Monday, July 17, 2006

Wacky Neighbors Abounding

Because Tom had such fun with his, I thought I'd toss up my ten favorite-ever sitcoms. Let me give this list a huge disclaimer, by readily acknowledging that there are many, many, many, many a classic sitcom I've never seen hardly any episodes of (Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith, more), so this is by no means a "best-ever" list. It's simply a "my favorites" list, no more, no less.

10. Cheers - Always good for some laughs and with great characters. I've seen way disproportionately more Rebecca episodes than Diane ones, and so my full judgment of the show is probably skewed.

9. Will & Grace - Megan Mullaly's Karen and Sean Hayes' Jack are the kinds of characters that can be so easily misunderstood, in terms of the acting. What can seem like the simplest kind of overacting is actually very subtle and hard to pull off. In effect, being as cartoonish and exaggerated as they are without crossing some invisible line into becoming a complete cartoon is very, very difficult. In some ways, it's the acting underneath the big gestures and comic voices that was so brilliant on both of their behalfs. (I call this the Tom Hanks Gump rule--because so many people can do a Gump impression, Hanks' achievement in the role can be and often is trivialized. But underneath that voice and the tics, he was creating a fully fleshed-out, living, breathing character. The supplements on the Gump DVD make this clear; we see an early screen test of Hanks doing Gump, and while the voice is there, the rest isn't yet--and we see what a two-dimensional cartoon Gump could have been.) But it was the interesting and new dynamic between the leads that I always found compelling about Will & Grace. The notion of building a show around two people who should be together and can't was a good one, and it was well-executed (if by necessity drawn somewhat out over seven or however many seasons). People tend to forget the dramatic moments, but they were real and heartfelt (see the episode in which Will reveals that he did once have sex with a woman, and not Grace, for some prime examples of them.)

8. Frasier - Sharp, sharp, sharp writing around solid characterization. A damn solid sitcom, even if Grammer's Frasier started to calcify several seasons in. But Hyde Pierce was brilliant (we tend to forget, now, that at the outset, and for several years running, he was criminally overlooked by the Emmys) and the kind of sophisticated yet accessible writing - in terms of dialogue, gags, and structure--epitomized by the show isn't seen much now, and wasn't then either.

7. Friends - The mega-success has tended to blind some to how funny and clever this show was, especially in the first five or six seasons. And they pulled off the trick of incorporating serialized storytelling into what always remained a very traditional structure remarkably well (long-running stories or not, anyone who's never seen a Friends can tune into almost any rerun and get it, immediately). A show that shows how important casting is - if that sixsome hadn't gelled the way they did, Friends would have been a solid but kind-of-forgettable show. Writing isn't everything, not by a long shot.

6. Scrubs - A real all-time champ in the laugh-per-minute category, for me, with an uncanny ability to marry just downright goofy humor with real and effecting pathos. As it has continued on, however, I do see a certain weariness settling in, with the fantasies getting more surreal and less connected to the plot (what do all those "too many tangential cutaways unconnected to the plot" Family Guy complainers say about Scrubs, I wonder?) and the performances getting goofier and less grounded. This latter problem is common to many sitcoms as they wear on - the actors start going to the exaggerations and extreme parts of their performance too often and with too much gusto, making formerly rounded, accessible characters that audiences used to be able to connect to one-note and unfunny (see David Schwimmer on Friends, whose Ross became a collection of tics after, say, season seven). Scrubs isn't there yet, but this past season it started to come close.

5. Everybody Loves Raymond - I guess it's not cool to love Raymond, but I found the show remarkably consistent even in its final year, and one of the most relatable sitcoms I've ever seen. Most of the humor came in situations I could see myself in - not something you can say for most sitcoms.

4. Roseanne - What a train wreck at the end, but what a breath of fresh air at the beginning. A messy living room! What a concept! Roseanne at the outset was actually a good actress in the role (and for those who would snipe that playing oneself can't be that hard, I've done it, and it is) and Goodman's performance is in the best-ever category. For a while there, they handled family drama better and less sappily than any sitcom I can think of. And amidst the fighting, and the squalor, and the realism it was always just flat-out funny. Pity about how bad it got at the end. (And for one of the most dramatic examples ever of the devolution of a child actor - from unforced naturalism at a young age, to painfully self-conscious "acting" at an older age, look no further than Fishman's DJ.)

