The Playlist’s brief flirtation with television continues… Yesterday, we dipped our toe into the murky waters of the debate around whether the quality of television has now surpassed that of contemporary film (conclusion: it’s a silly question), and now, as the TV season wraps up this week, we’re examining the evidence, the shows that keep The Playlist team going on weekends when movie theaters are bereft of anything that doesn’t insult our intelligence.
We’ve tried to include a bit of everything: comedy, drama, science-fiction and everything in between, reflecting the taste of our hive mind. But there’s some obvious absences, as you’ll see. For one, we’ve tried to keep it to shows that aired in the tradition September-May TV season, excluding the likes of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” which aired a year ago, but would otherwise be nestling in the other reaches.
We’ve also tried to keep it to shows that might have slipped under your radar: no show on this list attracts blockbuster viewings, even if some are hits on their own channels. You won’t agree, necessarily, but there’ll be at least one show here that you haven’t seen, and it’s worth hitting the Netflix or Hulus of the world, or seeking out a DVD boxset, when you’re sick of blockbusters over the summer months. If nothing else, it’s proof that there’s as much giant talent finding homes in television as there is in the cinema. Check the list out after the jump.
10. “Bored to Death“
On paper, “Bored to Death” seems like a show that, even on specialty cable, would have a very limited appeal. The series, created by New York writer Jonathan Ames, centers on a version of himself (played by Jason Schwartzman) who is plagued with writer’s block and decides to become an amateur private investigator to make ends meet. Already, it sounds like the very kind of precious, insular, navel gazing and specifically New York-set show that would appeal only to New Yorker subscribers living on the Upper West Side. But alas, “Bored to Death” is hugely entertaining, both cleverly witty and broadly hilarious, with an allure that goes far beyond Ames’ Brooklyn area code.The set-up of the series has Ames solving a different mystery each week. He gets his clients from ads he places on Craigslist but he’s usually not alone in getting to the bottom of the case. Outside of “Parks and Recreation,” we can’t think of another comedy with as solid a supporting cast/ensemble as “Bored to Death.” Along for the ride is Zach Galifianakis, in what is arguably a performance even better than his non-sequitur driven ‘Hangover‘ turns. He plays Ray, an aspiring comic book artist who is struggling in his relationship with his girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns). But the series MVP belongs solely to Ted Danson as George, the vain, pot-smoking editor of “Edition” magazine and Ames’ best friend. Danson has never been better, riffing on the persona of the New York intellectual that those outside the states can easily identify. A program based on the New York intelligentsia runs the risk of being completely alienating, but “Bored to Death” reveals them to be filled with the same insecurities as the rest of the us, and it creates generous amount of laughs. Running two seasons now, “Bored to Death” has attracted an impressive array of guest spots from folks like Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Olivia Thirlby, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and even, memorably, Jim Jarmusch, and with good reason: it’s simply one of the best comedies on television. The first two seasons are already on DVD so instead of seeing the disappointing “The Hangover 2” this weekend, we’d recommend a “Bored to Death” marathon that will bring you up to speed when season three hits later this year.
Must-See Episode: “The Case of The Grievous Clerical Error” has all the show’s great strengths in evidence, plus more full-on emotion than any other episode, with Danson’s George being diagnosed with prostate cancer and forced to confront his mortality, while blending the storylines perfectly.
