Features A to E > Are Sitcoms Dying?
by Jay S.
APRIL 4, 2011
We have updated this story periodically over
the years since it was first written in 2000. And honestly, we have
been discussing doing an update for years now - but an amazing thing
happened. The problem is simply no longer completely relevant anymore.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of the sitcom's demise has been greatly
exaggerated. It turns out, quietly, the art of the sitcom has been
revived on television.
Starting in about 2006 or 2007, about the time
we first started discussing updating the page again, a group of well-written
and imagined sitcoms started gaining traction on television. Titles
like 30 Rock, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother,
Entourage, Parks & Recreation, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and
even Two and a Half Men have reinvigorated that sitcom as an art
form. Sure, there are still bad sitcoms out there, but the wonderful
fact is that they no longer dominate the television landscape.
Therefore we leave this story as it is, not
necessarily as a current concern as much as a reminder and cautionary tale
of how close we came to losing a vital and necessary television staple.
We are only a decade removed from A Guy, A Girl and a Pizza Place.
Those who forget bad sitcoms are doomed to relive them.
REVISION FOR THE 2003-2004 SEASON!
The situation comedy has been one of the great building
blocks of television since the days after RCA stole the invention from true creator Philo
Farnsworth. Sitcoms even predated that, taking flight on radio shows like Fibber
McGee & Molly and Our Miss Brooks.
In the year 2004, television drama has been at a record high level of quality.
Consider this, in the last five years you have had the chance to watch stimulating,
intelligent fare like Law & Order, Once & Again, The Sopranos, Homicide: Life
on the Street, Ed, Six Feet Under, NYPD Blue, Queer as Folk, Freaks & Geeks, High
Incident and so many more.
In these same five years, though, as drama has reached for the stars, the comedy is
stuck in the gutter. The 90s had been perhaps the greatest decade for the art form
(even better than the 70s which were rightly lauded for All In the Family, The Mary
Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, Sanford & Son and
others.) But the situation comedy has always been a notoriously up and down art
form, remember as those landmark series were running we also had the likes of Laverne
& Shirley, What's Happening? and Three's Company.
At about the time that Jerry Seinfeld decided he'd had enough and the world was being
inundated by Friends clones (remember The Single Guy, Veronica's Closet,
Union Square, Two Guys A Girl & A Pizza Place, etc.) an amazing thing happened.
The good shows, which have always balanced out the bad, were nowhere to be found.
In 1999, there were exactly four good sitcoms released all year. In 2000,
maybe one. 2001 was a bit of a rebound, with two or three.
There was not a single show that I could call good that came out in 2002, though
I guess one or two were okay. In 2003 again, you have to strain to find
So before the situation comedy goes the way of the western or the variety show,
lets take a look at some of the mistakes out there and see if the networks can find
their way again.
Best sitcoms on TV. The sad thing is how hard it was to find
situation comedies that fit this category. Five to ten years ago there would have been
double, maybe triple that number. But these shows give us faith that the art form
can still be an intelligent, vibrant, viable source of entertainment.
Raymond (CBS) - The ultimate dysfunctional
family comedy on TV (sorry, Malcolm In the Middle, you're more in-the-face but you've got a way
to go to reach these heights). Based on the standup comedy of Ray Romano, who plays
Ray Barone, a New York sportswriter who lives with his wife (Patricia Heaton) and family
in a house across the street from his squabbling parents (Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts)
and brother (Brad Garrett). Romano is very funny, but he's essentially just the
straight man, the one that the insanity swirls around. Heaton deserves the accolades
she gets as wife Debra, who is constantly trying to balance the love she feels for her
husband with the anger and contempt he brings out in her. Boyle and Roberts are
great as Ray's parents, who long ago let go of any mirage that love, or even like, plays a
part in a marriage... and yet as much as they protest they hate each other they could
never live apart. The wild card though is Garrett as brother Robert, a gruff,
self-doubting giant of a cop who envies Ray's life.
||The Simpsons (Fox)
A decade into the run of one of the funniest shows on TV
history, it isn't as good as it once was but still is better than most shows on
television. Being a cartoon frees The Simpsons to do things that most
comedies never could do. The Simpsons is actually the most pointed
satire on suburban life ever to grace the tube. Everything is fair game for the
crack staff of writers. No sacred horse of suburbia is left standing. But most
importantly it is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Sex & the City (HBO)
This show about four Gotham single women has grown and
matured well over the years and deserved the hit status it has attained.
Now as we are heading into the final episodes, the
show has a sure comic rhythm. Always a
frank exploration of women's mating habits (although frankly sometimes the women's
dialogue sounds more like that of gay men than women), as the show and characters have
gone on they have found a terrific balance between comedy and relationships. Instead
of the search for meaningless sex that the show started out with,
in this final season, the women have all hit a
place that they are settling in.
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is
tiring of her messed up relationships and wants
to give up, though frankly,
she probably knows her soulmate is still Mr. Big (Chris Noth).