3. All in the Family - Carroll O' Connor was freaking brilliant. That the same man played Archie and that Southern sheriff on In the Heat of the Night never ceases to amaze me. It was just a completely felt, lived in performance, never showing the seams. And Stapleton's Edith was, pound for pound, equal to his example. What surprises me about the show seeing it in reruns is how, while Archie's bluster and bigotry was often nailed for being as corrosive as it would be in real life, in many an episode, it's shown in a remarkably empathetic light. See the "Meathead's draft-dodging friend comes over for dinner at the same time as Archie's friend whose son died in Vietnam" for a prime example. An almost painfully contrived set-up, but the execution was gold. The episode where Meathead and Gloria leave for California, and Meathead tells Archie that he loves him, made me weep openly.

2. Seinfeld - No depth. No lessons. No pathos. No deeper meanings. Just brilliant set-up after brilliant set-up, executed flawlessly by a genius-minus-one-cast. What's remarkable is how good the show was considering how bad an actor Seinfeld himself was. On Raymond, you could see Romano go from a stiff stand-up who wasn't really acting in early eps to a pretty damn good actor in the end. Not so here. Still, Louis-Dreyfus, Alexander, and Richards were brilliant, and the chemistry among all four was bubbling. Just like with Friends, that chemistry explains a lot of the show's success as well - just-as-sharp writing with a less meshed foursome would have resulted in a show not nearly as good as this.

1. The Simpsons - I'd call it the "best show ever." Creativity busting the seems, voice work to rival the days of Mel Blanc, a density of joke to square inch that's never been beat, a stylistic freedom live action shows can only dream of, and one of TV's all-time greatest creations in the form of Homer Simpson. An American treasure.

Until Whenever


tomthedog said...

David Hyde Pierce was never overlooked by the Emmys -- he was nominated every single season, and won four times, the first win coming in only the second season of the show.

Friends and Will & Grace were both shows that were almost always reliably funny to me (the trvia contest on Friends is one of the funniest episodes of any sitcom -- Chanandler Bong!), but still wouldn't make my list of all-time greats. I'd rank Friends higher, mainly because Will & Grace's strong points were the two supporting actors, not the leads.

Scrubs is way up there for me. It got wackier this last year on purpose -- they were pushed back to mid-season, and they just said, fine, let's just go for broke and be as crazy as possible. Even so, the breakdown of Dr. Cox was amazingly well done.

I'm not a Raymond hater. Always funny. Just not in my top ten.

And if I had been counting animation, The Simpsons would most likely be #1 for me, too.

Tosy And Cosh said...

I stand corrected. I have these vivid memories of the TV critics getting apolyptic each year when Pierce didn't win. "How can they overlook hin AGAAIN!?" That kind of thing. Not sure what I'm remembering, now.

I thought Messing was underrated (not so much what's-his-name). Able to move from the funny to the serious smoothly and good at the physical comedy. But maybe I'm just blinded by her beauty. ;)

I still liked Scrubs a lot this season, but did think Braff and Chalke were overdoing the tics a bit.

Glad to hear you don't hate the Ray. Your post has me itching to catch up on MASH in a big way - I've only seen the odd ep, and I think a big piece of my perception of the show is that it was ALWAYS on when I was a bored, channel-surfing kid (of 8-11, say), and at that age the show bored me stiff. That's one hell of a DVD-renting commitment though.

Jaquandor said...

For me, W&G wore out its welcome after about four years, but its second and third seasons were wonderful. I hated Roseanne -- I just found those characters screechy and unpleasant.

And even though I think it should have gone off the air at least a year earlier, Friends will always be a favorite for me. The "Holiday Armadillo" episode invariably cracks me up, and few TV cliffhanger episodes have caught me as unawares as the "Ross says the wrong name at the wedding" and the "Ross and Rachel get drunk and get married in Vegas" episodes.

Jaquandor said...

Oh, yeah, MASH was amazing in its first seasons as well. Later years -- probably the last three or four -- got too heavy-handed and, well, pompous for my tastes.