By Peter Hummers on July 16, 2020
The Days and Nights of Mollie Dodd (1987) was one of the first TV sitcoms without a laugh track; in 2006, 30 Rock helped bring back single-camera filming, that is, setting up each scene and editing them in post-production, impossible with an audience, who were the laughers before laugh-track machines came into vogue. Most radio comedies had recorded before live audiences, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had developed a way to bring studio audiences to TV filmings, by using three cameras on a complex set, with the audience seating opposite.
With the result now approaching the look of cinema, the writers stepped up their game from situations and gags to sophisticated themes and relevant humor. That may not sound like much fun, but on several shows it really is. On a funny show, the home audience doesn’t need to be told when to laugh.
This landmark show was created by Mitchell Hurwitz (The Ellen Show), and originally aired on Fox for three seasons from November 2, 2003, to February 10, 2006 before being picked up by Netflix. The show follows the Bluths, a formerly wealthy dysfunctional family, in a serialized format, incorporating handheld camera work, voice-over narration (by executive producer Ron Howard), archival photos, and historical footage.
It’s a complex, and extremely funny, ensemble comedy. The situation is concisely recounted during the opening credits of each episode. Jason Bateman (Ozark) plays Michael Bluth, scion of the family of a crooked real-estate developer. He has a twin sister (Portia de Rossi), two brothers (Will Arnett, BoJack Horseman; and Tony Hale), and a son (Michael Cera, Superbad). He and his son are living in one of the company’s model homes, and he expects to be chosen as company CEO by his father (Jeffrey Tambor, The Larry Sanders Show).
However, during the family cruise on which he expects to be promoted, Michael’s father picks his own wife (Jessica Walter, Play Misty for Me), a parasitic and sociopathic socialite, just before the boat is boarded by SEC agents who arrest the patriarch. Later, in jail, his father tells Michael that he chose Michael’s mother because he knew the bust was coming, and “they can’t arrest a husband and wife for the same thing.” “I’m pretty sure that’s incorrect, dad,” Michael says. His father replies, “I’ve got a s**tty lawyer!”
When Michael learns that his socialite sister and her clueless husband (a brilliant David Cross) and daughter have been living in a luxury hotel, as had his mother and a brother in another suite), and that brother Gob (pronounced “jobe” by the family and “gob” by everyone else) has been financing his magic act, all on the company dime, he resolves to take over the company and set the ship aright.
There are numerous running gags, puns, and callbacks: Michael’s idiot brother Buster, who lives with their mother Lucille, takes up with the Lucille next door (Liza Minelli) and is attacked by a seal later in the series, and the warnings shouted from shore only confuse him: “Watch out! Loose seal!” Everyone privately thinks Michael’s brother-in-law is gay–except the brother-in-law. Michael’s son falls in love with his cousin Maeby when they meet after some years in the first episode: “You’re my cousin, right?” “Maeby.” Much of the wordplay is pretty sophisticated: Michael’s mother complains about a group of homosexuals, by declaring, “[They’re] so flamboyant, it makes me want to set myself on fire!” Wait; there’s more: meta comedy! Slapstick!
Avid fans say the show went over the heads of the TV audience, as it had terrible ratings and Fox cancelled it after three seasons. When said fans almost broke the internet, Netflix picked it up and it began to find an audience. Even after Netflix thought their fourth season could wrap the show, the fans spoke up years later, and then more years later, resulting in a broadcast timeline as remarkable as the show. Here’s Netflix’s season-five trailer.
Earnest Leslie Knope struggles to bring relevance to the tiny Pawnee, Indiana, Department of Parks and Recreation. (IMDb.com)
This standout NBC series is also at the top of my favorite next-level sitcoms. The first season is literally the pits: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional small town of Pawnee, Indiana. Local nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones, The Office) demands that the construction pit beside her house created by an abandoned condo development be filled in after her boyfriend (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy) fell in and broke his legs. Hilarity ensues, as earnest Leslie deals with a workplace full of lunatics: Nick Offerman plays Ron Swanson, one of many breakout characters. Ron is the Director of Parks and Recreations, a meat-loving, cranky, small-government libertarian, who believes the Parks and Rec department shouldn’t exist. Ann’s boyfriend, cheerful Andy (Pratt), takes up with April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), a cynical, morbid and uninterested intern, who uploaded the following bio to the town’s website:
“April Ludgate-Dwyer was born in Björk’s house in Iceland and grew up on Easter Island, where her parents were giant stone heads. She has the ability to fire beams of tacos out of her hands and she can turn her legs into tigers. On Sundays, April enjoys reading Family Circus and traveling through time. Her favorite color is greenish-transparent and her favorite movie is the one you just watched. April is in charge of uploading the staff bios to the website, and no one has checked over her work.”
During its run, Parks and Recreation garnered enough awards and nominations to fill their own Wikipedia page. And the series, that lampooned politics, attracted such cameo guests as then-Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Barbara Boxer, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senator John McCain, Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Senators Olympia Snowe, Cory Booker and Orrin Hatch. Here’s a DVD set trailer.
Next time, two paths taken: Snowfall and Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)