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Top 5 Sitcoms

06/06/2012

Originally written for Turtle Canyon Comedy, this is my top five sitcoms ever… (EDIT: not including animated sitcoms, for no particular reason, except maybe to make it easier)

1. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Quite simply the best television show made, across all genres, ever. The story of The Bluths, America’s most dysfunctional family, is the funniest, sharpest and best acted shows in history. So it seems entirely logical that after the truncated third season that Fox finally got what they wanted and the show was cancelled. My love affair with this show began in 2003. The BBC were broadcasting season two and because, we, the British, are so intelligent and possessing of the finest comic minds in the world we recognised the show’s brilliance immediately. That’s why, when I arrived home from work at 1155pm on a Sunday night and started channel hopping I landed on an image of the police pulling over a car because the father had his teenage son sitting on his lap and driving the car. Because, I, Stuart, am so intelligent and possessing of the finest comic mind in the world, I recognised the show’s brilliance immediately. That’s why, ten minutes later, I flicked over to another channel. The next week I got back from work at the same time, this time my television was broadcasting an unusual looking gentleman who had painted himself blue. I watched to the end of the episode and realised I was watching “Arrested Development”, a show I had heard mentioned alongside positive reviews. One week later I decided to give it another go and that’s when something in my brain clicked, this was brilliant I realised. I bought season one on DVD the next day and watched every episode before the Sunday broadcast of season two.

I started evangelising, boring my friends with this ‘great new show’ they have to watch and lending out my precious, precious DVD to anyone who showed the slightest sign of weakness. One by one my friends fell for Arrested Development’s charm, wit and intelligence. The characters are so perfectly drawn and expertly performed that you completely believe that one of them would try to cook ‘boil in the bag’ food in a Jacuzzi they’ve had installed in the loft or that a thirteen year old would end up producing big-budget films after casually sitting down at a desk in a film studios. Now, in 2012, I have watched it all the way through at least 8 times, have had a new favourite character each time and laughed afresh at favourite scenes and previously unnoticed jokes.

The pop culture references, the intricate plots, the call-backs and catchphrases that always feel fresh, the slapstick and wordplay and guest stars and farce, the nuance and narratives that always surprise, the complexity and care in each episode, the ease with which they find every laugh and the lengths they go to to reward the fans. And the narration. Ron Howard smashes it out of the park. He’s essential to tie every episode together into a narrative that makes sense but he does so much more than that. The Burger King episode is a key reference point for his sardonic, hilarious and occasionally petulant narration.

What’s incredible is the show is never far away from driving a staircar through your suspension of disbelief but you still can’t help but invest in this collection of narcissists. It even manages to jump the shark without jumping the shark. Please make a reservation and order some comedy nutrition from the funny establishment that is Arrested Development and you’ll be sure to exclaim: “This is a great restaurant”. “It sure is.” (That was a really contrived reference – Ed)

2. FRASIER

He’s a pompous, arrogant, fool who is rich, smugly intelligent and loves expensive things. He’s also hilarious and totally deserving of your time. Frasier lasted 11 seasons between 1993-2004 and charted the success and, mostly, failures, of Frasier Crane, a lesser character from Cheers who traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast, like Turtle Canyon USA’s Victoria Ramon. Aside from a supporting cast that including an ex-Benny Hill girl and a talented dog, the refusal to pander was what stood Frasier out as a supreme sitcom.

At its very core it was a farce but it managed to create a world that you believed and invested in, so that each joke and every pratfall resonated harder. Unlike many shows, it also managed to continue well beyond a “will they/won’t they-they did” storyline with panache. It showed Friends, its more popular peer, how to do such a storyline without compromising your characters. “The Ski Lodge” episode is a high point for myself, with most of the main cast and a homosexual ski instructor trying to enjoy a break together but culminating in a completely absurd round of characters going into each others rooms and coming out of others in a series of actually hilarious misunderstandings.

If you’re still not convinced to watch the best studio sitcom of all time then just give a couple of episodes a go and I guarantee the sight of Frasier going apoplectic, Niles having a panic attack, Daphne barely containing her frustration, Martin wilfully irritating his sons and Eddie burying his head in the sofa will be enough to make you a Frasier-phile.

3. FAWLTY TOWERS

I find comedy suffers from the passage of time more than any other genre. Reference points change, performance styles adjust and comedies are rendered dated and passé. Sometimes the more groundbreaking the comedy the more rapid the downfall: some of the Monty Python TV sketches will make you wince. This is why Fawlty Towers comes in at 3 for me. I can’t say if it’s as funny now as it was in 1975 but I know it has stood the test of time by being tear-inducingly funny now. Like every sitcom on this list it boasts impeccable performances from the entire cast but it has also had such a huge influence on every sitcom that has followed that your appreciation for it deepens further.