9. “Doctor Who”
Where to begin with “Doctor Who”? No, really: where to begin? This BBC standard can seem more than a little overwhelming and off-putting at first with hundreds of episodes spanning six decades. Ten actors have come and gone as the title character, with a lanky, bow-tie-wearing bloke (Matt Smith) currently occupying the eleventh spot. Only children would be swayed by its sometimes gleefully low-budget special effects. Plus, it’s just frakking weird. But this season (and the previous one that introduced Smith in the role) is a semi-reboot, the perfect place for would-be fans to start. Tenth Doctor David Tennant is a fan favorite, and ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston brought a bit more darkness to the role, but we’ve come to love the charm of the eleventh Doctor and his two companions, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Davill). For the uninitiated, “Doctor Who” follows a centuries-old Time Lord as he bounces through the universe–and beyond–in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space). He appears human, but he’s as alien as they come, boasting a millennium’s worth of experience and wisdom behind his 20-something face. He jumps everywhere from a 29th-century space ship to a 17th-century pirate ship, solving problems and fighting aliens, armed with his trusty Sonic Screwdriver and joined by his companions. Even though the show is called “Doctor Who,” the crush-worthy Amy and and ever-devoted Rory lie at the series’ heart with one of TV’s most believable, affecting romances. “Doctor Who” is undeniably science fiction with all the hallmarks of the genre (and we’re admittedly pretty geeky), but at its best, it’s the best kind of idea-driven sci-fi, far more intriguing than most big-screen examples, which tend to be action movies in disguise. Showrunner Steven Moffat (writer of Spielberg’s upcoming “The Adventures of Tintin”) was behind most of the best episodes of the Eccleston/Tennant era, and he’s brought new ambition to the show now that he’s in charge, aided by intricate season-long macroplots that make the show more compelling than ever. It’s enjoyably silly at times — and done perfectly by the affable Smith, who like Tennant, seems destined to be a giant movie star when he leaves the show — but that’s nicely balanced by moments so heartbreaking you’ll bawl and ones so dark they seem to be made entirely of your worst nightmares.
Must-See Episode: Moffat’s “Blink” is the perfect entry point for newcomers, featuring an early starring role for Carey Mulligan, and introducing some terrifying new villains while standing alone from the show’s mythology. But, of the more recent era, “The Doctor’s Wife,” penned by sci-fi legend Neil Gaiman and featuring a villainous vocal turn from Michael Sheen, is a real classic, showcasing everything that the show does so well: terror, tears, big ideas and laughter.
It’s incredibly difficult to talk about “Fringe” and what it means in the scope of primetime television today. It began with major hype, touted as a J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi special way back in 2008 when it premiered (to pretty large numbers), but the first-season wasn’t great, mostly feeling like a freak-of-the-week “X-Files” rip-off. Since then, those numbers have dwindled dramatically, even as it’s gotten bolder and better, so much so that when it was renewed for a fourth season recently, viewers were shocked. What’s “Fringe” all about? Well, that’s exactly the problem. It’s an incredibly serialized, yet somewhat procedural show about FBI agent Olivia Dunham (the really excellent Anna Torv) and her mad scientist father-son pair Peter and Walter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson and John Noble, respectively). These three investigate so-called fringe incidents; for those in the dark, supernatural and unexplained coincidences. It gets even weirder for those who stick with it as the science fiction quotient has recently been upped exponentially with Olivia and the Bishops finding ways into an (wonderfully-imagined) alternate universe and revealing plans for war between the two universes. Throw in some doppelgangers, shapeshifters and pseudo-science speak, and it’s easy to see why most people would ignore this totally weird show. Those people should reconsider because “Fringe” is telling stories unlike any other on television and, at the same time, reaching emotional beats that others are not. It might not make sense at first — one of the downsides to the show is that you’ll have to start from the beginning, and slog through that inconsistent first season — but you won’t regret starting up. And some of the formal stuff is the most surprising around: few other shows have the balls to do a noir-ish musical episode, or an episode that’s partially animated in a “Scanner Darkly” style, or spend a handful of episodes with its lead character possessed by the soul of Leonard Nimoy, complete with pitch-perfect impression. Only “Fringe,” for sure. Although fans need those ratings up to get a fifth season, as “Fringe” has been stuck in the Friday night death slot come fall.
Must-See Episode: The beautifully directed, heartbreaking “Subject 13,” entirely set in flashback, showing that the paths of star-crossed, universe-jumping lovers Peter and Olivia have been entwined for longer than previously believed.