(Kristin Davis) has now been married
twice with a WASP doctor
(Kyle MacLachlan) and a Jewish
divorce attorney (Evan
Handler). Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is a mother
and married longtime on-again off-again beau Steve. Even the most
promiscuous friend Samantha (Kim Catrall) has been showing signs of
looking to settle down, first with a
long-term relationship with her boss (James Remar) and
now with a young model. It does have some problems as a
it suffers from more than a bit of reverse sexism and its view of New York life
is far from accurate (how does a newspaper sex columnist afford such a great apartment on
the Upper East Side?) They also sort of ignored the
whole World Trade Center tragedy that so changed New York life. I
can sort of understand that it is a hard subject to handle on a sitcom,
but there was one "I Love New York" episode and otherwise it's as if
nothing changed. But Sex & the City is one of the
best ensembles on TV and still a terrifically fun viewing experience.
It will be missed.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Larry David created Seinfeld and was the inspiration
for the character of George Costanza. He is a funny man and for the most part, his first
series as an actor as well as writer has a lot of low-key fun. The problem is that this
show is sometime every bit as handcuffed by its premise as
Threes Company was stuck
with the idea "there has to be a misunderstanding" years ago. Each episode is
just a long series of Larry David going out into the world on some menial errand, doing
something thoughtless and being yelled at by someone. That is funny in small doses, but by
the time the third or fourth person tells David off, youre thinking that no one,
ever in the world, has been screamed at this often. It just becomes oppressive, in your
face and not just a bit annoying. It's too bad, because otherwise this show
is brilliant. If David would tone down the screeching, this show could become as funny as
Will & Grace (NBC) -
Will & Grace deserves the high-flying spot
it has as the lynchpin in NBC's signature night. The story is supposed to be about
the relationship of a gay man (Eric McCormick) and his best friend, a straight woman
(Debra Messing), and they are funny, but not as funny as their friends. The true
humor in this show mostly derives from Jack (Sean Hayes), a proudly flamboyant gay man and
Karen (Megan Mullally), an alcoholic gold-digging trophy wife. The show has an adept
way with a punch line and truly understands popular culture. The characters are
mostly likable even when they don't do likable things. The only problem is that the
show throws in occasional clunkers, particularly in the
2002 -2003 season where rate of the misses got worrying. It sometimes looks like the show may be at the
precipice of jumping the shark (i.e. the Harry Connick
Jr. wedding, Jack's son, etc.), but
the series seems to have regained its footing this year.
So far, it always rights itself with a nasty crack from Karen or an inspired flourish from
Jack. Will & Grace
is still bright and humorous and wonderfully un-PC.
Almost there. These shows don't quite make the grade for the top of the
line. For the most part they can't fly quite that high, but they do show glimmers of
hope that they can be as good as any show on television. They just need to get more
of those moments.
The King of Queens (CBS)
- This show is very, very close to the upper echelon. In fact,
still as I write this I wonder if I couldn't fit this one more show into the list of the
best. Kevin James is wonderful as Doug, a hefty blue-collar worker who shares his
home with his beautiful wife and her father. Leah Remini is a revelation as wife
Carrie, a beautiful girl from the hood who is trying to move up socially but still loves
her husband... her previous work on Fired Up and Saved By the Bell
hinted at what a savvy comedienne she is. Jerry Stiller is a hoot as Carrie's father
Arthur, essentially just a variation of his role of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld,
but no one does it better. If this show tempers its need to do silly flashback
episodes and concentrates on the relationships it may still be great.
- By far the
best comedy of the 2001 season. Scrubs is funny, heartfelt, surreal and
smart. Made up of a mostly unknown cast, this is a great ensemble. Sort of
like ER if it were directed by the guys who made Airplane!, this study of young
doctors learning their craft while being on the zero error curve of hospital life is both
sidesplitting and surprisingly heartfelt. Zach Braff is a real find as J.D., a young
doctor who is as brilliant as he is unsure of himself. His best friend is a cocky
surgeon, Turk (Donald Faison). Sarah Chalke (the other Becky on Roseanne)
is fantastic as Elliott, a beautiful but neurotic intern, as is Judy Reyes as Carla, a
nurse whose natural distrust of doctors is being thawed by a relationship with Turk.
The best reason to watch though is John C. McGinley as the angry, bitter but brilliant Dr.
Cox. Every once in a while the post-Ally McBeal fantasy scenes get a little
tired, but otherwise Scrubs
is the best evidence this season that comedy can still be done right on
Malcolm In the Middle (Fox)
When it first hit the
airwaves, people crowned Malcolm In the Middle as the
new hope for the situation comedy... a show that breaks all the rules. To a certain
extent, that is true. In recent years, while it has
faded from the pop culture spotlight, the show has muddled on with all
the good and bad points it always has had. Malcolm In the Middle
is a subversive little show,
much like its Fox ancestor Married With Children.
