Dawn of the Flix: Five Instant Watch Sitcoms for Different Tastes
With the success of House of Cards, Netflix’s first exclusive original content, and with the return of Arrested Development on the golden horizon, we seem to be treading irreversibly into the era of Instant Watch. We’ve passed through full seasons on DVD, streaming content on network websites, and the occasional ill-advised piracy, to arrive at this nexus of all cinematic entertainment. And for only $8 a month! Do I smell another writers’/actors’/directors’/web uploaders’ strike in the near future?
In the meantime, while Netflix is still new and exciting, I’d like to recommend some personal sitcom favorites that are less new but still equally exciting. In the style of a recent article by my colleague Reel Fitness, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about, who would like it most, and why you’ll like it so damn much. Enjoy!
CLASSIC BRITISH FARCE
For fans of: Monty Python, British accents, things falling on people’s heads, racial and national epithets spoken with a British accent so it’s more adorable than offensive
This show, co-created by Connie Booth and renowned Monty Python alum John Cleese, was introduced to me by my father years ago as something not quite as absurd as Python but equally irreverent. Basil Fawlty (Cleese) runs a quaint seaside hotel with his overbearing wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), with the help of chambermaid Polly (Booth) and the bilingually challenged and hapless Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs). From episodes one through twelve, the Fawltys struggle to cope with one another, as well as the many ridiculous situations thrust upon them- sometimes by eccentric guests, but most often of their own making- a style Seinfeld would soon after make famous here in the states.
As with many British sitcoms, Towers was short-lived but developed a devoted cult following in Britain as well as here in the states; many critics and professionals regarded it as one of the finest British programs ever aired. Unlike The Office, any attempt to duplicate the show internationally did not bear fruit. But perhaps luckily, the original program stands alone in its greatness and can now be enjoyed by Netflix subscribers worldwide.
Recommended episode: “The Germans.” Simply revel in the cultural disconnect as the guests sling ethnic barbs and John Cleese goosesteps around the hotel to the chagrin of his German guests, and remember a simpler time. And don’t mention the war.
Favorite quote: ”Well, you started it!” “No we didn’t!” “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”
King of the Hill
For fans of: Beavis & Butthead, traditional sitcoms in cartoon form, well-drawn characters, ridiculous voices and accents, Texas pride, jokes at the expense of Texas
With Seth MacFarlane’s various interchangeable works largely dominating Fox Sunday now, it’s fun to remember back to when The Simpsons had only one cartoon competitor: Mike Judge’s King of the Hill. People may not have taken to Hill immediately because, well, besides the funny voices, there wasn’t much that was “cartoony” about this cartoon. At the end of the day, however, it featured some of the most well-crafted characters in TV sitcom history- from stubborn ass-kicking patriarch Hank to self-promoting wife and ill-equipped Spanish teacher Peggy and boisterous, growing-into-a-man-before-our-very-eyes son Bobby. Not to mention the whole cooler gang- Boomhauer, Bill, and especially Dale (Shi-shi-shaaaa!)
With a full 13 seasons available on Netflix, it’s tough to pick favorites. Mike Judge actually stepped down as showrunner for some of the latter half of the show’s run, and it shows in how the characters become a bit less grounded. Even so, the characters stay true to themselves throughout, and even as they grow and change, you’ll grow to love the Hill family’s staple quirks that lead them on so many journeys over their 14 years.
Recommended episode: “The Unbearable Blindness of Laying.” An excellent early Christmas episode with Carl Reiner as Hank’s mother’s new man, and one of the sweeter endings in the show’s whole run.
Favorite quote: “Dad… why do you hate what you don’t understand?” “I don’t hate you, Bobby!” “I meant soccer.” “Oh, yeah.”
For fans of: The Simpsons, science fiction, satire, science fiction satire, wacky adventures with a sweet ending, counting up Bender’s robot abilities, counting up the number of times a character has “died”
A few years after Hill amped up the competition, Simpsons creator Matt Groening came back with his own new property: the comedy space adventure Futurama. Much in the style of Woody Allen’s film Sleeper, a regular joe gets frozen and wakes up in the future where, while the technology is different, people are very much the same. In fact, instead of attempting to “kill all humans” Battlestar Galactica-style, the robots of the future are as boorish, lazy and irresponsible as their human counterparts. Hell, Bender might actually accomplish his dream of killing all humans if there wasn’t so much good TV on Instant Watch!