Led by the killer comedy ensemble of Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs, Joel McHale, Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown, NBC‘s “Community” follows an ostensibly mismatched study group who, due to variously flawed pasts, find themselves attending the most mediocre of community colleges, Greendale. Originally formed as a defense against diabolical Professor Chang (a truly unhinged Ken Jeong), the little faction find solidarity in each other as they navigate relationships, life lessons and the other student misfits that make up the Greendale student body. But to put a twist on what sounds like melodramatic ’90s fare, each episode takes cues from, or in some cases takes down, a different genre or television trope. The show reaches for such ridiculously high concepts and levels of self-awareness — their recent “clip” episode (a popular sitcom go-to, rehashing moments from stories already aired) was made entirely of new clips from episodes that were never actually episodes — that it’s hilarious. And a lot of fun. The appeal of “Community” definitely comes from its subtleties (or perhaps the chance to see McHale and Glover shirtless), as well as side jokes for viewers that are paying attention: in an episode last fall, resident geek Abed befriends a pregnant student, gets in a tiff with her boyfriend, then helps deliver her baby in the back of a station wagon, all nearly imperceptibly in the background of other scenes. But the show’s not without heart, and the “Community” writers still manage to find a saving grace in each of these weirdos and the relationships they forage that will keep you hoping they figure things out — the depths, and occasional darkness, in the characters are continually surprising. While not every experiment-in-genre nails it — in the latest season, the best episodes were classics, but there were perhaps more weaker episodes at the other extreme — the highs are good enough to make up for the lows. The layers upon layers of this one make it best to start from the beginning, so we recommend you do some Netflixing, so you’ll be amply prepared when Season 3 hits this fall.
Must-See Episode: Presently available for free on Hulu is the two part season finale, “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For A Few Paintballs More.” A return to the concept that produced one of the best episodes of the first season, the school finds itself yet again in an epic paintball fight to the finish, this time with a Western flair and then in part two, as an homage to “Star Wars.” But once again, there’s also a flurry of ace jokes, and a beating heart in the conclusion as well. This was tricky, though: the show had as many five-star episodes as any on this list, so “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Epidemiology 206,” “Mixology Certification,” “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “Cooperative Calligraphy” were all outstanding, and all worth watching.
6. “Eastbound & Down”
“Eastbound & Down” was conceived in a kiddie pool by filmmaking alums Ben Best, Jody Hill (“Observe and Report”) and Danny McBride, who also stars. After working together on their breakout comedy “The Foot Fist Way,” they got the attention of partners in comedy Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who signed on to produce ‘Eastbound’ for HBO. The series centers around Kenny Powers, an egotistical, mullet-sporting ex-major league pitcher who spent his earnings on coke and steroids and burnt bridges everywhere he went. Powers finds himself washed up, homeless, broke and alone in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina. Dirty, dark hilarity ensues as Powers tries to reconcile his hometown self, the sports star he became and whatever shit is happening now. Powers is the show, his obnoxious and self centered antics as he strives for his comeback tempered with the occasional self revelation: an ‘awwwww’ for every ‘ewwwww.’ “Eastbound & Down” is shot like a three hour movie, with each 30-minute episode picking up where the last one left off, making it seem like a better quality version of a summer comedy jam. Except every time you think Powers has had a touching yet uncharacteristic change of heart, Hollywood style, he turns around and punches you in the gut, seemingly just for laughs, making him one of the most surprisingly complex characters around. Of course, a comedy as boorishly boundary pushing as “Eastbound & Down” isn’t going to be for everyone, although the 1.7 million viewers for the second season opener almost tripled that of the first. This snowballing of viewers is likely indebted to the cult following of the first season, and the release of it on DVD prior to the second season airing. The decision in the 2nd season to leave North Carolina for Mexico and with it most of the first season characters behind ensured that “Eastbound & Down” wasn’t retreading the same “coming home” material, and helped keep it fresh. Fortunately, they’ve kept the essential ingredients — a Kenny Powers in crisis, the same down-and-out asshole trying to make good – and the killer soundtrack, including the awesome Freddie King classic “Goin’ Down” for the titles. The season ended with Kenny Powers looking down the barrel of parenthood, and Season 3 is likely to be the show’s last according to McBride — last chance to say you saw it when it was first on.
