Laughing again, streaming this time

When Gavin and Kev asked me to write something about pop culture, I knew exactly what I wanted my column to be about: old TV. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, BitTorrent, iTunes, Amazon, DVDs, old cassette tapes I recorded as a kid — I eat it all up.

The stars have aligned. The last decade’s five best, most influential comedies are all on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” online streaming service.

I know. You’re guessing. For the record, here are the five I’m thinking of, in chronological order:

  • Futurama
  • The Office (UK)
  • Chappelle’s Show
  • Arrested Development
  • 30 Rock

FuturamaThe OfficeChappelle's ShowArrested Development30 Rock

Yes, yes: a complete list of the decade’s best comedies would have to include (definitely) The Daily Show and (probably) Curb Your Enthusiasm. But The Daily Show is available on Comedy Central’s own competing site, and HBO holds on to their original series like they’re money. Because they are.

This is the best Netflix could do. Once you add in South Park, King of the Hill, the US/Steve Carell version of The Office, and terrific runs of older classics like SNL, Monty Python, and Soap, plus cult hits like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Kids in the Hall pilot, you’re talking a serious stash of the funny.

Out of this shortlist, besides the just-now-airing new episodes of Futurama, 30 Rock is the only show that doesn’t have the entire series available online. (Once Season 5 starts airing, I bet we’ll see Season 4 in the queue too.) And even though it’s probably the most universally well-regarded sitcom on TV now — it’s definitely my favorite — in terms of influence and originality, 30 Rock is fifth out of five. I love the show, I could quote and rewatch it endlessly, but you could make a good case that all it’s really done is mix and match elements of the other four. Liz Lemon is equal parts Michael Bluth and Turanga Leela, with a dash of Homer Simpson. We get to watch her spin her wheels in her workplace, which is filled with dweebs, losers, cartoons, and ethnic stereotypes. Sounding familiar?


Season 4 is on Hulu, too. Loser.

Odds are, if you’re a fan at all, you probably remember most of these episodes of 30 Rock pretty well. Or you’re trying/hoping to catch up. Even if you don’t watch the show, you know a lot about it; your friends watch it, you see commercials, it’s still in the atmosphere. But with any of the other four comedies, it’s likely that either:

  1. You saw them and enjoyed them, but don’t remember any of the episodes well beyond a few big moments;
  2. You heard about them and maybe wanted to watch, or watch more often, but wound up missing them altogether;
  3. They’re your favorite comedy ever, you’ve memorized your favorite episodes, and you’re delighted that someone is finally asking you to talk about them rather than begging you to stop; OR
  4. You don’t like any of them. In which case, I don’t like you. Get the hell out of here and go watch Season 3 of Heroes.

In this short series, I’m going to watch* and write about each of them, picking them off and breaking them down one by one.

*Notice I’m using the future tense for “watch”, even though I’ve totally gone back and watched all of these and am already on my second run through Arrested Development.

How have these shows held up? What do we learn about them (and about us) by rewatching them?

I’ll also pull in some additional commentary—some from earlier in the decade, contemporary with these show’s airdates, and some from later—that can give us some perspective while (re)watching these series.

And I’ll definitely be letting you know what I think, offering my take on how we got here.

But in this first post, just to set the stage, and so everyone knows the baseline we’re starting from, I’m going to turn it over to you in the comments.

  • If you’ve never seen / are a total geek for one of them, out yourselves.
  • What do you remember or not remember, like or dislike in these shows?
  • Where would you rank them?
  • Also—where would the 2004 version of yourself rank them?

As we’ve changed, the world’s changed, and comedy’s changed, this turns out to be a more meaningful question that you might think.

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