Archive for June 28th, 2012

…and now for something completely different.  –  John Cleese

Yesterday I shared my favorite TV dramas with you, and today I’d like to do the same with my favorite TV comedies; at the end there’s a bonus list of my two favorite documentary series, which obviously wasn’t long enough for a column of its own.  Just as I did yesterday I’ve embedded videos of each show, with one exception (as you’ll see below).  Like yesterday’s, this list is arranged alphabetically.

1)  The Addams Family  Charles Addams had been doing his macabre cartoons for The New Yorker for over twenty years when a television producer decided they would make a clever television show.  Unlike the characters in the rival show The Munsters, the Addams family (named for the cartoonist) were not comical takeoffs on Universal movie monsters, but rather oddballs who were just plain weird rather than monstrous; that weirdness allowed them to get away with a great deal that other contemporary shows could not.  For example, Mr. and Mrs. Addams were the very first TV couple who were not only sexually interested in one another on-camera, but passionately interested.  It’s been one of my favorites since I first encountered it in afternoon reruns in the mid-1970s.

2)  The Adventures of Pete and Pete  Like the Addams family, the Wrigleys are just a little bent, but unlike the Addams most of their neighbors (many played by unexpected celebrities like Iggy Pop or Patty Hearst) are equally strange.  The show was originally a series of one-minute shorts which aired between shows on children’s cable network Nickelodeon in 1989 (here are the first two, “What Would You Do for a Dollar?” and “Freeze Tag”); they proved so popular the creators were asked to create a series of 30-minute specials and later a whole series.  The stories, especially in the first two regular seasons, achieve a rare mixture of hilarity and poignant sweetness that isn’t quite like anything else.

3)  Bewitched  There were quite a few fantasy situation comedies in the 1960s, but this was the best and most enduring of them; I was five years old when it finally went off the air, and it’s been in nigh-constant syndication ever since.  The lovely Elizabeth Montgomery played a witch married to a mortal, and the friction between the two worlds (most often in the person of her interfering mother) created an endless number of comical situations which rarely fail to amuse and are often hilarious.  One of the show’s greatest strengths was its masterful use of character actors appearing as witches and other magical beings, animals or monsters in human form, or even historical personages summoned into the present by errant spells.

4)  The Bullwinkle Show  This show was originally named Rocky and His Friends, but after Rocky’s sidekick Bullwinkle became the more popular character, the title was changed for the fourth season and used for all the seasons in syndication.  The show aired in the evenings, and like the classic Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons was intended for adults.  But for some reason I’ve never quite understood Americans collectively decided in the mid-1960s that cartoons were “kid stuff”, and that attitude persisted until the advent of The Simpsons in 1989.  Bullwinkle’s producer, Jay Ward, was among the first to prove that by use of crude, limited animation held up by funny scripts and talented voice actors, a quality cartoon could be produced at a very reasonable cost; though it’s doubtful that any television show has ever been animated more crudely, it’s equally doubtful that any has ever been as funny, clever and sly.

5)  Fawlty Towers  John Cleese stars as Basil Fawlty, a rude, incompetent and self-important innkeeper whose schemes to improve his business, keep the riff-raff out and stay out of trouble with his shrewish wife lead to twelve of the funniest half-hours ever committed to videotape.  There aren’t many shows that can make me laugh so hard I literally cry, but this is one.

6)  The Good Life  This British sitcom premiered the same year (1975) as Fawlty Towers, but they’re not very much alike; though this series (which was broadcast in the US as The Good Neighbors) is very funny, its humor is cuter and more gentle than the manic hilarity of Fawlty.  The story follows an engineer who decides to get out of the rat race by quitting his job and taking up farming…in the upscale London suburb of Surbiton, much to the consternation of his good-natured but snobbish neighbors.

7)  Green Acres  No, I’m not obsessed with shows about successful men who quit the rat race to become farmers; honestly I’m not.  Besides, the hero of this show is a lawyer, and instead of farming in the suburbs he moves to a very weird rural town whose inhabitants make the eccentric population of Pete & Pete’s Wellsville look like models of sanity in comparison.  Even the laws of nature here seem to work in a more surreal fashion, and on more than one occasion characters are able to read credits, hear incidental music and otherwise break the fourth wall.

8)  Making Fiends  This is a web cartoon created by the astonishingly talented Amy Winfrey; it’s absolutely one of the funniest  things I’ve ever seen while still being 100% “clean” and incredibly charming.  She did six half-hour shows for Nickelodeon in 2008, but the originals are still online and pack more laughs into a few minutes than most sitcoms can generate in several episodes.

9)  Monty Python’s Flying Circus  As with Star Trek and Twilight Zone yesterday, I honestly don’t think I can say anything useful about this landmark series in the space I have to work with.  The influence of this bizarre, zany, irreverent, erudite and wholly original sketch comedy show on everything that has come after it is incalculable; even our use of the word “spam” to mean junk email derives from a Python sketch depicting a diner in which Spam (the meat) is served with every single dish whether one wants it or not.

10)  Red Dwarf   Imagine a science fiction show that totally succeeds as a comedy, or a hilarious comedy which is better science fiction than the majority of shows in that genre, and you’ve got Red Dwarf.  A perennial loser is placed in stasis for violating ship’s rules and emerges 3,000,000 years later to find the entire crew was killed in a radiation accident soon after he was frozen; his only companions are the ship’s computer, a hologram simulation of the dead bunkmate he couldn’t stand, and a humanoid creature who evolved from the ship’s cat.  Hijinks ensue.

My Favorite TV Documentaries

1)  Connections  Veteran journalist James Burke examines the interdependence of technology by demonstrating how each new discovery leads to wholly unpredictable effects that trigger change in apparently-unrelated areas; in each episode he takes one ancient or medieval development (such as the stirrup or the water wheel) and demonstrates how it set off a series of interlinked events leading to the development of a major technological device of the modern world (such as computers or nuclear weapons).  Sound interesting?  You can watch the first episode, “The Trigger Effect”, in its entirety right here.

2)  Cosmos  Three decades of cable TV networks wholly dedicated to documentaries still haven’t produced a science show as interesting or entertaining as Carl Sagan’s 1980 magnum opus, which is why it’s still highly regarded today despite the fact that a little (though not much) of its science is now dated.  In a way this show and Connections were inspirations for this blog, because both of them showed me it was possible to be informative and entertaining at the same time.  I also have Cosmos to thank for introducing me to the music of Vangelis, one of my favorite musicians.

Today’s puzzle:  One of today’s series and three of yesterday’s feature main characters who appear in every episode (or nearly so), despite the fact that they’re already dead by the end of the first episode.  How many more can you think of?

One Year Ago Today

In “A Decent Boldness” we make the acquaintance of Aella, an Amazon of the mythic past who finds herself stranded on the far side of the world, broke and unable to speak the language, and has to figure out how she’s going to survive.

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