Saturday, June 6, 2009

TNRLM Emmy Shortlist: Comedy Series

In many ways, TV’s best sitcom is also its most “traditional.” Big Bang Theory is a three camera set up, is only 30 minutes long (as opposed to the hour format of others on this list that are hour long action/fantasy/comedy hybrids), and doesn’t feature hyper-stylized shifts in narrative and time. That, in and of itself, doesn’t make BBT make so good. What does, is that it puts five unique and interesting characters into situational comedy, without sacrificing character integrity, and consistently mines those characters and situations for big laughs. You don’t have to be a big old geek to love BBT (though if you are, you’ll appreciate just how many details they get right about nerd culture); you just have to be a fan of comedy done right.

Chuck, like the other hourlongs on this list, is difficult to classify. It’s not a pure drama, though there are life and death stakes and moments of heartbreaking poignancy. It’s not a total action adventure spy romp, though they can stage Bondian capers on a TV budget with ease. It’s not a sci-fi show, though they feature enough gadgets, gizmos, plots for world domination and techy concepts to fit right in with a starship crew. And it’s not a pure comedy, even though Chuck brings the funny each and every week with not only the zany antics of the Buy More crew, but also within the spy realm (what other show would cast Chevy Chase as an evil genius, and have it work so remarkably?). Despite the genre bouillabaisse, Chuck upped its game in its second (and thankfully, not final) season, and consistently put a smile on the face of its devoted fanbase.

At this point, do any of us really care about the mother? Sure, it’s the maguffin that keeps the show rolling, but that’s not why we tune in week after week. In fact, even though Ted’s quest for a wife is where the show gets its title, ask any How I Met Your Mother fan to rank their favorite characters, and I’m fairly sure Ted would average out to fifth place. Though that has a bit to do with Ted’s ongoing douchiness, the rest of HIMYM’s cast is so strong and so adept at handling the comedy that it doesn’t hurt to have your ostensibly “central” character be the caboose on the funny train. In addition to the eponymous search, the other notable feature of the HIMYM style is the fractured narrative method of storytelling, circling back on itself not only within one episode, but also going back in time to previous seasons, the college days with bad wigs and forward to the future, with all our characters in old age makeup. Even though “how” they tell the stories is just as amusing as the stories they tell, the technique is never distracting and almost always adds to the payoff of a carefully constructed comedy denouement.

For the life of me, I’ll never understand why The Middleman didn’t get more love from critics and audiences. Maybe because it was hopelessly out of place on teen and woman centric ABC Family. Or maybe because it was hard to know what to make of the show at first glance. Was it a superhero show? A sci-fi show? A comedy? An adventure show? A spoof? An homage to the silver age of comics? One of the best written shows on television? The answer to all of these questions is “YES.” The Middleman was like a fusion of the old Batman TV show and Get Smart, if written by Stan Lee and 60s era Woody Allen. It featured a hopelessly square, and square jawed, milk-drinking crimefighter prone to nonsensical exclamations like “Sands of Zanzibar!” and “Hawks of the Luftwaffe!” who teamed with spunky and thoroughly modern partner Wendy Watson to take on threats like flying zombie fish, cursed tubas and vampire puppets. The Middleman had some of the most torturously tangled, and side splittingly funny, dialogue I’ve ever heard (very similar in its construction, if not tone, to the also exquisitely written Pushing Daisies), and it was delivered by a game and winning cast that expertly strode the line between comedy and camp, making the show a true undiscovered gem.

Another show that didn’t get the attention it deserved was the Starz original, Party Down. Created by Veronica Mars mastermind Rob Thomas (along with Paul Rudd, John Enborn and Dan Etheridge), Party Down chronicled the misadventures of an LA catering crew made up of Hollywood wannabes and has-beens, with each episode centering around a particular engagement. The characters were all sharply drawn, strongly written and winningly acted by a very, very talented ensemble. Each of the characters got moments to shine, and they were supported by a murderer’s row of guest actors including Steven Weber, Enrico Colantoni, JK Simmons and Kristen Bell, among others. Party Down has a little something for everyone: the uncomfortable cringe comedy of The Office, broad laughs and sight gags, caustic nerdiness, an improvised shagginess and vibe, romantic travails, and sly commentary on the economic disparity between the haves and have nots. Party Down has already been renewed for a second season, so I can’t wait to see where they take it next year.

Pushing Daisies is yet another sweet, rich, wry, wonderfully developed comic universe created by Bryan Fuller (along with Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me) to be canceled well before its time. It’s tragic, really, since nobody on television produces such beautiful little communities inhabited by brilliantly realized characters better than Fuller. While the set design and achingly twee construction of the show’s world set it apart from anything else on the tube, it’s the fitfully intelligent scripts, and the perfectly cast actors that perform them, that make Pushing Daisies a modern masterpiece. If only the piemaker could use his powers to bring this beloved show back.

I almost didn’t include 30 Rock on the list (replacing it with Better Off Ted), since this season was so hit and miss. Some ongoing plots, like Liz’s awkward relationship with Jon Hamm’s “so pretty he’s coasting” doctor worked fine, but others, like Jack’s romance with Salma Hayek (who really didn’t have the comic timing for this show) flopped on the beach like a gasping trout. But we don’t necessarily watch 30 Rock for carefully constructed plot arcs and a mirror view of real life. We watch 30 Rock because A) Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are two of the best comic characters around today, and B) it has the highest ZPM (Zinger Per Minute) ratio of any show on TV, and on that front, even though it wasn’t up to the high points of seasons past, 30 Rock still delivered laughs aplenty. And that’s not such a bad thing.


  1. My vote goes to Pushing Daisies. So unique, such wonderful acting and story-telling. And also...Kristin Chenoweth.

  2. I LOVE PD. And Kristin. That said, I think the "comedy" category is hard, because 3 shows on my list are not pure "sitcoms" and are entertaining conceptual hourlong hybrids. BBT isn't as ambitious from a plotting standpoint as the hourlongs, but it's not designed to be. Of all of the shows on here, I probably enjoyed PD and The Middleman personally the most.