By Ron Swanson
Here at Mostly Film, we love American TV, but I hate the fact that rubbish like Two and a Half Men is stuffed down your throats for hours a day in the UK while 30 Rock and The Office are left to flounder in their one half-hour spot on Comedy Central. Still, at least there’s a chance to see the oft-neglected, forgotten gem that is Friends. E4 are so concerned you might miss out on this slice of the current cultural zeitgeist that they kindly repeat each night’s episode, um, three hours later.
Given that cultural landscape in the UK, I, and two of our regular contributors, am going to espouse the virtues of a handful of US TV comedies that haven’t received enough acclaim in the UK.
Firstly, the most traditional of the shows featured – Modern Family. Modern Family is the best comic depiction of family life since Frasier: co-creator Christopher Lloyd (no, not that one) was a producer and screenwriter on the Cheers spin-off.
The centre of the show is Jay Pritchett, whose daughter Claire and son Mitchell are both now raising their own families, while he is having another go at fatherhood with his second wife Gloria’s young son. The six adult characters are beautifully sketched, with further detail still being added to traits that have been suggested since the beginning of the show’s run.
We’re just into the third series, and the show has received huge acclaim in the US, where Julie Bowen (Claire) and Ty Burrell (her husband Phil) won Emmy awards just last week. In the UK, despite a fairly prominent advertising campaign and a Friday night primetime slot on Sky One, it’s failed to receive the same attention – being dwarfed, mostly, by the phenomenal reception afforded to Glee.
At its best (and it has been incredibly consistent so far) this is an intricately structured show, which in spite of the absence of series long story arcs reward the regular viewer, with enough purposeful repetition in the jokes to make you feel part of the furniture. All ten of the regular cast members should be commended – this is an ensemble show in the best possible way.
Shot in the modern single-camera mockumentary format, which allows us to see the facade that these characters wish they could hide behind as well as their true selves, Modern Family is to be enjoyed for the lack of big themes, gimmicks or cruelty in its humour. It’s undemanding, but immensely rewarding and endlessly watchable.
COMMUNITY by Paul Duane
You could say that Community is everything hateful about twenty-first century culture – enormous teetering piles of self-referential cleverness, for a start (where else are you going to find an episode that pretends to be a parody of Pulp Fiction but is actually a parody of My Dinner with Andre? Nowhere, that’s where).
But somehow, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, manages to interlace threads of genuine emotion throughout.
The aforementioned parody episode turns into something genuinely affecting, via a confrontation between the show’s self-elected alpha male, Jeff, and its weirdo Palestinian-Polish pop culture maven Abed (who also, incidentally, is the only character who realises he’s in a TV series).
Abed comes out with an emotional confession, which, typically for Community, revolves around his (genuine) appearance as an extra in Cougartown, only to later reveal that he’d made it up because this sort of phoney connection was what Jeff wanted.
Why not, he asks, just accept him as the weirdo he is rather than force a bad-telly ‘moment of clarity’ on him?
Head hurting yet? That’s what this show does. It sets up a Möbius strip of connections and leaves you to figure out what’s heartfelt and what’s playful.
It didn’t start out this way – early episodes are just clever rather than the lunatic machinery of Series 2 – but it’s turned into the strangest, most purely pleasurable sitcom going.
Louie is more beautiful, Parks & Rec has more lovable characters but Community is making up its own rules as it goes along. I doubt anyone knows where it’s going but the journey is half the fun.
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA by Ron Swanson
In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the journey is all of the fun – it has to be, because none of the drunken, degenerate, lousy, pervert characters are ever going anywhere.
Since the second series, the show has featured five main characters – siblings Dennis and Deandra Reynolds, their father Frank (Danny Devito) and their friends, Charlie and Mac.
In my favourite episode of the show, The Nightman Cometh, the gang put on a musical, written by Charlie. Now, Charlie is illiterate, addicted to sniffing glue, a stalker, overwhelmed with rage issues, but a kind of musical savant and the most likable of the main characters. He writes the musical in order to impress the object of his stalking – the waitress.
It’s the story of his life, set to music, and played with great awkwardness by his ‘friends’. What becomes obvious throughout the series is that Charlie doesn’t understand all of the bad things that happened to him – so the obvious child abuse he suffered is recreated in the musical, without his understanding – leading to his bemusement at why people keep talking about the ‘rape’ scene.
That’s what Sunny does best. It takes issues, themes, flaws and foibles that are overwhelmingly unfunny, and makes them hilarious. Incest, abortion, childhood abuse, substance abuse to name a few. You would get the general idea from looking through a list of episode titles: “Charlie Got Molested”, “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom”, “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire”, “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”, “Dennis Looks Like a Registered Sex Offender”, “Who Pooped the Bed”, “Mac Fights Gay Marriage”.
