It’s “The Simpsons” week at The A.V. Club, but Homer and Marge only managed the number two spot on their list of the best sitcom episodes of the past 25 years. The list was published in two parts this week (part 1, part 2), and “Seinfeld’s” “The Chinese Restaurant” was selected as the top pick. Here’s the top ten:
1. “The Chinese Restaurant” (“Seinfeld”)
2. “Marge vs. the Monorail” (“The Simpsons”)
3. “The Dinner Party” (“The Office” U.S.)
4. “Remedial Chaos Theory” (“Community”)
5. “Pier Pressure” (“Arrested Development”)
6. “Complaint Box” (“NewsRadio”)
7. “Training” (“The Office” U.K.)
8. “Rosemary’s Baby” (“30 Rock”)
9. “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (“Party Down”)
10. “The One with the Embryos” (“Friends”)
Here’s Erik Adams on “The Chinese Restaurant,” which he says “helped define the sitcom for the next 25 years”:
“The Chinese Restaurant” isn’t a typical “Seinfeld” installment—for one thing, Michael Richards’ Kramer is nowhere to be seen—but it did set the standard by which all subsequent episodes of the show would be judged. Within the real-time playlet that strands the increasingly desperate Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and George (Jason Alexander) in a crowded dim sum waiting area, Seinfeld and Larry David’s “show about nothing” suddenly snaps into place. The episode was a notorious headache for NBC executives, who balked at the plotless script and pushed “The Chinese Restaurant” deep into “Seinfeld’s “season-two broadcast order. Subtle tweaks provided personal stakes for the central trio—George is waiting on an important phone call, Jerry’s anxious to get to a screening of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Elaine is just ravenously hungry—but the audacity of the original concept shines through, elevating mundane annoyances and indignities to theater of the absurd.
“Seinfeld” is still enjoying reruns and finding new fans years later, but kudos to the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray for highlighting “NewsRadio,” a great show that didn’t find a big audience in its day and deserves more than a few passionate devotees.
Here’s how in the zone “NewsRadio” was in its third season: In “Complaint Box,” the writers take a simple, silly idea—“What if WNYX had a complaint box?”—and spin it into sublime farce, by having the employees harass news director Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) by stuffing the box with fake complaints, with each bogus claim setting off a little offscreen buzzer. It all culminates in one of the most memorable “NewsRadio” scenes, in which Dave gathers the staff and reads aloud all of their joke cards—along with one real one from Milos, the janitor. (“I try to be good hard worker man, but refrigemator so messy, so so messy.”) And yet the complaint box isn’t even the funniest part of this episode, which also sees station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root) telecommuting, with his disembodied voice coming out of an adorable little portable speaker. The 1990s were awash in workplace sitcoms, but “NewsRadio” was one of the few to embrace the inherent absurdity of the entire genre, and was the absolute best at using the limited space of the TV screen, often by stripping elements away and finding the humor in their absence.
More cult shows got shoutouts outside of the top ten, from “Better Off Ted” to Edgar Wright’s “Spaced,” which gets a write-up from Vikram Murthi.
A lo-fi series with hi-fi ambition, “Spaced” was never content with being just a hangout sitcom. Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ story of two slackers who view the world through the lens of pop culture was elevated to surreal heights by Edgar Wright’s stylized direction, allowing the series to move far beyond the trappings of its modest premise. “Gone” captures “Spaced’s” sensibilities at its best: A simple story of two friends going out to the pub is heightened by the ominous presence of a youth street gang desperate for the pair’s bag of marijuana. Structurally complex and visually engaging, “Gone” remarkably still retains the shaggy rhythms of a night out on the town, even though it’s punctuated with mimed gun battles set to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings.” Most importantly, “Gone” showcases “Spaced’s” ability to deftly move between tones, with muted moments sitting comfortably next to silly, action-packed ones all strung together by Wright’s visual signatures—quick cuts, whip pans, and frequent close-ups. It’s how “Spaced” can open an episode with a showdown on a dark, empty street, and close it with a group of friends, stoned out of their heads, watching the television.
The test of a good list is how well a writer argues for a show you don’t like. I’m not much of a fan of “Friends,” but Joshua Alston makes a good case for “The One with the Embryos.”
For all but the most enthusiastic “Friends” fans, it’s hard to remember which episode “The One With The Embryos” is, or what makes it the show’s best. Blame the misleading title, which refers to Phoebe’s efforts to get impregnated with her brother’s baby. (It’s not like that, though Giovanni Ribisi gives a great line reading that makes it sound so.) The real action is back at Monica and Rachel’s apartment—or rather, Monica and Rachel’s soon-to-be former apartment, an outcome they don’t anticipate when they challenge Chandler and Joey to a personal trivia contest with the fate of their living arrangements (and that of two farm birds) hanging in the balance. Monica’s fiercely competitive streak is the engine in some of “Friends’” finest moments (“The One With The Ball” also comes to mind), but never more than in “Embryos.” The only thing funnier than the fast-paced trivia questions—“He’s a transponster!”—is Monica’s banshee wail when she realizes they lost.
Finally, the A.V. Club also gave their writers some space to name some personal favorites that missed the main list. Here’s Josh Modell on the “Extras” David Bowie episode.
In our collective fit to crown “The Office” (U.K.) the king of television, I think we (as a species) were a little let down by Ricky Gervais’ follow-up, “Extras.” But there are a handful of “Extras” episodes that can stand as tall and proud as any David Brent moment. The most memorable of the series—just behind Patrick Stewart’s moment as a gleeful perv—is the episode that guest stars and takes its name from David Bowie. It’s from the second season, and Gervais’ character has had some mainstream success by becoming at least some of the things he hates: He’s beloved for catchphrases and general goofiness, but not what he believes is his true essence. When he happens upon Bowie at a bar, the Thin White Duke composes a brutal song about Gervais: “He sold his soul for a shot at fame / Catchphrase and wigs and the jokes are lame.” It’s the most brutal, hilarious moment in Gervais’ career, and that’s saying something.