The fact that it is completely, incessantly mad, the plots superbly crafted and the characters perfectly balanced mean that all 12 episodes are of the highest order. With comedy to really succeed you have to believe in and relate to the characters and the choices they make, despite the absurdity of the situation, Fawlty Towers is incredible at doing this. Basil and Sybil are such polar opposites but you totally believe their marriage, it somehow makes sense that Manuel and Polly continue to work there and when Basil thrashes his car with a nearby branch it is the most natural way for him to react.

Every episode has that tension of what will send Basil over the precipice and into madness and what insane actions he’ll take to try and right the wrong he perceives to be happening. Tension and release is a classic comedy technique and in each episode the pressure mounts and the house of cards is built with the utmost precision until the point when you think it has to break, but Cleese and Booth (co-stars, co-writers and husband & wife at the time) push every plot to a new and surreal extreme.

4. THE OFFICE: AN AMERICAN WORKPLACE

In fourth place is a remake that I believe has surpassed the superb original. British people seem very keen to point out how rubbish America is, perhaps because they have a sneaking suspicion that, in fact, they are better than us. When first announced, America’s take on the very British “The Office” was roundly derided and predicted to fail miserably. Steve Carell was best known for his appearances as a guest on The Daily Show, and he had the temerity to state that he wasn’t going to watch the original series. A decision that bore fruit as his character, Michael Scott, anchored a successful transition from Slough to Scranton and managed a collection of employees who enjoyed the freedom to develop throughout the longer series of American television.

Like Frasier, The Office, sailed clear of a “will they/won’t they-they did” storyline with style, heart and humour. Like the original it tackles the lifestyles that the majority of the Western world experience: of stalled dreams, deadly dull work lives and romantic urges but does so with less cynicism and awkwardness. This show really likes its characters but recognises that they are all flawed so when they end up in embarrassing situations, of their own creating, it wants them to redeem themselves. An element of the show that I’ve become particular enamoured with is the “cold-open” that, mostly, are independent from the main episode and give the writers a chance to write something closer to a sketch, but using characters that people already love and find funny. There have been David Brent cameos, musical YouTube videos and a bat on the loose.

Currently in its eighth season, and having to deal with the loss of Steve Carell, it remains to be seen whether it can survive without the show’s anchor, but, with seven seasons of exquisite storytelling and character development they certainly have a cast that are fully-capable of taking the show on for many more seasons. For me that is the reason why the Americans have outdone the British at their own game, by converting it to their own, more heartwarming and longer playing field.

5. THE OFFICE

The original and nearly the best. Groundbreaking, hilarious, heartbreaking, cringeworthy. There is absolutely no denying that Gervais and Merchant changed the playing field when they forced their vision onto the screens of BBC2. The techniques they used weren’t totally unique but it was the first sitcom to combine all the elements so brilliantly. It was a ‘documentary’ about an anonymous company in the middle of an anonymous town featuring regular people going about their regular lives whilst dealing with the type of boss that most people have had to deal with in their lives. It was also funny and touching and excruciating to watch at times. The pregnant pause, the awkward pause and the prolonged pause were all used to great effect and, during one episode, you would spend equal time laughing and squirming. The fact that people mistook it for a real documentary is a testament to all the elements involved: the script, the direction and the acting.

This is what contributes to the feeling that you shouldn’t be laughing but it being impossible not to. Brent emerging from behind his desk, after being fired, in an emu costume is the best representation of the whole series. An episode that layered all the plot points and emotional arcs on top of each other so that a scene of real, brutal emotion punctuated by a hilariously absurd punchline made complete sense. The supporting cast are subtle, individual and funny but the star really is Ricky Gervais, his performance is up there with John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in being perfectly pitched, human and paradigm shifting.

I know I have already placed The Office USA higher in this list and it is primarily because it has 171 episodes to the original’s 12 (plus specials). I also mentioned there being more heart in the US version but that wasn’t meant to suggest that the British doesn’t, it really does and the tears in my eyes at the end of series two and the specials are testament to that. What is different is that there is an element of cynicism and sarcasm in Slough and that feels intrinsically British, it looks depressing and the people are more depressed about their situation than the workers in Scranton. It brings a slightly different style of comedy to the fore and while it works perfectly for this series, it couldn’t have translated to 171 episodes. A perfect display of the differences between the two shows can be found in the “cold-open” of The Office USA featuring a chance meeting between David Brent and Michael Scott. Michael is wide-eyed and delighted to meet someone as funny as Brent whilst Brent is delighted that someone finds him funny. Groundbreaking and hilarious television that everyone should own.

NOTABLE MENTIONS:

When writing this top five there were so many series that I have loved and am still watching and re-watching but didn’t quite make my top five. In no particular order, please investigate the following: Father Ted, 30 Rock, 15 Storeys High, Extras, Friends, Porridge, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Flight of The Conchords.

To find out more about Turtle Canyon Comedy please follow them on Twitter @turtlecanyoncom, watch videos on YouTube or visit www.turtlecanyoncomedy.com

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