What’s remarkable is how infrequently the show fails to hit the target – and how enjoyable it is spending time with some ostensibly loathsome characters while they do so. It’s not a show for the faint of heart, but everyone else should allow this huge slice of misanthropy into their lives.
LOUIE by Indy Datta
The thing about Louie (not to be confused with the Cbeebies show of the same name) is that I want to tell you it’s unlike any other sitcom I’ve ever seen, but when you watch it, the first thing you’re going to see is a bit of a Louis C.K. standup routine, just like the opening of any episode of Seinfeld. And the next half an hour will be about a fictionalised version of the show’s creator getting into socially awkward situations, like a ginger version of Curb Your Enthusiasm. So, OK, what I’m saying is, apart from those two obvious things, Louie is completely unlike any other sitcom I’ve ever seen.
The most obvious thing that sets Louie apart from shows like Seinfeld or Curb is that Louis C.K. has taken advantage of the creative freedom afforded him by FX, the cable net that commissions Louie, to largely eschew the most common narrative forms of sitcoms. The awkward situations Louie talks himself into don’t escalate into farce. The sexual tension between him and the character played by co-executive producer Pamela Adlon isn’t allowed to blossom into a soapy will-they/won’t they arc (or at least not by the end of the first series). If you’re looking for beautifully crafted half hour comic plays, this isn’t the show for you: a typical episode is more like a collection of thematically related standup clips and short films, which won’t always necessarily actually be funny. In one of the several episodes told in flashback to Louie’s childhood, a sinister Tom Noonan demonstrates the brutality of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to an audience of horrified schoolchildren. There isn’t a laugh in the entire sequence, which takes up more than half the episode.
Which leads me on to say that while I’m comparing Louie to Seinfeld, the other thing that sets the newer show apart is that it is most certainly not ‘’a show about nothing”. It’s about everything: lapsed-Catholic angst, status anxiety, loneliness, bringing up children, loving your family (or not), how annoying it would be if Ricky Gervais was your doctor. It’s ridiculous that nobody is broadcasting this show in the UK, but fucking Frankie Boyle gets recommissioned.
PARKS AND RECREATION by Ron Swanson – an unbiased view (ahem)
The surprising thing about the greatness of Parks and Recreation – and I will brook no argument here, it is a great show – is not that it didn’t seem like it was going to be great. Of course, several brilliant comedies have started slowly: it can take time for the writers and actors to find their characters’ feet, as it were. The strange thing is that, on going back and rewatching the ‘difficult’ first season, it’s actually been great all along, it just took me, the audience, time to realise it.
Of course, in the UK there is no audience because it’s never been shown on TV, or released on R2 DVD. Fans of the show over here have had to watch the show via nefarious means, or on R1 DVDs, imported from the US. That’s a tragedy. This is arguably the best show on TV anywhere in the world, right now. It features one of the all-time great comic characters in Ron Swanson (hey!), a fantastic ensemble cast (Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman stand out) and some of the sharpest, sweetest writing imaginable.
If, when watching the show, it feels a little like The Office: An American Workplace, that shouldn’t be a surprise, seeing as showrunners Michael Schur and Greg Daniels were both exec producers and writers in Office‘s halcyon days. The basic format is similar, and in Leslie Knope (Poehler), it may feel like we have a similar lead character. That feeling is misplaced. Leslie is frequently brilliant, and her self-confidence allows her to succeed.
What I love the most about the show is that its laughs don’t come from anything other than the audience buying into the characters, the situation and the relationships. There have been romances on the show, but the friendships are where most of the laughs come from. Unlike The Office, those relationships are overloaded with affection (compare the teasing of office fall-guy Jerry here, with the unbridled antipathy shown Michael by some of his employees, for example).
There are some brilliant recurring guest appearances – my favourites come from Ben Schwartz as the dim-witted wannabe-player Jean-Ralphio, Louis CK as a putative love interest for Leslie, and Megan Mullally as Ron’s psychotic ex-wife Tammy 2 (we know she’s evil, because she works for the library department), but it is the brilliance of the established characters that they get to play against that would keep anyone coming back for more.
You may not be able to see these shows on network UK TV, but you can buy them on DVD/Blu-ray from the following places:
Louie – Blu-ray (Region 1)
Parks and Recreation – DVD Series 1 (Region 1)
Community – DVD Series 1 (coming soon to Region 2)
Modern Family – DVD Series 1&2 (Region 2)
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – DVD Series 1 (Region 2)