It is constantly
stretching the limits, questioning people's ideas of what makes a sitcom. One thing
that has not ever been mentioned though is that while the show is usually somewhat amusing
it is almost never truly funny. The writers seem to be so jazzed to be able to
subvert the form it gets to the point that the viewer feels they are just being outrageous
for effect. It almost never pushes the storyline (plot is not a great priority in
this series anyway...) and the outrageous situations are usually not incredibly
hysterical. Pushing the envelope can't take the place of writing jokes, look at Seinfeld,
or even the aforementioned Married With Children
to see examples of pioneering
shows that were still dead funny. Malcolm
almost never hits those high wire
moments. Still, good characters like Jane Kazmarek's mother and Frankie Muniz in the
title role make the show consistently worth watching. It just needs to stop worrying
about outrageous moments and instead write some good jokes.
Prime Time Glick (Comedy
Like most things that Martin
Short does, Prime Time Glick is wildly uneven. When it is good, it can be
spectacularly funny. When it is bad, it can be appalling. And sadly, the good is only just
slightly outweighing the bad. This show looks behind the scenes and in front of the camera
of a talk show. In Jiminy Glick, Short has created a wonderfully funny, clueless
character. His interviews with celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Billy
Crystal and Rob Lowe are hilarious, as are Jiminys monologues. The show is also a
hoot in the way it gets work for ex-SCTV stars Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas
and Eugene Levy. But the constant need for cheap laughs, mostly deriving from
Jiminys gluttony and clumsiness, an unfunny old lady in the audience (also played by
Short) and his relationship with his wife Dixie (Jan Hooks) have all gotten more and more
tiring as the series have gone on. For the second season, Short should just drop all the
extraneous stuff and just take care of the basics... a half-hour parody of talk shows.
Then Prime Time Glick will capture the wider audience it so clearly wants.
The Chris Isaak Show (Showtime)
The Chris Isaak Show is not
sitcom (for one thing, its almost an hour long.) But still, this show when the rock
singer plays a highly fictionalized version of himself is as funny and quirky as any show
on TV when it is on. Sadly, the show isnt always hitting on all cylinders, and when
it is bad it can be really bad. The best thing the show has going for it is of course, the
likable star. Isaak is annoyingly handsome, but his low-key charm and his pretense of a
total inability to start any relationship with women give him great heft as a character.
Kristin Dattilo, who plays his manager, also has a wonderfully complex character, she is a
beautiful woman who is completely in control in her business dealings but completely out
of control in her personal life. Isaaks band Silvertone (playing themselves), are
also terrific fun, particularly drummer Kenney Dale Johnson who deserves to be a star from
this too. A randy band member played by actor Jed Rees tends to be the weak link on the
show, and all too often the show focuses on him. But when it sticks to its charming,
quirky star, The Chris Isaak Show is fantastic entertainment.
The show will be going off the air after its
third season (it was Isaak's choice, not Showtime's.) The show
still has enough comic juice that I'm really going to miss it.
Once terrific shows that are not quite the
powerhouses they once were, but they still are worth checking out. Well, most of the
Frasier (NBC) -
Frasier was once one of the smartest, well-written shows
on television. But now it is comfortable, nice, but rarely challenging. You
watch because you essentially like these people and have known them for a long time.
They just don't have much to say anymore. The resolution of the long term
flirtation between Niles and Daphne seems to have sapped the show of what little surprise
it had left. Like most viewers, I was glad to see them finally get together, but
once the two became a couple the characters, and thus the show, lost focus. Now that
the burning longing is gone Niles, always the show's secret weapon, has lost his raison
he has gained all he ever wanted and has little reason to be miserable
anymore. Too bad, it may be healthy for him as a man but it is
death for him as a character. Frasier tries to pick up the
slack with his near constant episodes of dating humiliation, but there
are only so many ways we can watch him get dumped before the audience
thinks "been there, done that." They
brought back many of the original writers to try to pump up the final
season of the show, but honestly it hasn't helped all that much.
When the show leaves the air after all these years in May, I think I
won't be as devastated as I would have been if it went off four or five
years ago. Frasier's time has come.
Friends (NBC) -
Friends made a big comeback. Ratings were plummeting and it was even getting regularly beaten by the
silly reality show Survivor.
Since the tragedy of September 11th,
viewers seem to want safer, more familiar programming. Because of that, Friends
has been on a roll. So, the question is, does it deserve it? Well, Friends
is safe. It is also familiar. And it is genuinely, usually, kind of funny.
It's nowhere near as good as it was in its superlative first season, but then again
it is much better than the show's nadir of a second season with all the Ross and Rachel
hype. The actors are to a man (or woman) incredibly likable. Still, the show has become
wildly predictable in recent years when it thinks it's being shocking (is there anyone in the world who
didn't guess last season's cliffhanger... that, Rachel and
Joey would not become a couple to leave open the
possibility of her getting back with Ross.) Besides, it's always a good sign when a sitcom
starts having storylines about weddings and babies, isn't it?
Well, Friends is gearing up for its second wedding and second
baby. It's just as well this is the last year.
