With only a few days left to order last minute DVD boxsets of TV shows as half-arsed Christmas presents, I have made my definitive list of all the DVD boxsets of US sitcoms that I have seen recently instead of watching films. As a Brit I generally thought that all US sitcoms just involved things like Joey from friends and/or Charlie Sheen so I’ve just stuck with Alan Partridge and Father Ted reruns. Recently though I decided to take a trip across the pond and see what all the fuss was about. Here are my findings:
Community (so called as it is set in a community college) is a show that takes a short while to really get into it’s stride and at first it seems like it will be a bit predictable and over-familiar, but then it shatters those illusions by being an incredibly clever, ironic and self-aware show and it has some episodes that are just about the funniest twenty minutes of TV I’ve ever seen. Particularly the ones where instead of following the usual U.S sitcom story lines about relationships and character development (yawn) it does something more akin to ‘Spaced’ and has an episode crammed full of excellent movie and TV references. There is an episode where a school paintball game goes all ‘Battle Royale’ and includes nods to ’28 Days Later’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘Predator’ and plenty more. There are plenty of great references and in jokes – there is a 4th wall breaking Charlie Kaufman episode and an episode based on Goodfellas. And it’s all done just as well, if not better, than Spaced ever did it, and I really love Spaced. Or the episode where there is a zombie outbreak at a disco (where iTunes is stuck playing Abba on loop) and three characters head into the dark basement:
If you spot the Alien reference, this is the series for you. Oh and Chevy Chase is in it as an old racist man. I think it tapers out a bit by the third season but it’s still a great gift. Ideal for: geeks; film buffs; TV buffs; anyone who likes things being meta; fans of Spaced; fans of sarcasm and irony.
Louie is barely a sitcom, which isn’t to say it’s not sometimes very funny but it is about as far from conventional as you can get. It’s a meta thing, Louis C.K writes, directs and stars in a sort of dramatisation of his real life, with his two daughters living in New York. Sometimes he goes to a comedy show and does some standup and as a huge fan of his standup, I tend to love these bits. Other times he deals with things in life in his usual manner which is cynical and sharp but also self-deprecating and honest. It’s this mix that makes the show (and his standup) so interesting and a cut above most other comedians and makes Louie more than just a vanity project or vehicle to showcase his jokes. When it’s not funny it can be surprisingly touching, or poignant. And when it is funny it can be surprisingly touching and poignant too. Or just very rude.
Ricky Gervais is in it a couple of times in a these pretty great cameos, but it’s not all quite like this. Ideal gift for: grumpy people; dads with young children; cynics; comedians; people with a high tolerance for swearing.
I think I’ve seen the first two series of this but I am not certain because after a while it just blurs into one big insipid lukewarm puddle. It’s not that it is terrible – indeed it seems like everyone but me loves it – it’s just that there aren’t really jokes, there aren’t really any funny characters or funny situations and there’s no real comedy involved at all. It’s just a sit, without the com. But it’s inoffensive and unlike the truly terrible US sitcoms that are out there, there is no laugh track and there are no really cringe-worthy jokes so at least you don’t have to wonder just how messed up someone must be to laugh that loudly. It’s filmed in the quite over-familiar mockumentary style (though I am not sure why) and I’m pretty sure there is no swearing or risqué situations or anything with any sort of edge so it is safe to watch with your very own modern family. It’s harmless, but I guess I just like my comedy to have a bit more of an edge. Ideal gift for: people that have Friends boxed sets; people who want to watch comedy with their kids.
Parks and Recreation is apparently just an attempt to make a new version of The Office except with a girl in it. It’s all very inoffensive and occasionally it has jokes but it’s main purpose is just to soak up a bit of time that otherwise there would just be nothing going on in. It’s like the TV show equivalent of playing a game on Facebook or reading a magazine about celebrities – easy, bright and colourful but ultimately moronic. I watched most of it, I didn’t hate it. I don’t think it is as good as The Office because although both shows are trying to be like a big warm blanket that can keep you company for many long hours while you drink tea and snooze – as opposed to a show that wants to make you think or laugh – The Office features less of Amy Poehler who has a voice that mainly comes out of her nose. It’s horrible and it ruins the big warm blanket effect when you get pulled out of your mental slumber by what you would assume is someone who is attempting to communicate using a kazoo. She also is far too enthusiastic and upbeat which I know is the joke but seriously, we don’t like that in the UK. Another problem is that Parks and Recreation really does a lot of dating storylines, relationship subplots and personal growth and all that boring stuff. Ideal gift for: girls I assume; people that watched The Office mainly to see Jim and Pam get together.
There are a million episodes of The Office and this is really it’s main appeal. The show starts off with a first season that tries to copy the style of the UK version of The Office (with Ricky Gervais) but this really doesn’t work very well – Steve Carell as the boss can be annoying sure, but he is mainly just noisy and hard to watch rather than as painfully cringe-worthy as Ricky Gervais. In the second series they try a new approach that works a lot better – they make him a sympathetic character and tone down the uncomfortable humour that was the main feature of the UK series. This works great – it’s not an edgy comedy by any means but it’s easy to watch and there is a lot of it. It’s the warm blanket effect again – a long running show with familiar characters and without anything jarring or complicated to pull you out of your pleasant fuzzy distraction. UK sitcoms tend to end after just a few episodes before the jokes get stale and the characters become over-familiar. The US Office takes stale jokes and familiar characters and makes it like hanging out with old friends. Though it is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, I enjoyed the US Office a lot. Not a classic sitcom, but a good TV show even if it does get quite ridiculously drawn out. Good gift for: I think a lot of people have probably seen this by now, but it’s ideal for people with a lot of spare time like the perennially unemployed or people that have a lot of time to kill; Steve Carell fans; Will Ferrell fans (he comes later).