Following the trajectory of Family Guy, Futurama was cancelled at the height of its popularity by FOX, as is their wont. But Futurama stayed dead for several years before, following four full-length DVD film releases, it re-premiered on a different network, Comedy Central. And now with seven seasons under their belt and more to come, there seems to be no stopping the Planet Express crew. Especially since it seems impossible to kill these people!
Recommended episode: “The Late Philip J. Fry.” Fry, Bender and the Professor somehow get stuck in the future while testing a time machine that only goes into the future. Possibly my favorite episode, and one that proves that getting cancelled did nothing to break their stride. This one also enters my list of top five sweetest Futurama episodes, but if you’re really in the mood for a lump in your throat, go with “Jurassic Bark” instead. Just remember to bring tissues; the last minute-and-a-half is like the first eight minutes of Up.
Favorite quote: “Don’t be a fool, you idiot!” ”I’ll be whatever I wanna do!”
TV ABOUT TV
The Larry Sanders Show
For fans of: Late night talk shows, celebrities playing themselves, pre-Buddhist monk Garry Shandling, not having to wait for more Arrested for a dose of Jeffrey Tambor
Here we have a show which, thanks to Netflix, I’ve only just recently had the pleasure of diving into. Perhaps the first successful show about showbiz since The Dick Van Dyke Show (also available on Instant Watch), in The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling plays Larry Sanders, a late night talk show host in the style of Letterman, Leno, and CoCo. You get small doses of the show itself, but the true comedy comes from the petty squabbles behind the scenes. Jeffret Tambor plays Hank, Sanders’ awkward onscreen sidekick, and Rip Torn plays Arthur, the show’s producer.
But the real stars are often the cameo celebs, such as Billy Crystal, Rosie O’Donnell and Carrot Top, who got to play expanded versions of themselves in guest appearances. Sanders uplifted this self-parodying style to where it’s been co-opted by more recent shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, and my next entry.
Recommended episode: “The Guest Host.” Larry goes on a week-long vacation and is covered by up-and-comer Dana Carvey, resulting in Sanders fearing he may have hired his replacement, and add in a great deal of bitterness from Hank. Hank’s reaction when Arthur attempts to give him some constructive criticism in priceless.
Favorite quote: “I mean Larry is a wonderful guy, he’s kind, funny, rich – my god he’s the boss. I’d date him if I could.”
For fans of: Tina Fey, SNL circa 2000-06, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, NYC pride, jokes at the expense of NYC, jokes at the expense of NBC, not knowing what the hell someone is going to say next
Oh, how sad I was to see this one go! When 30 Rock premiered in 2006 on NBC, it did so up against Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show with a similar plot (TV about TV) but with Sorkin-level dialogue and Matthew Perry. Against all odds, and despite a semi-clunky start, Rock won out, and quickly became a staple of premium primetime comedy, and the recipient of multiple awards.
Why? Because Tina Fey is a genius. By bringing together some of the most wildly differing comedy personalities (Baldwin, Morgan, McBrayer) under the umbrella of an NBC sitcom about NBC and just seeing it play out, she found the perfect outlet for her rapid-fire, unbridled comedy style.
Admittedly I had taken a hiatus from 30 Rock viewing prior to the announcement that they’d be wrapping things up. In going back and catching up, I do feel that seasons five and six lagged in some respects, but even so it remained some of the highest quality comedy on TV at the time, and season seven did not disappoint! With the help of some new faces (Kristen Schaal as Hazel, and whatever genius played Bro Body Douche in episode 11), they brought real closure to the characters, and more than a few tears were shed. 30 Rock is a show that proves that you don’t need to be toned down or sappy to make the viewer care about your characters.
Recommended episode: “Tracy Does Conan.” Sometimes referred to as the unofficial pilot of 30 Rock, this is where the show got its wacky, unconventional stride, as the crew tries to prepare Tracy to do late night while he attempts to escape from his vision of a little blue man, Rachel Dratch in a full furry blue suit.
Favorite quote: “You know what they say: If you can’t handle the heat, then get off of Mickey Rourke’s sex grill.”
That’s my list! Now go forth and enjoy in the traditional Netflix style before Instant Watch is simply beamed into all our brains and American productivity drops to zero! I mean, why did we even fight a war? I mean… yay, Netflix!