Almost lost causes
These shows were funny once upon a
time. How come they are so unwatchable now? We'd like to think they still have
the potential to turn it around and be good again. The signs aren't good for it
Drew Carey Show (ABC)
- I do have to give the Drew Carey Show
credit for one
thing. They are not afraid to take chances. Live shows, improv, musical
sequences, April Fools episodes, talking babies, talking zits... you don't see anything
nearly like this anywhere else on TV. But... and here's the rub... not a single one
of these original ideas actually works. They are certainly different, but they are
not funny. When the show started it was a very funny look at the mind-numbing
boredom of the working world. Over the years the show has become more and more bold
and more willing to stretch boundaries, and as it has Carey has lost it's sense
of humor. In the Drew Carey Back To School Rock & Roll Special
showed how cutting edge and relevant it was by having guest star Jenny McCarthy, musical
guest Peter Frampton and they actually did parodies on a ten year old milk commercial (the
one where the little girl tells a guy not to ignore her because she drinks milk and grows
into a hot woman as a guy watchs) and a thirty year old "Schoolhouse Rock" (the
bill one, but... get this, in order to pass a bill you have to get bribes from
lobbyists... real cutting edge humor there.) Unfortunately
ABC put themselves in an awkward position, renewing the show for an
unheard of three seasons right before the series' ratings tanked.
So now the show is in limbo, it's hardly ever on the air but it's not
to my knowledge officially cancelled. The show could still get back on track
if it ever gets back on the air and reigns in its excesses and goes back to what it is best at, character comedy amongst
working stiffs. And, please Drew, no more musical productions, the first one (with
the Vogue's "Five O'Clock World") was kind of cool but these have long ago
turned old hat and now they just grind the show to a shuddering halt every single time.
How did this ever get on the air?
I know there's a lot of jargon out there,
but I think this subject is pretty self-explanatory.
Yes Dear (CBS)
Here's an idea. Why don't you take
four actors from remarkably unfunny sitcoms (or bad dramas) which were cancelled almost
immediately (The Mike O'Malley Show, Boston Common, Jesse and Cold Feet)
and put them all together on one show. Mix in a few cute kids. Stir
half-heartedly. Sounds like a recipe for success. People will be lining up, right?
The show may last like five, six episodes. The most amazing thing is that through a fluke
of a good timeslot (between The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond)
this show has become a rather sizable hit.
In fact it's done so well that CBS farmed
Queens out to Wednesday night and made
Yes Dear the anchor show on Monday. It still
My Wife And Kids (ABC) -
Wayan's new series is trying so hard to be a new Cosby Show that Bill should be
collecting residuals. As a smart, professional (though he never seems to actually go
to work) African-American father with a beautiful, hard-working wife and young precocious
kids he more than occasionally likes to torture, Wayans has a subtle laid-back
charm. Too bad the jokes are so weak and the situations so clichéd that it makes a
half-hour watching seem like eternity.
The Rookie Class - New series that want to save us from mediocrity. If only...
Two and A
Half Men (CBS)
I had such high hopes for this show. More than any other show
this season, I loved the cast. It had Charlie Sheen, hot off
Spin City. Jon Cryer used to be terrific in movies and did
years ago and he did an underrated sitcom with The Famous Teddy Z.
Marin Hinkle was so wonderful on Once & Again and Holland
Taylor has been working steadily on TV since Bosom Buddies
in the early 80s. The clichéd storyline gave me pause, though, two
bachelors raising a young boy... hmmm, where have I heard that before?
Sheen is brilliant in the show, proving his chops in situation comedy
are no fluke. However, otherwise it's all pretty
disappointing. Cryer's uptight podiatrist is a much less
interesting character, though, the writers really need to open him up a
bit. If Cryer is a little underused, what they have done to Hinkle
is criminal. She was cute, funny and neurotic as Sela Ward's
little sister on Once & Again, but this show has sapped her of
all her charm. Playing Cryer's ex-wife, who may or may not have
turned lesbian, Hinkle is made out to be frigid, angry, terminally
uptight and even made up to be less attractive. She's like Lilith
from Frasier without any good lines. The kid is way too
precocious when he should be cute -- he's a Hollywood kid, not a real
one. The storylines are old and hackneyed. With all the
talent in front of the camera, I still hope the show will find its way.
But I doubt it.
- Despite all the great reviews it's gotten, it took a few weeks for
this show to grow on me. It seemed a little self-satisfied to me,
more amusing than actually funny. But the show hooked me, and now
I can't get enough. The show is about the Bluth Family, a rich but
amazingly dysfunctional family that loses their fortune when the
patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) is thrown in jail. This starts a battle
for power over the family business between the hurtful catty mother
(Jessica Walter) and the level- headed oldest son, Michael (Jason
Bateman). Bateman tries to keep the family from imploding despite
the fact that the family has a group of useless, selfish members,
including a womanizing wannabe magician brother Gob (pronounced Job and
played by Will Arnett), the spoiled daughter (Portia DiRossi) and her
struggling actress husband (David Cross) and rebellious daughter (Alia
Shawkat), the mama's boy youngest brother (Tony Hale) and Michael's son,
who is also responsible, but feels very guilty that he has a crush on
his cousin. The storylines and jokes are so quirky and offbeat
that I couldn't do them justice in this brief story, just believe me the
show rewards regular viewing. Just give it a chance to grow on
you, and you will be a fan, too. The ratings on the
show are low, but word is Fox is going to stand by it and let it build a
following. Finally, a show getting a chance that really deserves
(NBC) - This highly touted
Friends clone was based on a favorite British import show on the
BBC about six gorgeous friends who essentially sleep with each and every
friend of the opposite sex (and they hinted that at least one of the
gals was interested in crossing the line on her own sex, too).