At first I thought this was the best US comedy I had ever seen – the first two seasons especially are full of dark and edgy jokes and hilarious characters which felt really refreshing after watching so much harmless comedy shows (like Parks and Recreation and The Office). My favourite thing about the show is that all the characters are irredeemable arseholes – there is no character improvement or convoluted relationship nonsense. None of them are ever going to get married or grow up and realise the errors of their ways – they are dicks for life. Perhaps my favourite character is Dennis: mercilessly womanising; narcissistic; vain and borderline sociopathic. Even more so than Jeff from Community, and unlike Jeff he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. After a while – there are now seven seasons – the show can get a bit stale with the writing perhaps getting a bit complacent at times, the characters becoming a little stale (sorry Sweet Dee) and some poorly thought out episodes which retread the same basic jokes, but when it is fresh it is great and it is pretty amazing it is still funny after so many episodes. Perhaps the trick is not to overdose. A great gift for: people that want to see a greased-up naked Danny DeVito; alcoholics; people that like jokes about huffing glue; irredeemable arseholes; fans of caustic wit and sarcasm.
Eastbound and Down was the first time I saw Danny McBride, who has since gone on to appear in a whole bunch of rather terrible looking films. He writes and stars in Eastbound & Down and I think this is one of those cases where he a comedic actor has one character that really suits them more than any other. He is hilarious as Kenny Powers, a washed up baseball star – forced to work as a high school gym teacher after he blows his major league career. Another largely irredeemable character who rarely does a selfless act or thinks of others – and who has a hilariously inflated opinion of himself. I’ll admit I know nothing about baseball (we call it rounders in the UK) but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the show. Possibly it would be even funnier if you were a sports fan. With two short series it emulates the UK sitcom format, and it ends before it gets stale or the plots get too ludicrous. A very atypical US sitcom and one that ought to translate really well to a UK audience even though it’s nominally about baseball.
Arrested Development is probably the greatest US sitcom around and for a few years it was conspicuous in being pretty much the only US sitcom to cram every minute of it’s running time with actual, genuine, laugh-out-loud jokes. The only problem with Arrested Development is that they blew it with the third season that – despite never feeling that bad – somehow sours the memory of the whole show. It’s just worse somehow, like something was missing. Or maybe it was just that the whole Mr F. storyline felt tacky and really – despite the fact that Henry Winkler literally jumped a shark earlier in the show, this season was when the shark was metaphorically jumped. Regardless of this though, Arrested Development is still the first US sitcom you should watch because the first two seasons are the cleverest, sharpest and best scripted comedy that I have seen. Along with Alan Partridge, this is my favourite comedy series of all time and space.
So close. Party Down is so close to getting it right. It’s a sharp comedy in the style of Arrested Development, with some clever jokes, risqué humour and wit. It’s about a team of party caterers (none of whom really can be bothered) and each episode revolves around catering a different party from weddings to porn awards – it’s a premise with potential. It has some interesting characters like Roman who is very deadpan and obsessed with hard sci-fi. It’s got all the right elements that should have made it a success, but unfortunately I think it just doesn’t take enough risks. It seems to flip-flop between wanting to be like Arrested Development and wanting to be unthreatening television wallpaper like Parks And Recreation. As a result it just feels a bit disappointing. There are some great moments like this scene:
Unfortunately they are too few and far between. A good gift for: fans of Parks and Recreation; fans of hard sci-fi; fans of pornstars; failed actors; caterers.
This is basically a British sitcom just with funny accents. Short seasons (the creators pulled the plug before it jumped the shark), deadpan, self-deprecating and very, very funny. Oh except it has singing in it which is probably the New Zealand influence, I can only assume they are all singing over there. The fact that there are comparatively so few episodes when compared to a lot of the other shows here, and that every episode is of a very high quality with no fillers or boring episodes means that it is one of those rare things – an untarnished comedy gem. Like Alan Partridge. And that’s about as high praise as you can get. Good gift for: anyone that hasn’t seen it – I’m sure most fans of comedy have seen it by now; hipsters; music lovers; musical lovers (these are very different things); fans of British comedy; fans of New Zealand comedy.
Another show that is not exactly a comedy. It’s very dry, deadpan and understated and will instantly remind you of very hip films like I Heart Huckabees or anything by Wes Anderson. It’s also very clever – full of literary references. It’s probably a bit too clever for me, or at least I am not sure I am the target audience exactly. I mean, I get their little jokes, but sometimes I just like it when people fall over. Oh and Ted Danson is in it as some rich guy that runs a magazine I think, but is mainly just a rich guy in an expensive suit. He smokes weed and drinks wine like everyone else here, and makes very dry observations about life that generally include references to Proust or Jim Jarmusch. I enjoyed it but I think I would appreciate it more if I was a struggling artist living in New York. Good gift for; sophisticated people; authors, fans of Raymond Chandler, ex-hippy liberal stoners; people with therapists.