Must-Watch Episode: “Chapter 6” — The first season finale sees it all come together and fall apart again for Kenny Powers, features the typical Hollywood ending speech ‘EB&D’ style, a cameo by Adam Scott and the whole thing plays like a crass comedy take on “Five Easy Pieces.”
5. “Game of Thrones“
The youngest show on this list, only six episodes into a ten-episode first season (a second was commissioned almost immediately), we weren’t initially sure about placing the show on this list — it’s not always fair to judge a show, particularly one as plot-driven as “Game of Thrones,” until it’s finished with its run. But HBO‘s latest epic, an adaptation of a mammoth series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, has overcome a slightly slow start to become one of the most compelling dramas on television. Set in the semi-medieval kingdom of Westeros, where the appointment of the honorable Ned Stark (Sean Bean) as the right hand man of the king sets into motion a terrible series of events, there’s nothing with the scope or ambition of this show on television now, or possibly ever. Fantasy-phobics should rest assured that there’s little in the way of goblins and trolls — the back-stabbing and political machinations have more in common with “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood” than with “Lord of the Rings.” Considering the sheer number of characters involved (there’s at least 20 major characters involved), the storytelling, courtesy of showrunners David Benioff (Spike Lee‘s “25th Hour“) and D.B. Weiss, has been clear and well-executed. And the cast, including veterans like Bean, Mark Addy (“Red Riding“), Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent“), Lena Headey (“300“) and Aidan Gillen (“The Wire“), and newcomers like Emilia Clarke, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Maisie Wililams, Kit Harington and Gethin Anthony, have been exemplary so far. The plotting is terrific and genuinely unpredictable, and, it being on HBO, there’s the usual lashings of swearing, nudity and extreme violence (last week’s episode featured an unexpected and horrific death for a character who looked to be in it for the long-haul). Whether it can sustain the quality is another question, but we’re dying to see where it goes from here, and we suspect the ever-growing audience is with us.
Must-See Episode: A tie between the last two to air — “The Wolf and the Lion,” which features horse decapitation and the introduction of the barking mad Lisa Arryn (played by Kate Dickie, the star of Andrea Arnold‘s “Red Road“) and her even crazier son, and “The Golden Crown,” one of the most thunderingly-paced episodes of television we’ve seen, topped off by the aforementioned gruesome death.
While “Justified” doesn’t really need your help with numbers — it’s one of the most-viewed shows on FX — you should be watching simply because it’s a great show, not quite like anything else on air. Based on an Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole” and lining up with “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” as the best adaptations of the crime great’s work, the show focuses on Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). He’s returned to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, where old blood ties and family feuds await…not to mention a ton of trouble involving women, including his ex-wife, drugs, murder and a couple of well-placed explosions. Olyphant does terrific work (truly his best) with an amazing supporting cast, especially the work done by Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, the eternally ambiguous ally/antagonist to Raylan’s lawman ways. While “Justified” really gears itself towards male adult viewers, there’s plenty for anyone who enjoys a bit of intrigue and action — it’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows around. Most importantly though, the show combines Leonard’s heightened, character-ful prose with an honest, truthful portrayal of life in Appalachia. For example, when Boyd gets shot in the chest early in the first season and survives, we’re appalled that these things happen; but, as the show continues, we begin to see that this “shoot first, ask later” philosophy is just the way things are done (especially for the trigger-happy Raylan). The show just wrapped its second season, which was more than reminiscent of Oscar-nominee “Winter’s Bone,” featuring an astonishing performance by veteran actress Margo Martindale, with a quick renewal for a third, and has really hit its stride in terms of character development and high-octane action without missing a beat the entire time.