Using the original show not just as a model, but using the same scripts,
it somehow just didn't translate over the pond. It's smirking sex
talk and shallower than shallow characters were startlingly misjudged,
particularly for prime-time network TV. All the bar-hopping and
bed-hopping was surprisingly uninvolving, if these people don't care who
they're sleeping with, why should we? Coupling disappointed
me the most because it was yet another attempt to jump-start the sitcom
career of Rena Sofer, a spectacularly beautiful and rather funny actress
who has been in some fine movies (Traffic, Keeping the Faith) and
done stellar guest work in series (Ed, Seinfeld, Spin City,
Friends), but every time she gets a shot as a series regular it is
on crappy series like this, Oh Grow Up and the final season of
Just Shoot Me! Also misused was Sonya Walger, who also has had
her own bad luck on series... playing Mike Binder's long-suffering wife
in The Mind of the Married Man. The other cast members,
particularly the guys, made no real impression. They were
generically attractive and all horribly dull. Coupling was
a startling bust, getting horrible reviews and bad ratings before being
cancelled after just four episodes.
Her (ABC) -
Sort of like
Notting Hill without the pretentious British accents, funny
dialogue and depth of feeling, I'm With Her is the story of a
humble school teacher (David Sutliffe) who starts dating the biggest
movie star in the world, Alex Young (Teri Polo). Actually,
co-creator Chris Henchy swears that the show isn't based on the Hugh
Grant/Julia Roberts big screen comedy, but instead on his own life being
an average guy married to Brooke Shields. And, frankly, that is
the problem. Not for a second do we believe that Alex is the
biggest star in the world. She seems, instead, more like a B-level
actress along the lines of... oh, Brooke Shields. It isn't Polo's
fault, she's cute and charming in the role, though she doesn't get to
touch on the level of acting she had previously shown on TV in her
recurring role in Sports Night. Maybe the problem is that
they do a running gag of introducing the episodes with short vignettes
of Alex acting in amazingly cheesy looking cheap productions. She
seems to be doing a different bad movie every week, which hardly seems
like the schedule an A-List Hollywood star would have (it might actually
take her several months to finish the leads in these films.) Also,
she is made to be so down-to-earth you know she's never been pampered
and paid millions to act. She even lives in a kind-of-nice upper
middle class ranch house, not the kind of palace the biggest star in the
world would live in. So, the show has a major premise problem
right off the bat. Second dilemma with the idea... her love
Patrick is a nice, kind of handsome but pretty bland guy.
So, no matter how much they try to convince us they work as a couple, we
really don't understand what's in it for Alex. However, at least if
these two aren't groundbreaking characters, they are nice and good
people. The same can't be said for the two main supporting roles.
Patrick's best friend (Danny Comden) is a single-minded, unrepentant and
completely slimy horndog. (And he's playing a high school teacher!
Parents, lock up your daughters!) Alex' sister (Rhea Seehorn) is
the exact same type of character, except that she's a woman, a little
more cynical and not a teacher. I would cross the street to avoid
running into either of these two, why would I watch them on TV?
Whoopi (NBC) - Probably the only
thing in the world more inexplicable than how Ted Danson's series
Becker has lasted on TV for so many years is why someone, anyone,
would make a series that seems to aspire to be Becker... just a
few short months after that series was cancelled and then given a
surprise reprieve. Whoopi Goldberg, Danson's ex (hmm... I
wonder what that means) plays Mavis Rae, a former one-hit wonder singer
who now owns a run-down Manhattan hotel. Mavis is liberal,
aggressively opinionated and bullies all around her into her thoughts
and beliefs. She smokes, drinks, eats foods that are bad for her
and she doesn't care. She lives in her hotel with her brother...
uh-oh get this for a complication... who is an African-American
Republican! And his girlfriend is a white girl who acts hip hop!
Finally throw in an Arab hotel clerk and you have an anti-PC grudge
match. Honestly, I have
been sometimes pleasantly surprised by some of the jokes. I don't
hate Whoopi as much as I had expected to, but I don't
particularly like it either. It's occasionally funny, but more
often it's something you've already seen, done much better.
Happy Family (NBC) - Another
series I want to like a lot more than I do. John Larroquette and
Christine Baranski are consummate comedy pros, but they deserve better
material than this.
