The list of Netflix’s most watched shows is telling. Despite the hundreds of thousands of hours of new, cutting-edge material available on the King Kong of streamers, what shows come up as the most watched?
Sitcoms. And nothing new. Old stuff, like Seinfeld and The Office. Why, with so much new available at our fingertips, do we revert to tried-and-true, know-every-line sitcoms?
Everyone loves a good sitcom, and right now sitcoms are at a creative nadir. When bland pablum like Abbott Elementary and Ted Lasso are hailed as the best on TV, you know that TV comedy is in a bad way. The streaming services have yet to crack the sitcom nut, resorting to reboots of old (and usually not very good) series, aimed at nostalgic Gen Z types. With so little new stuff to watch, viewers return, again and again, to Jerry and Elaine and Michael and Pam.
But there are other gems out there; you just have to know where to find them.
When I piggybacked on a friend’s Disney+ subscription, I wasn’t optimistic. I’m in my 60s (actually on the later side), long out of the child rearing years, so I thought I would have no use for Disney+. But it turns out that Disney+ is a repository of some of the best sitcoms of the 2000s. It is home to the underrated King of the Hill, the adults-only Everything’s Sunny in Philadelphia and the criminally short-lived Party Down, not to mention the entire Simpsons catalogue. That’s enough to make Disney+, in my view, the go-to streaming service for comedy.
And then there are the following four shows that you might have seen and forgotten, or never got around to seeing at all, that are still fresh and very funny.
Futurama, Matt Groening’s follow-up to The Simpsons, is the cartoon that won’t die. Debuting in 1999, this wildly imaginative comedy debuted on Fox, was canceled after three years, came back for three movie-length specials, and returned in 2010 on Comedy Central before being canceled in 2013. The future adventures of loser Phillip Fry a thousand years in the future is frequently every bit as good as The Simpsons. Caution: the movie-length episodes, divided into three half-hour episodes on Disney+, simply do not work. Just skip them and go ahead to the Comedy Central episodes. (Oh, and by the way, Futurama is coming back for another wild ride sometime this year on Disney+.)
Malcolm in the Middle was one of the great comedies of the 2000s. The story of genius Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), his economically struggling parents (mother Jane Kaczmarek and pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston) and his three brothers was, like Roseanne, a rare comedy to deal with a family on the lower end of the economic spectrum. It went on for six seasons and 151 episodes, and until the regrettable last season it remained terrifically funny and human.
My Name is Earl (2005-2009) was the first of two brilliant shows from creator Greg Garcia that featured Americans on the lower-end of working life. Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is an amiable loser, petty criminal and grifter who, after suffering a near-death experience after winning $100,000, discovers karma and sets out to right his wrongs. Helping out is his dim-bulb brother (Ethan Suplee), sharp-tongued ex-wife Joy (Jamie Presley) and a crew of delightful eccentrics. During its 96-episode run, Earl made dead-on parodies of true crime shows (Inside Probe, Cops) and retained its quality throughout. The fourth season ended with a cliffhanger that was never resolved; NBC unexpectedly cancelled the show.
Raising Hope (2010-2014) was Garcia’s next creation, another series focusing on struggling lower-middle class folks. The premise is even weirder than My Name is Earl. Dim loser Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) impregnates a woman during a one-night stand. Turns out she was a serial killer who is eventually executed, forcing Jimmy and his parents, malaprop-prone mom Virginia (hilarious Martha Plimpton) and struggling lawn maintenance guy Burt (Garret Dillahunt) to raise the baby. Along for the ride is loopy Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman, in her late career prime). Wonderfully funny and sweet without being saccharine, Raising Hope lasted just four seasons and 88 episodes, and it’s a gem. Like Earl, it occasionally veered into parody episodes, most notably with a spot-on takeoff of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
So there you go. Four series, more than 450 episodes of quality sitcom hijinks. And as a bonus – no laugh tracks!
Maurice Tougas describes himself as “an Edmonton-born and raised TV addict,” and claims he was his family’s “walking TV listing back in the three-channel universe.” He’s also a retired, award-winning journalist. I first encountered Maurice when he was editor of Alberta Prime Times. He asked me to contribute a TV column there; happy to continue our association. Look for him to unearth more “hidden TV gems” here at brioux.tv.
When I took my laptop into my local computer shop to get fixed, Malcolm in the Middle was showing on the screen overhead and all three young techs were watching it and laughing. When I went back three days later the series was still running! Not sure how those guys got any work done, but at least my laptop was repaired.