Must-See Episode: While we have a soft spot for the season one episode featuring Alan Ruck as a violent dentist, this season’s “Brother’s Keeper” is the apex of the show so far: Martindale’s character Mags Bennett’s cunning scheme is finally unveiled, just as her son Coover (a tremendous Brad William Henke) heads towards tragedy.
There are some people who love Louis C.K. so much that they’ll cachinnate if they overhear him ordering room service; but even they had no idea how absolutely brilliant his show would be. After a failed attempt at heading a crass sitcom, C.K. returned to the tube with an unprecedented deal — the comedian would have complete control and no network influence, plus he would be allowed to write, direct, edit, and act in a half-hour program for FX. Something like this should lead to a vain disaster, but it doesn’t. Personal but relatable, self-deprecating yet always humorous, “Louie” follows the titular character after a nasty divorce and his subsequent rediscovery of life at age 40. Very generally, it follows the “Seinfeld” template — he’s a comedian, and padding the show’s vignettes is intimate stand-up footage. But the comedian is going at this more like a filmmaker, with each half feeling like a complete short. Scenes are often blocked in one take, various scenarios tend to go a completely different route than expected, and the tone is always being experimented with, usually arriving at a variation of “uncomfortable.” Subjects range from Louie being bullied by a high school jock (who he then follows home in a long, no-dialogue sequence set to manic jazz) to his fifth-grade self dealing with Catholicism and the confusion of faith. Season 1 whizzes by like nothing but will also leave a solid impression with its form and poignancy — thankfully the director understands that you can be funny and have substance at the same time. Season 2 starts in a few weeks, and we can’t wait.
Must-See Episode: Hard to pick, but “God” is perhaps the best example of the way C.K. expertly blends big, important themes (in this case, as you might imagine, god and religion) with dick jokes. Plus it has a great performance from the always-wonderful Tom Noonan.
Judging by the ratings, which never topped a million viewers after the pilot, you didn’t watch “Terriers,” a private-eye show on FX from “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan and “Ocean’s Eleven” scribe Ted Griffin. And in a way, we don’t blame you. The title and marketing were baffling, the biggest star was schlubby sitcom veteran Donal Logue, and the premise — an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic with ex-wife problems works as an unlicensed private detective in Ocean Beach, California, with a former burglar — couldn’t have been more generic if it tried. Unfortunately for you, “Terriers” was simply fantastic, and it’s now been canceled. The show, which co-starred “True Blood“‘s Michael Raymond-James, Laura Allen, Kimberly Quinn and Rockmond Dunbar, started modestly, but soon rolled out a corruption-tinged plot of massive depth and complexity, one that the best neo-noirs would be proud of. It had consistently unpredictable one-off storylines (the one that guest-starred Olivia Williams is a particular favorite), possibly the best theme tune ever, and a hugely impressive line-up of directors, including Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow“), John Dahl (“The Last Seduction“), Clark Johnson (“The Wire“) and even Rian Johnson (“Brick“). But more importantly, it expertly juggled a mix of tones, and it did what the best TV does: took its flawed, rough-around-the-edges heroes, made you fall in love with them, and then put them through the ringer with a series of truly wrenching plot twists. Its 13 episodes were positively stuffed with heartbreak. It may have been sadly canceled (and, right now, it’s not even scheduled for a DVD release), but it also means that it joins the likes of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Firefly” as untouched one season-wonders.
Must-See Episode: “Asunder,” an atypical episode which sees the heroes holed up in a hotel at which the ex-wife of Hank (Logue) is about to get married, a wedding that eventually has rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest consequences for his partner Britt (Raymond-James).