Playing the Brennans, a long-married couple dealing with their eccentric grown
children, the two give their all and the laughs do come, just not as
freely or as often as you'd like or expect. The problem, I think,
is that the show feels that they have to bolster their young audience
with their three children, all sort of cute but completely screwed up
Generation X "types." There is the one son (Jeff B. Davis) who
works as a dentist in dad's practice, but who is completely
commitment-phobic, very angry and just a little cowardly. There is
the slacker son (Tyler Francavilla) who won't get a job or move out of
the house and who dates the divorcee next door who is twice his age.
Finally, the daughter (Melanie Paxson, the pixie from all those Glad
commercials) is a smart businesswoman, but a complete washout in her
personal life. To pull in the young guys even more, they brought
in Jaime Pressley in the middle of the season to play the dental
hygienist for Dr. Brennan Sr. and Jr. Pressley is cute and pretty
funny, but the sexual tension they are trying to spark between her and
Davis just isn't catching. The story lines seem to meander, all
variations on how overprotective the parents are of the kids at the same
time that the kids embarrass their parents. Everything about the
how seems a little haphazard... the series is supposed to be set in the
suburbs of Philadelphia, but the makers seem to have little knowledge of
the actual city, for example they mention the children are going to the
Chestnut Cabaret, a club that has been closed for about a decade.
I really want to like this show, but I can't quite make it.
With Stan Hooper (Fox)
I hated Norm
McDonald's last series, The Norm Show. So, I am shocked,
SHOCKED, that this show has by far has made me laugh harder than any
show on TV in recent seasons. Created by some of the minds behind
Newhart, this show is almost an exact copy of that show, but the
premise still works. McDonald plays Hooper, a big city television
commentator (essentially a younger, slightly edgier Charles Kuralt) who
decides to chuck the rat race and buy a house in a small town.
Expecting a bucolic, folksy existence, he is instead sucked into a group
of confounding eccentrics. There is a gay couple that owns the
local diner (Daniel Roebuck and Garret Dillahunt). The house they
bought comes with its own butler (Brian Howe), who won't leave although
the Hoopers have told him they don't need a butler. Eric Lively
plays a local kid with dreams of cinematography and Reagan Dale Neis is
his cute waitress girlfriend. Funniest of all is Fred Willard as
the millionaire that runs the town. Willard mixes his normal
slightly loopy character with a surprisingly angry and shrewd streak.
Even Penelope Ann Miller, an actress who has always rubbed me the wrong
way, is wonderfully funny as Hooper's wife. The two best new
sitcoms on TV this season are on Fox. Who'd have ever thought?
Sadly, A Minute with Stan Hooper's ratings were even worse than
Arrested Development's. Word is at this writing that the
chance of the show coming back on the air are almost nil. It's a
ones that got away - These
shows were everything we are looking for in a sitcom, funny, smart, well-written and
acted. So how did they get cancelled when Two Guys & A Girl kept
Like, You Know
Quite simply, this was the funniest sitcom of the
nineties that wasn't named
Seinfeld. In fact, I would even go so far as to
It's Like You Know... may have even been funnier. Created by one
of the geniuses behind
Seinfeld, Peter Mehlman,
It's Like, You Know...(despite it's silly title) was the
smartest, funniest, bravest show on television. It turned the same
jaded eye of the old series on what is possibly the strangest city in the
world, Los Angeles.
It's Like, You Know... took a look at young producers (Steven
Eckholt), actresses (Jennifer Grey as herself in wonderfully funny post-modern casting),
directors (A.J. Langer), writers (Chris Eigeman) and a rich trust fund heir (Evan Holder
in the funniest character this side of George Costanza.) But these artistic pursuits
and pretentions were not the
raison d'etre for the show, in fact these characters
fully recognized how superficial their world is. It instead was a stinging and hilarious
indictment of a city and a lifestyle. The show could be whithering and yet was
always humorous (while watching one of LA's regular high speed chases on TV, Langer
suggests that the driver should have kidnapped someone so he could have used the carpool
lane.) The jokes respected the audience's intelligence to a point where the jokes
could be even considered a little over some people's heads. (They had a cameo by
George Plimpton threatening Eigeman by saying "If you don't get out of town, Tama
Janowitz is going to get barbaric on your ass.") Smart, funny, with attractive
characters. A formula for success, right? Okay, maybe it was a little too
inside to play in Peoria, but I still don't know how this show didn't catch on like
Seinfeld. Each time I watch a new episode of
My Wife And Kids or
Yes Dear I mourn
for the loss of this show.
||Sports Night (ABC) -
If you like
The West Wing, then this show is the one that got away. Created
West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin,
Sports Night took a hard look at
life on a TV cable sports broadcast. A brilliant, theater-trained cast included
(Six Feet Under), Felicity Huffman
of Order, Frasier) and Josh Charles
(Threesome). The three leads spit out the spinetingling
dialogue at the pace of a Noel Coward farce. The supporting cast is also amazing,
particularly Robert Guillaume as Isaac Jaffe, an aging executive, in a role that takes you totally by
surprise after his previous work in shallower fare like
Benson. The jokes
come at you at a blitzkrieg pace, respecting the audience's intelligence and stimulating
the heart. The show was really not about sports per se, it was about relationships
and the workplace.
