Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here.
When I decided to make a “best sitcom episodes” list last year, I had two goals in mind. One was to make the case for the sitcom as an art form to people who were unfamiliar or dismissive of it. The second was to contribute to the making of a canon, or a consensus set of episodes that critics should be familiar with so that we have some shared points of reference.
In both cases, I was also pushing back against the current assumption that the only way to watch a TV series is to start at the beginning — and then bail out if the first couple of episodes don’t grab you. (The A.V. Club's Noel Murray took issue with this foolish rule of TV etiquette last year.) Sitcoms in particular tend to get better in their second seasons, after the cast and writers have figured out how they best work together (like a sports team or repertory theater company), so it’s not a bad idea to start with season two, then go back to the season one to see how the show evolved.
I didn’t think much of the timing of my project, other than last fall's 60th anniversary of the first major hit sitcom, I Love Lucy. (It was preceded by more primitive attempts, such as The Goldbergs, pictured above. Here's a video of an opening segment, which is basically an infomercial for the sponsor.)
But lately there’s been a serious discussion about whether the sitcom is about to go extinct. Neil Genzlinger declared the “End of Comedy,” at least in sitcom format, last fall in the New York Times. His evidence was the lazy recycling of jokes on shows like New Girl and Up All Night: “comedic time has shrunk and comedic tone has degenerated; shows don’t want to risk building their humor slowly or subtly because they’re afraid audiences have already seen too many dumb-dad or balky-toaster bits and will grow impatient.”
Other pessimists have zeroed in on the multi-camera sitcom taped in front of a live audience — and I should warn younger readers that most of the entries on my Top 100 list fall into this category. Ken Levine, who wrote for such shows as M*A*S*H and Frasier, recently blogged that “the joke rhythms became tired and stale” on multicamera sitcoms and that, unless some changes are made, the genre may be “too stupid to live.” (Pictured at right: Another unimpressive new sitcom, Whitney. What, you thought someone who looked like Molly Goldberg could even get a pilot episode shot today ?)
Jaime Weinman, who shares my enthusiasm for well-crafted multi-camera sitcoms, may be onto something when he notes that the genre just hasn't caught up with innovations in the medium it sprang from, live theater:
The three-camera sitcom uses representational sets that approximate, as closely as possible within the three-walled limitations, a real room. If the story moves to another place, we get a new, equally representational set. All the things that theatre did to make scenery more fluid and less literal have really never become a part of theatre-style sitcom television, where instead there’s always a push to make everything more literal — make the sets look more real, like they do in the movies … The live-audience sitcom has incorporated more scenes shot without the audience, but the scenes shot with the audience are more or less from the Neil Simon era of theatre.
OK, I don't want to get carried away with telling you what's wrong with sitcoms. I started this project as an appreciation of their unique strengths, and I hope that the examples I've chosen explain why I've spent so many hours of my life watching them. I also hope that, Whitney notwithstanding, the genre can be revitalized in all its forms. I love a lot of single-camera comedies, and I've included many on my list, but the live-audience sitcom deserves a comeback — if anyone can figure out how to do pull it off.
Eligibility for the Top 100
At their best, sitcom episodes work as short stories or parables. They catalogue social conventions (see Seinfeld in particular) and present “what would you do?” situations in which the characters usually, but not always, react according to their most prominent personality traits.
For this list, I considered all live-action, half-hour series with continuing characters that have a mostly comic tone, and I concentrated on episodes that work even for viewers who have never seen the show before. Animated shows are out, as I found it difficult to judge them in the same way and the animated sitcom written for adults is just too new as a genre. British shows are in, but sitcoms in languages other than English aren’t available enough in the US to get any kind of decent sampling. The “dramadies” on HBO and Showtime are theoretically eligible, but a lot of them are so serialized that it’s difficult to pick out individual episodes. (And it’s also a genre too new to have a lot of reference points.)
This isn’t a list of the funniest sitcom episodes. There are a lot of popular shows that are nothing but strings of one-liners, and they don’t show up much on my list. A good joke is just as funny (and usually more so) if it’s accompanied by rich characterization and a coherent story, so why not go for the whole package? Some shows on the list are non-stop hilarious; others are mostly dramatic but with effective moments of comic relief.
(This approach is not universally shared among viewers, as shown by The Big Bang Theory walloping NBC's Thursday comedies in the ratings — and by commenters who object when The A.V. Club knocks, say, The Office for having funny moments but also a complete mess of a narrative. The A.V. Club's Myles McNutt lamented on his own site that “There’s this embedded assumption amongst the majority of television viewers that something that looks like a comedy and acts like a comedy must ever and always be a comedy.” I’m not sure he’s right about a “majority” of viewers feeling this way. That wasn’t true in the 1970s, although a spate of terrible “very special” episodes in the 1980s probably left some viewers determined to never watch a sitcom with dramatic themes again.)
But while there are a lot of episodes on my list with poignant or dramatic elements, there are also “no hugging, no learning” shows as epitomized by Seinfeld. And the list is not limited to shows with characters I’d like to hang out with in real life. As long as their flaws are recognizably human, no sitcom characters are too awful to include here.
Finally, this is not a list of best sitcoms in general. Some sitcoms that rely heavily on continuing storylines are underrepresented, since they don’t have many individual episodes that can stand on their own. There aren’t many episodes from shows that are consistently good but never great. And I didn’t give a handicap to sitcoms that hedge their bets by cramming multiple plots into the each episode in hopes that viewers will like at least one of them. If half an episode is unwatchable, it’s not on the list no matter how good the “B” or “C” story is.
How they were chosen
Beginning last summer, I’ve been keeping a list of episodes to check out, and I’ve seen everything in the Top 100 within the past six months. I revisited a lot of episodes I remembered liking, but I also sought recommendations from friends and kept note of classic episodes that were mentioned on sites such as the A.V. Club. I also looked at Emmy winners and episodes rated highly by users on imdb.com and the like. Various websites have solicited “favorite episode” lists from readers, and I took those into account if they included entries from before 1980, which is about the halfway point for sitcom history.
I watched episodes in a variety of ways: on my DVR, on DVDs, on Netflix, and on YouTube and other streaming-video sites. Some fondly remembered episodes didn't make the cut because there was no easy way to view them. (Some shows, such as WKRP in CIncinnati and Frank's Place, are partly or totally unavailable through legal means because of music clearance issues.)
I ended up with a mix of consensus choices and more ideosyncratic entries. I’m sure that I didn’t get to some episodes that deserve consideration; depending on the feedback, I may take a second pass at the list next year. For now, any feedback or comments (subject to moderation) are greatly appreciated.