1. “Parks and Recreation“
Originally envisioned as a spin-off of NBC‘s most successful comedy, “The Office,” and undoubtedly a kind of spiritual successor (it uses the same mock-documentary, talking-head filled format), “Parks and Recreation” had a fairly unpromising first six-episode season. It wasn’t bad — the cast, including Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones and Paul Schneider, were too talented for that — but it was a little awkward, a show visibly trying to work out what it wanted to be. But it hit the ground running in its second season, and for its recently-completed third, it managed that rarest of TV feats, pitching a no-hitter, pulling off 16 excellent half-hours without a weak episode. The sitcom, which focuses on a government branch in Pawnee, Indiana, has essentially become the closest thing we have to a live-action “Simpsons,” creating a living, breathing world populated with dozens of gut-busting recurring characters, most notably the Vince Vaughn-loving douchebag prince Jean-Ralphio, local TV anchor Perd Hapley, and iPod/vacuum cleaner hybrid DJ Roomba. New additions, namely “Party Down” refugee Adam Scott and Rob Lowe (never better than he is here) have bolstered the cast, and those that survive have settled beautifully into their parts. In particular, in Nick Offerman, as man’s man Ron Swanson, and Chris Pratt, as the boundlessly enthusiastic Andy, it has secret comedic weapons powerful enough to form the basis of the invasion of a Middle-Eastern country. But what really separates it from the rest is its big, beating heart: it’s a show that loves and cares about every one of its characters, who love and care about each other. If its fourth season can keep it up, it’ll cement its place in the hall of fame.
Must-Watch Episode: “Fancy Party,” which sees Andy and nihilistic receptionist April impulsively tie the knot. It was a bold move, but the hilarious, touching episode entirely justified what could have been a ratings-chasing move. Plus it featured an absolutely lovely use of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “April Come She Will.”
Honorable Mentions: It speaks to the strength of the work being produced on the small screen these days that we easily could have run a list twice as long, and there’s some tremendous shows that, for one reason or another, we couldn’t fit in. AMC‘s duo of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are among the best dramas being produced in any medium, but both last aired in the summer of 2010, so it was just too far away for our list, aside from the fact that both have already been praised to the skies in every quarter (the same goes for “Party Down,” which aired its second and, sadly, final season a year ago). Still, if for some reason you’ve yet to get involved, now is the time: “Breaking Bad” airs its fourth season in July while “Mad Men” will return at the beginning of 2012.
Todd Haynes‘ “Mildred Pierce” was also an amazing piece of work (arguably Haynes’ best work to date), but it almost feels like a movie more than it does a TV series, with a limited five-episode run, so we left it out: but rest assured, this won’t be the last time you’ll hear about it on The Playlist. In terms of recent drama, two other shows on AMC, “The Killing” and “Rubicon” just missed out, the former a supremely detailed police procedural, the latter a tortuously complex homage to a ’70s conspiracy thriller, sadly canceled just as it started to hit its groove at the end of the first season. Both are worth catching up on, though (although not to be that guy, but the Danish original of “The Killing” is far superior to the remake, particularly if “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has given you the taste for Scandinavian murder). The channel also hosts “The Walking Dead,” from “Shawshank Redemption” writer-director Frank Darabont, and, while occasionally over-laden with the tropes of the zombie genre, gives it a freshness by using longer-form TV storytelling to flesh out its characters and its situations.
Cable also hosts some bigger-name shows that, while incredibly strong, didn’t quite live up to the hype. There’s a lot to love about Martin Scorsese‘s “Boardwalk Empire,” but it hasn’t quite nestled in the memory like some other dramas, despite a storming central performance from Steve Buscemi — we’ll see if the second season raises things up. Similarly, David Simon‘s “The Wire” follow-up, New Orleans ensemble-drama “Treme” had sky-high expectations and didn’t quite meet them — it’s even less accessible than its predecessor, and occasionally feels a little aimless. But at its best, it packs just as much of a punch as the best shows here, and the second season has been a marked improvement. Finally, we’re yet to watch it ourselves, but FX’s boxing drama “Lights Out” gained more and more advocates as it went along, although it wasn’t enough to keep the show from being canceled.
