In the last decade the ante has been upped on both network and cable television. While channels go the cheap route of “reality” tv, they have also worked to develop higher quality scripted series. These higher quality series have a lot more in common with film, than previous television programs. They employ complex cinematography, a higher caliber of acting, and a devotion on the part of viewers to following longform story arcs, not “done in one” stand alone episodes. We’ll be looking at some of these series that have really stood out for me, starting with
Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000, created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig)
Starring Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Martin Starr, Joe Flaherty, Becky Ann Baker
This can be marked as the beginning of the Apatow movement in contemporary comedy. The series was broadcast by a less than enthused NBC, who seemed to go out of their way to air episodes out of order and move the series around the schedule without letting viewers know. The series gained a following when it was reran on Fox Family and then when it was released on DVD in the last few years. The premise follows the Weir sibling, Lindsay (the Freak) and Sam (the Geek) as they go through a year of changes in 1980. Lindsay, a straight-A student and member of the Math-letes, starts hanging out with a group of classic rock loving stoners, and Sam deals with his desire to lose his childish geek image and win the heart of his long time crush. Unlike other nostalgia based programming, there is no maudlin sentiment here. The emotions and resolutions to stories feel honest and real. Characters have parents who are incredibly flawed, and those flaws don’t go away at the end of the episode. One episode in particular deals with a cheating parent, the episode ends on a very ambiguous note. If you haven’t discovered this gem, I highly recommend you hunt it down.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present, created by Larry David)
Starring Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Featuring Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Einstein, Shelly Berman, Vivica A. Fox, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, Paul Dooley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Kaitlin Olsen, Paul Mazursky, Richard Kind, Ben Stiller, Mel Brooks
If you enjoyed Seinfeld, then Curb Your Enthusiasm will blow your mind. The neurotic basis of George Costanza, Larry David, has created a series in which he plays himself as a buffoon constantly getting into awkward situations based on the misunderstanding of other or, more often than not, David’s own hang ups about minutiae. The series is one of the few to really capture improv comedy working right. A lot of comedies have followed since and don’t seem to have actors of the high level working in them that Curb does. A typical episode of Curb might involve Larry getting into an argument with a wheelchair bound man about using the handicapped toilet stall, followed by him inadvertently insulting a lesbian receptionist about she and her partner’s desire to adopt a Chinese baby. The jokes are never played as mocking these people, but rather comes from David’s desire to see all characters, regardless of their specificities, shown as jerks. He sees that people are more or less jerks when it comes down to it, and how he plays this out is hilarious.
Arrested Development (2003-2006, created by Mitchell Hurwitz)
Starring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Ron Howard
Featuring Liza Minelli, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Winkler, Mae Whitman, Judy Greer
There has never been a more complex, layered, and enjoyable comedy on network television than Arrested Development. From the moment it debuted, Fox seemed to have little interest in it, while viewers and critics loved the hell out of this show. The premise is that George Bluth, owner of the Bluth Corporation is arrested for violating trading laws and his son, Michael finds he’s now in charge of the company and the self-absorbed and moronic family around him. Every actor is bringing their A game here, and the casting is spot on. There are no other actors who could play this character so over the top and still be endearing. The series also incorporates a large number of cameos and employs many of the players from HBO’s Mr. Show (Cross was one of the creators of that skit comedy series). Since the cancellation of series, network television comedy has never seemed as promising to me. A featuring film continuing the adventures of the Bluth family is in the works and set to be released next year, here’s hoping it can live up to the series.
Eastbound and Down (2009 – present, created by Jody Hill)
Starring Danny McBride, Andrew Daly, John Hawkes, Katy Mixon, Ben Best, Jennifer Irwin
Featuring Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson
From the minds behind The Foot Fist Way and Observe & Report, comes this amazing HBO comedy series. Kenny Powers, a blatant parody of ignorant, racist Atlanta Brave John Rocker, is thrown out of Major League Baseball after being caught using steroids. He returns to his hometown in North Carolina where he becomes a substitute PE teacher at the same middle school his high school sweetheart works at. Kenny goes about abusing the hospitality of his brother and family, treating the middle school principal like a jerk, and ingesting an unhealthy amount of drugs. The highlight of the series comes when Kenny deals with local car dealer Ashley Schaeffer (Ferrell) which culminates in an insane pitching demonstration. The entire first season plays out like an extended movie, with a series finale that could serve as a perfect ending.
Bored to Death (2009 – present, created by Jonathan Ames)
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson
Featuring Olivia Thirlby, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, Bebe Neuwirth, Jenny Slate
This HBO series is a sort of comedic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel. Schwartzman playing a writer named Jonathan Ames (meta, eh?), loses his girlfriend and out of boredom posts a craiglist ad as an unlicensed private eye. He begins to get cases and finds himself getting caught up in the fun of it. He typically incorporates his indie comic book artist friend (Galifiankis) and pot smoking boss (Danson) on the cases as well. The series has a much more muted sense of comedy than Eastbound and Down, one of the best aspects of HBO’s comedy programming. They do a very good job of balancing multiple styles, yet never lose their quality.