Sports Night was written as well as any show
ever on television. Unfortunately, Sorkin's refusing to release any of the authority on
writing both this show and
The West Wing led to a bit of burn-out on his part,
and when a chance came up of the show continuing on HBO or Showtime, Sorkin decided to
refuse. But you can still see what you missed on Comedy Central, which shows
Night in reruns, or on the DVD box set.
When I originally wrote
this article in 2000, I was as surprised as everyone to
City was the best situation comedy on television.
Of course, that meant it would be cancelled later
that season, because lord knows we can't have too much good comedy.
Always a well
above average series with Michael J. Fox the great surprise
was that when Fox retired
Charlie Sheen was able to fill his shoes so ably. Sheen
was terrific as a sly parody
of his image, but the real strength of this show had always been in the star's interaction
with a wonderful ensemble. Heather Locklear was the most visible of the group,
she is very good as a light comedienne, also a nice surprise after a long career in
pot boiling dramas. Barry Bostwick was superlative as the Mayor of New York, an
absent-minded, somewhat elitist, and yet basically brilliant politician. Alan Ruck
was funny as a terminally sleazy office worker. Michael Boatman took a potentially
dangerous role of an uptight African-American homosexual and misses all the potential
pitfalls. Funniest of them all is Richard Kind as Paul, a cheap, angry,
brown-noser. Kind always seemed kind of weak in his previous big role in
About You, but with the strong writing he was a jewel. Don't just believe me,
check it out yourself in reruns and syndication.
To this day, you will not find better laughs in a show than
you did in
||The Job (ABC)
Denis Leary's quirky cop comedy
sort of like
NYPD Blue with punchlines. Not content with the normal sitcom
rhythm of setup-joke-setup-joke,
was a strange bird in comedy, but all the
more likable for it. Leary's character was a complete scoundrel, he
was an alcoholic,
drug abuser, junk food junkie, chronic womanizer... and a cop. The stories
revolved around him and his equally degenerate fellow cops as they tried to to solve crimes
and their complicated personal lives. Much of the show
was filmed on location and
there was no laugh track, further making it seem more like a drama than a comedy.
But it was as amusing as any show on the air.
Welcome To New York (CBS)
This workplace sitcom came and went with a whimper a couple of seasons
ago, but it was actually a very good workplace comedy. Jim Gaffigan played a folksy weatherman from the heartland who got a plum
job on a network news show in New York. The good-tempered country
boy was thrown into a sharks pool of hardened New York show biz-types, a
tough as nails producer (the always reliable Christine Baranski from
Cybill), a vain anchor (Rocky Carroll of
Chicago Hope) and a
jaded intern (Sara Gilbert from
Roseanne.). Well, this
fish-out-of-water story has been done to death before, but Gaffigan
found an interesting twist, because his character (named, strangely, Jim
Gaffigan) was not just a stupid hayseed, he was actually as smart as the
New York pros. He also had a disarming charisma and charming
naïveté. Besides, any show savvy enough to hire Eric Bogosian to
play a network executive deserved a better shot.
Not horrible, but it was probably time
for it to go... Shows that have been
cancelled, and while they could be kind of interesting, the world isn't
going to mourn their loss.
Sabrina the Teenaged Witch
This show was for so long been saddled
with the unfair write-off of just bring a "kiddie show" that most people
didnt even notice that for the first few years it was on the air, Sabrina was
the freshest, smartest and hippest comedy on television. Well, okay, second to
The series lost some of its luster when it moved from ABC to the WB. The writing
noticeably fell off, but the series could still pull off the odd gems. The show
didnt quite taken enough advantage of
it's new college setting, but some of the new
cast, particularly Soliel-Moon Frye as Roxie, were very likable.
The final season, in which Sabrina graduated and went
into the working world at a hip rock mag actually started off as a
promising step back up in quality, but soon the show got mired in a
stupid will-she-or-won't-she-get-married plot and a series that once was
so good limped and wheezed into the finishing line.
the idea of
Do Over. This show had one of the best premises
in recent years, too bad they were so sloppy with it. It was
brilliant in its simplicity. A man in his thirties who has a
miserable life is able to go back to 1980 in high school to change
everything in his life. It's a brilliant premise, one that is ripe
with opportunity. Very often the show even lived up to its
promise, it was humorous and quirky and touching. Too bad that
they kept constantly bugging me with a serial case of anachronism.
The show is supposed to take place in late 1980, and yet one of the
characters is a girl who is trying to be Cyndi Lauper (who didn't start
having hits until 1984), there are stories about going to Def Leppard's
Pyromania tour (1983), jokes about Rick Springfield (who didn't
start having hits until 1981) and the kids listen to music by bands like
the Pet Shop Boys (1986) and Katrina and the Waves (1985). This
amazing sloppiness even spills over into the filming of the show.
