential sources of conflict. Their friends and colleagues Raj and Howard stop by, see the stunning Penny (Cuoco) and the show has its nucleus. Penny, a Nebraska girl who moved to Los Angeles with Hollywood dreams, isn’t book smart but she’s street smart and she’s also a pleasant, smiling girl who doesn’t look down on her new socially challenged neighbors and their friends.
Throughout seven seasons, we’ve seen Penny addicted to a massively multiplayer online game, Sheldon forced to wear a maid’s outfit as quiet punishment from Howard, who comes into contact with Cooper’s hero, Stephen Hawking, plus plenty of cosplay and Renaissance fairs and trips to Stuart’s comic book shop and arguments over super heroes and television shows. We’ve even seen and listened to Amy Farrah-Fowler ruin Raiders of the Lost Ark through a simple observation that the story would have been no different had Indiana Jones never existed in the movie.
Big Bang has done great work with guest stars, particularly Wil Wheaton and Bob Newhart and as the ratings have become monolithic, it isn’t tough to get who they want to help out with the story.
The important point to remember here is, contrary to what you think you believe or what you’ve been told, The Big Bang Theory is truly awesome. If you want to take my cool card away, go right ahead, because I’ll say it until the end of time. It’s a great show. It’s funny, it has heart, and it’s well written. The cast is exquisite. The ratings are completely deserved, as are the exorbitant salaries for the main players, and it’s one of my favorite watches every week, not to mention reruns and DVDs all year long.
You’ll be told it’s a bad show, that it’s watched by idiots, and that you’re too smart to like it, but that’s likely by people who have been told that themselves and decided it was accurate. It’s not. No show is for everybody, but The Big Bang Theory is awfully good.
3. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (FOX)
If you asked me one year ago whether I would be mentioning Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a listing of my favorite programs on television, I would laugh in your face. I wasn’t impressed with the ad campaign and honestly, wasn’t sure about Andy Samberg in a lead role as a police officer and honestly, thought the show would be terrible.
I was wrong.
Because the pilot got good reviews, I tuned in, and the show hooked me immediately. I should have given it more credit long before that. I already trusted Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation), who helped create the show alongside Dan Goor. I already loved much of the cast. While I was unsure of Samberg outside his SNL Digital Shorts and usually decent work in sketch comedy, I already believed in Joe Lo Truglio, who won me over for life as a member of, ironically, a sketch comedy team, The State. Because of her stand-up comedy and history as a writer for Parks, I loved Chelsea Peretti. From Homicide through Men of a Certain Age and everywhere in between, I was hugely impressed by Andre Braugher. While I had limited history watching Terry Crews, it was hard to deny he was entertaining and came across as a very good guy.
The second season of Brooklyn begins on Sunday night and I cannot wait, because this is a show that didn’t need seven or eight episodes to completely discover it’s tone, though it has made some necessary changes. Jake Peralta (Samberg) was an obnoxious piece of cheese and was the one character I didn’t like and most people didn’t relate to, but somewhere around the midseason point, he softened without losing the humor of the character. The best comparison is Michael Scott, which we discussed earlier. The show focused more on everybody in the main cast rather than presenting itself as a vehicle for Samberg’s slapstick of prank comedy. As a result, not only did the show get better, Samberg got much better, leading to his Golden Globe win last year.
If you like Parks, you’ll like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you like well-written, enjoyable, no need to think too hard about it comedy, you’ll love Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As the season progressed, Goor and Schur opened up the secondary cast members and turned the show into an ensemble comedy. As we were introduced to Michael Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) and Norm Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller), we found the Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin of the police precinct, but without the brains. Once we really got to know Gina Linetti (Peretti), we found out that not only was she not clueless, she was also a member of the Floorgasm dance troupe, a recovering kleptomaniac, and a pure narcissist in the best way possible. And once we got to know Santiago (Melissa Fumero), we realized she wasn’t just a suck-up to the boss, she was someone with depth who cared about her job but also enjoyed a good joke and was a bit of a geek.
What Brooklyn Nine-Nine did in its first year was take a show that had a very done-before kind of premise and turned it on its head. Here’s how you can try and explain Brooklyn to those who haven’t seen it, particularly those a little older who love television. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Barney Miller crossed with Parks and Recreation. It’s so damn good.
Not a weak spot to be found in the cast and at different times, I can make a case for just about anybody in the ensemble as the best part, though I generally find Gina to be my favorite character. Provided FOX doesn’t give up on it and understands the new Sunday night timeslot will be tough sledding against the NFL, premium channel drama, and some network heavyweights, they’ve got something really special here. The complete first season DVD released yesterday and I urge you to find a way to watch the show, even if you just pick it up with the Season 2 premiere this week.
Modern Family is still quite funny and while it may be past its prime, it’s extremely well done and that cast is an absolute knockout. CBS’ Mom had ups and downs in its first season but the chemistry of Anna Faris and Allison Janney is impossible to deny. It’s definitely the most ambitious thing Lorre has created, simply because it’s almost a drama at times based on the overarching plot of two recovering alcoholics and drug addicts trying to improve their lives and protect their children. Janney, of course, is Faris’ mother.
I seriously debated placing The Goldbergs on my list, but I couldn’t quite get it past the three that made it. It may well be there next year though. Another show I saw spots for and assumed would be a gimmick that wouldn’t work and another show I was completely wrong on, which was a pleasant surprise in 2013. I have no problem being wrong when the result is stuff like The Goldbergs, which is really solid and again, has a cast to love with Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey. The breakout star though is Troy Gentile, who is spectacular as Barry Goldberg. Take a lot of laughs, add in superb references to 80s pop culture, with an entire episode dedicated to The Goonies, and that’s just in Season 1. What more do you need?
New Girl makes this list in Season 2, wouldn’t be close today following season 3, but Season 4 started strong last week. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s terrific. A storyline centering around a relationship led to a decline both in quality and interest last year, but there’s a ton of talent on the show, some excellent characters, and I have a feeling they’ve righted the ship and it’s time to tune back in if you stepped away last year.
Could A to Z be funny? Maybe. I love Cristin Milioti, especially after her work in the final season of How I Met Your Mother, so I want it to be good. I also would love to see Marry Me end up being solid, because Casey Wlison and Ken Marino are both favorites and though the pilot wasn’t great, Happy Endings did turn out to be highly entertaining. It was the show no one watched that approached epic status before ratings issues led to its cancellation. Creator David Caspe has me interested because Happy Endings was such a strong effort. Reviews of the Marry Me pilot are similar, if not worse, than that show though, so we’ll see. As for Anthony Anderson’s Blackish, it has a chance to be good, and early returns from critics aren’t bad at all. That’s a show that will depend on its development and willingness to take smart risks without displacing portions of its audience. It premiered last night on ABC.
So that’s what you’ll definitely laugh at, what you should laugh at, and what you might laugh at this year on TV. Next week we’ll talk about the laughs we’ve all had over the past quarter of a century. We’ll start with 10 and each week, count down to the best comedy of the past 25 years on television. The response to our drama rankings was wonderful and I hope for the same as we embark on the “funny.” Get me your thoughts on Twitter and let me know where you agree and where I’m an idiot. I look forward to hearing your opinions.
Until then, just like I said last week: TV is great. All hail TV.
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