My Favorite Sitcoms from the Golden Age of Television, Part 2
If you haven’t yet, please check out part 1 of this series!
7. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Rec is the easiest show to watch. I could probably run through a 20+ episode season in two sittings. The characters are that likable, the plots that unique, the writing that exquisite. And for all the drudgery of Pawnee and cynicism of local government, Leslie Knope singlehandedly drags the show into a place of optimism, wholesomeness.
That’s what I think I like most about Parks and Rec. It had to follow-up The Office and was basically given the task of proving the mockumentary format was not a fluke. For the first season, The Office’s looming shadow weighed heavily on the writing; Parks stayed too close to the awkward/dark/sometimes masochistic humor of its network-mate, its jokes incongruent with the bubbliness of its cast.
But that changed quickly with Season 2. Poehler hit her stride as Knope, and like a set of locks, each performer, one after another, clicked right into place with her or his character. Not bogged down by the dourness of its “predecessor,” the cast sprung to its full potential. By the third and fourth seasons, the plots and sub-plots and sub-sub-plots were all equally amazing because each character brought so much originality and humor to the table. You could center episodes on Tom, Andy, April, or Ron and know that any of them could carry the show. Of course you never really needed to because Leslie was always so damn good.
Characters and acting aside, aesthetically this show is important to sitcom history because it established the mockumentary as a bonafide format, something to be reckoned with. It also showed that awkward humor didn’t have to hurt — that we could have nerdy, lovable characters who did stupid things without leaving us doubled over in cringe by the end of each episode. Honestly, that’s why The Office isn’t on my list; the show is just too hard to watch sometimes. Parks and Rec, in my opinion, did a lot of what The Office did — just better.
Parks and Rec isn’t higher than 7 because it’s not a show I particularly love to rewatch. I think it’s still hilarious on reruns, but something about its effect fades the second go through. It’s also not particularly avant-garde, and yes I’m an elitist sucker for saying that. But the show will always have so many characters that live in my sitcom pantheon, and it fully deserves its ranking because, well, it brought frickin’ Aziz to the world.
Alright, now we’re getting into the heavy stuff. Community was the first show I watched that had me hooked. Not in terms attention, but in that it fully engaged my brain. I was watching TV that I had to think about, that required some level of activity and input from its audience. In 2009, that was revolutionary, and Community was the revolution.
Dan Harmon catapulted television into a postmodern reality. Suddenly, a 22-minute sitcom on NBC was using irony like it was Thomas Pynchon. Community spent episode after episode shredding fossilized TV and film tropes, and it refused to wait for its audience along the way. You either engage, and think, and go to the uncomfortable places Harmon demands, or you change the channel. Plenty of people did the latter, imposing real stakes on that futile mantra, “6 seasons and movie.”
Community, of course, opened so many doors for thoughtful television. Rick and Morty, arguably a perfected version of its Harmon-sibling, doesn’t get a green light without it. But for all its aesthetics, the real success of Community is that it’s just straight up hilarious. I mean, yes, I love the endless theorizing over “Remedial Chaos Theory.” But the reason the show will stick with me forever is because of those zany and infinitely fun paintball episodes. And the brilliant little snippets of dialogue that are everywhere — like this one. If Community excelled at one thing, it wasn’t the geeky shit. It was Ken effin’ Jeong!
Alas, Community’s oh so brilliant peak was damn short. Harmon left by Season 4, and the show came crashing down, never to truly recover. But Community is that show. At its best, it had everything: intelligence, irony, plot, humor, characters. Here’s to hoping for one last hurrah. Say it with me everyone…and a movie.
The most underrated sitcom in the history of television is…
Scrubs, man. It’s always been Scrubs.
If Scrubs wasn’t perfect entertainment (which it wasn’t), it’s because it aimed for something higher: realism. Scrubs occupies itself with the mundanities of everyday life, and the occasional dramatics that come along with it. We see the slow and often torturous climb of professionalism. We see the plodding development of relationships, with all of their frustrating ups and downs. We see JD, Elliot, and Dr. Cox refuse to change, succumbing to their fatal flaws over and over again. We see the very normal struggles of human beings — Dr. Kelso losing his dog, Dr. Cox worrying over his child, Carla trying to hold onto her culture — as they are, with few theatrical additions.
The tone of the show, too, was ultra-realistic. Though Scrubs wasn’t dark in the way Louie or Bojack might be, it refused to confine itself to optimism. The cynicism of practicing at a large hospital, patients sick and dying left and right, is fully imbibed in the show’s aesthetic, especially in early seasons — dim lighting, Sacred Heart’s colorless, sterile halls. Death, too, was a huge part of the show. JD once has a day dream of Death being just another coworker at the hospital. Season 1 and Season 8 — the first and last seasons of the show — each have their own masterpiece on death (“My Old Lady” and “My Last Words,” respectively).
None of this was an accident; the show was very conscious of its tone. “My Life in Four Cameras” was arguably the series’ best episode, not only because it showed Scrubs could play the meta/irony game with the best of them, but also because it revealed Scrubs’ ambition for itself. The episode has JD, spurred by his lung cancer patient who was once a writer for Cheers, imagine what Sacred Heart would look like if it were a sitcom. The show shifts to a multi-camera setup, the lighting gets brighter, and a laugh track is added. Trivial plot-lines — Carla trying to spice up her relationship with Turk, Clay Aiken performing an in-hospital charity concert — carry the jolly cast through the episode. By the end, JD’s lung cancer patient is found to be totally fine; his diagnosis was a mistake. As JD goes into his end monologue, beginning “It just seems like in the end, everything always works out…,” his patient — the Cheers writer — passes out violently, and Elliot urgently orders an emergency procedure. We turn back to reality, the lighting dark once more, the laugh track gone, JD looking on as his patient dies. The episode ends with JD watching a sitcom in his all-too-average apartment, ruefully laughing to himself. The irony is, of course, that Scrubs is a sitcom. But it aspires to be more than a traditional multicamera; it wants to tackle the real aspects of life, it wants episodes that end with death, where “good people don’t always get better.”
Of course, it does all this without losing its grip on optimism. In the end, Scrubs is a “feel good” show, though it achieves that the hard way, by entering the darkness and coming out on the other side. That’s why I think Scrubs appealed to me so much; it made an earnest attempt to explore the struggles of life without drowning itself in them. For me, that’s what realism is all about.
Scrubs’ comedy existed within the confines of its self-imposed realism. And what’s incredible is the ultra-diverse range of humor it achieved within these bounds. Scrubs, comedically, had it all. Slapstick, pun, irony, absurdism. JD and Turk were gold together, as were Kelso and Cox. Elliot often carried shows by herself, and Carla was a perfect foil to the immaturity of the rest of the cast. There was as much chemistry on that show as I’ve seen anywhere.
Each episode was also truly meaningful. The writers used jokes to move along plot, but plots in themselves always had a theme or a message. Perhaps that’s lame in our postmodern world, but that a show could have that level of earnestness and still be laugh-out-loud funny is something really special.
Part of me wants Scrubs higher in this ranking, but in so many respects, it was a very traditional sitcom. If anything, it perfected the wide-audience network sitcom by avoiding the pitfalls of undying optimism and triviality, by exploring the “realer” parts of life. But it failed to break conventions in the way my top-4 shows did. It’s also not entirely in the “Golden Age of Television” if the golden age is post-2009. But this show is too damn important to leave out of the top-5. Scrubs set the standard for dramedies, and it will always be one of my favorite sitcoms.