The BBC’s “Sherlock” was inconsistent — one great episode, one good episode and one bad — but it has a great central pairing in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, it’s truer to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle than Guy Ritchie‘s big-screen take, and when it works, it really, really works. A second three-episode run is on the way in the fall. The British Idris Elba vehicle “Luther” is also ballsier than most police dramas, even if it descends into silliness in places, while the currently-airing Chiwetel Ejiofor starrer “The Shadow Line” has divided critics, but it’s intrigued us enough to make sure we’ll tune in for the whole run.
The networks have just as much quality drama as well, with “Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood” and “The Chicago Code” all having their fans, although perhaps the best, and a show that only just missed our list, is “The Good Wife” — a twisty, morally ambiguous legal drama with a tremendous depiction of Chicago politics and a raft of fine performances from the likes of Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Alan Cumming and Archie Panjabi.
If anything, comedy is in a stronger place than drama. “30 Rock,” for instance, came off a dip in its fourth season to return to its best in its fifth, frequently packing more laughs into its half-hour than any other show around. “Modern Family” is the rare show that’s both a ratings monster and a critical hit, and pulled off a strong second season, even if it didn’t quite match the first. FX’s “Archer” is something of a favorite in these parts too. It might be an R-rated cartoon, but who knew R-rated cartoons would be so good? Where else could you laugh so hard at phrases like “Relax. It was just cancer sex.”? Only a hypersexual international spy star could get away with such a line — and only a show as consistently darkly funny as “Archer,” would it not be out of place. “Archer” also manages to not just be all over the top plotwise, though they have an utter disregard for time with the 1950s fashion, 1980s gadgetry and the continuation of the Cold War. At its best it’s the “Arrested Development” reunion everyone’s wanted, with Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor and Judy Greer all voicing characters.
“Portlandia” is another fantastic cable comedy, righteously mauling the hipster-archetype: Fixie bike riding, organic tea drinking, kale eating, feminist book-reading people rejoice (or tremble in fear of being mocked further)! The show gives SNL a good kick up the sketch writing backside — consistently funny and culturally spot-on. Featuring Fred Armisen and indie rock legend Carrie Brownstein, as well as a bunch of indie musicians and actors including Steve Buscemi, Colin Meloy and Aimee Mann. “Bob’s Burgers” has also had a strong debut season, standing head and shoulders above “The Simpsons” and the Seth MacFarlane pack in Fox’s animation line-up. The show features the voice talent of no less than H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Jon Roberts and Dan Mintz as the family behind family-owned Bob’s Burgers. Bob, the auteur of burgers, and his offbeat family spend most of their time wrestling with local competition, keeping above the red and of course, enduring annoying relatives. But the cast alone — particularly Schaal as the hilariously evil minded youngest member of Bob’s brood — is plenty reason to check this one out.
Rob Corddry‘s “Children’s Hospital” is darkly funny and cameo-packed, “Cougar Town” has overcome its unpromising premise to become one of the weirder, most character-driven shows around, and HBO’s “How To Make It In America” isn’t too ambitious, but it’s far more than the hipster “Entourage” than it seemed to be at first. Finally, the newest comedy worth looking at is yet another “Friends” rip-off, but one that’s only gotten better as the weeks go on. Breaking from the pack, it seems, is “Happy Endings” which just premiered in April and has already been picked up for a season 2. From somewhat shaky beginnings, the show has only gotten stronger, as we get to know this charming group of characters, brought to life by some solid comedic talent (we’re looking at you Adam Pally!).
— Oliver Lyttelton, Sam Chater, Cat Scott, Leah Zak, Kevin Jagernauth, Chris Bell