In one show, our hero is reliving one of his greatest life traumas, a
baseball game where he struck out for the final out and disgraced
himself in front of his friends, parents and Grandfather. He
stands in the batting cage and talks to his best friend about his
worries, and the friend tells him to look at their faces, they all love
him no matter what. The camera pans over the bleachers and the
friend is sitting with the family. Then it cuts back and he is
back by the plate. That isn't just sloppy, that's inexcusable.
I so wanted to love Do Over, but I just can't overlook the fact
that the makers didn't care enough to do it right.
Created by Judd Apatow, the
Larry Sanders Show writer who helmed 2000's pretty good, but a little
Freaks and Geeks, his second series
Undeclared was... well...
pretty good, but a little overrated. Actually,
was very much like
Freaks & Geeks, just taken from high school and transplanted into the first
year of college. The writing is mostly very good, the acting is terrific, but the
storylines tend to meander and lead nowhere. Which, some might say, is pretty much
like the first year of college itself. My biggest problems with
the exact same ones I had with Apatow's earlier series, though. Apatow seems to
believe that his stories are wonderful little nuggets of truth that everyone should
recognize. Well, these people act very little like anyone I knew in college.
Oh sure, all the superficial similarities are there; wanting to get drunk, wanting to get
laid, not wanting to study... But these characters mostly seem a little
unlikable. I don't mind watching them on TV, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to
share a dorm room with any of them.
|Titus (Fox) -
had the same exact problem as fellow Fox hit
Malcolm in the Middle.
It was kind of funny, it has insanely dysfunctional characters, but in
the end they were just trying too hard. Outrageousness can only take a show so far.
Titus got to that spot in stride, but it
usually wasn't funny enough.
You wanted to like this show more than you did.
Had it lived up to it's
potential, it could have really been something though.
The Ellen Show (CBS)
second show was slighty amusing, but it
was so desperate not to be
offensive that it turned out to be as bland as tapioca. Sadly, she still seemed to be
under the misconception that her previous sitcom
Ellen was cancelled because of
the furor over her coming out as a lesbian on the show. The cold hard fact is that
Ellen was taken off the air because it was no longer funny. In fact, it hadn't been
funny for about two seasons before the famous "Coming Out" episode and the press
generated by that storyline kept the show on at least a season or two longer than it
should have been. DeGeneres' newer character
was still vaguely lesbian (she made a few
wisecracks that alert us to the fact, but she actually seemed strangely asexual), an
internet exec who moved home to her small town when her latest dot-com collapses.
And you know what? It
was nice to see her again. DeGeneres still had a
terrific, likable delivery. Sadly, the town was filled with big-name
"eccentrics" who fill her world but are given nothing to do. Jim Gaffigan,
Martin Mull and particularly Cloris Leachman are way too talented to have to say the lines
they are given.
The Ellen Show was sort of harmless fun because of DeGeneres, but even she
was not worth watching this dull show regularly for...
Her talent is much better served in her current talk
show or her voice-overs in
Let The Door Hit You On the Way Off the Air
Horrible shows that have been cancelled. Proof that good things
sometimes do happen to people who have to watch bad sitcoms.
There is a lot of truth to the idea out there that HBO is
making some of the riskiest, most artistic series on television. Strangely, though, the
longest running series on the cable channel was this tired and tiring glamour vehicle for
comedian Robert Wuhl. The idea was a good one; Wuhl plays a high-powered sports agent. This
premise lends itself to many fascinating story ideas. There
were many sports icons
playing themselves. Unfortunately Wuhl (and most of his co-stars) are smug, cant act
and the stories are horribly weak. The cast member who is the most mistreated is Michael
Boatman, who was so funny on Spin City
but got nothing at all to do on this show.
Thankfully the writing was on the wall after the way that
Arli$$ nearly destroyed
the ratings of
Six Feet Under before HBO got wise and moved
of the way from the double feature of
Sex & the City and
Six Feet Under.
For some reason, they brought it back for one more season, and then
finally unceremoniously dumped it.
Three Sisters (NBC)
I thought at first that maybe I just didn't get
this series because it was a chick show. The story of three sisters in an insanely
close family and their new bond when one has a baby seemed like more of a show that women
would appreciate than men. But I checked with some women I know, and most of them
didn't really like it either. The shame is the cast was very promising. A.J.
Langer is very likable as the youngest sister, a flighty devil-may-care-type who just
floats through life, but it was difficult to watch her without thinking how much better the
writing was on her last series It's Like, You Know... Sadly, Vicki Lewis,
who was very funny on
News Radio, played her character in such a labored, hammy
way that it spoiled the few jokes that may have worked for her. Third sister
Katherine LaNasa is fine but pretty bland, as is her husband (Edward Kerr) who really is
just there to open jars and fix plumbing (or at least get
a plumber). Seasoned pros Dyan Cannon and Peter Bonerz
were given lines that are way below their stature. In all a big waste of
talent. Good riddance.