5. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005 – present)
When I first saw some of this show’s pre-launch advertisements, it seemed like nothing more than a “Daily Show” spin-off. I tried to reserve my judgment for the debut itself, and I remember being pleasantly surprised by a veritable circus of riotous satire, laugh-a-minute sight gags, and subtextual humor.
“The Colbert Show” debuted not as a lesser “Daily Show,” but as a perfect complement to Jon Stewart’s acerbic, biting commentary on daily newsmakers and producers.
Colbert presents himself as a conservative talk show host; it was fairly clear from the get-go that it was an act, but that never made it any less hilarious.
The show’s format is inspired by that of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News bigwig Bill O’Reilly’s nightly commentary show. But Colbert takes O’Reilly to task by sarcastically mimicking his buffoonish delivery and obnoxious tendencies toward self-aggrandizement and vitriol. I only wonder what would happen if Colbert ever adopted Glenn Beck’s style. (Episodes available free on hulu.com)
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000 – present)
Larry David, co-creator and producer of “Seinfeld,” stars as himself in this outrageous look into the life of a rich and influential TV veteran. Turns out, though, Larry’s as much the self-centered misanthrope as “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza, his self-inspired character.
But like George, half the time you can’t blame Larry for his idiosyncrasies; he’s routinely victimized by social convention, and finds himself in embarrassing and awkward scenarios even when his intentions are good (and they usually are).
Half of what makes this show funny is its self-referential nature. David has proven, in Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” that he’s not an actor. He’s clearly playing himself in “Curb,” and the show repeatedly (though not excessively) hearkens back to old “Seinfeld” bits, whether implicitly or explicitly.
Some have described “Curb” as a more risqué version of “Seinfeld,” and that’s not entirely off the mark. One thing’s for sure, though. It’s damn funny. (Available on DVD)
3. The Office (BBC, 2001 – 2003)
This appropriately short-lived series, which inspired NBC’s popular remake starring Steve Carrell, was better in every way.
I’ve got nothing against the American version of “The Office.” I find it regularly entertaining and often uproariously funny. Their problem, though, is that they don’t know when to quit. Ricky Gervais and the BBC “Office” did.
Gervais better captured the awkward, rude, base but ultimately sympathetic boss character in David Brent than Carrell ever has with Michael Scott, whom I rarely feel sorry for.
Gervais and co-producer Stephen Merchant knew how to couple the comedic embarrassment inherent to the “mockumentary” production style with an almost palpable dramatic tension— not just in Brent’s development as a character but in the romantic interest between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the NBC version).
I said the series was appropriately short-lived because it ended when Tim and Dawn finally got together, thus resolving the plot’s central dramatic conflict.
It also helped that the characters were actually believable and not just stilted caricatures of themselves. (Available on DVD)
2. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003 – 2006)
Leave it to Fox to take the funniest show of the decade off television before its hilarity even begins to wane.
“Arrested Development,” in the words of the opening narration, is “the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”
Michael Bluth is probably the only sane person in his family. His father, a wealthy real estate developer, is jailed amid accusations of shady accounting practices and, later, dealings with Saddam Hussein.
Michael takes over as CEO of the Bluth Company and struggles to keep it afloat while his ethically-challenged family lies around and regularly dips into the family coffer.
There are just too many memorable characters to aptly summarize: Michael Cera as the lovably timid teen son; Will Arnett as brother Gob, the typical trust-fund loser, a wannabe magician and playboy; Henry Winkler (Happy Days’ Fonzie) as the horribly inept family attorney; David Cross as the sexually confused brother-in-law, a psychiatrist who’s trying (and failing) to become an actor.
These and other uniquely memorable characters bandy wicked banter in this brilliantly-written, in-joke-loaded sitcom which was cancelled way before its time. (Episodes available on DVD or free on hulu.com)
1. The Wire (HBO, 2002 – 2008)
I know what some of you are probably asking yourselves at this point: “Does this guy watch anything but comedy TV?” Well, no. Not really. But “The Wire” was a rare exception.
This ambitious, uncompromising exploration of crime, labor, the drug trade, politics, education, and journalism in a major American city (Baltimore) revolves, more or less, around several central characters in the police force— and several more major characters in the city’s drug underworld.
The deep, intricate plot unwraps over five long seasons like a classical drama. Characters’ lives cross paths and intertwine in myriad ways. Violence, corruption, and infighting are portrayed to the highest degree of realism imaginable without sacrificing dramatic suspense.
The whole thing feels like a morality play— oftentimes the drug lieutenants display as much sense and ethicality as their counterparts in the police department, and the backwards, politically-charged nature of city police work is examined in depth.
Viewers get an incisive critical analysis of the police department, the drug trade, a widely corrupt political system, a cash-strapped school, a dirty stevedore union, and a struggling metro newspaper. We get to see the problems most major American cities face, albeit dramatized, from an inside perspective. (Available on DVD)
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