3 of the Most Underrated Sitcoms

With so many sitcoms over the decades, it makes sense that some have received more attention than others. Star power, timing, hype, and legitimately well-written content are just a few of the many reasons why some sitcoms have repeatedly received high ratings and critical praise—and I’m definitely a fan of many such shows. It makes me happy that Frasier has retained its “sitcom with the most Emmy wins” crown, but lately I’ve found myself revisiting some sitcoms (old and current) which, for whatever reason, have never received such accolades but are nonetheless high in quality. Onto the list…

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1. Malcolm in the Middle

Over the last few weeks, I’ve rewatched this show (twice actually) and could kick myself for not remembering how great it was beforehand. I’ll admit that, with Bryan Cranston’s incredible performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad still fresh in my mind, I let myself forget he has equally incredible comedic chops (not to mention his stellar dance moves) as Hal. The criminally underrated Jane Kaczmarek shines as Lois (who’s also, arguably, the true protagonist of the series, despite the title). Despite the fear she inspires from her sons, Lois also has an unshakeable sense of justice, which stems from the fact that she tends to always be right (making it all the more entertaining the one time she’s wrong—well, more like the one time she’s made to believe she’s wrong).

Hal and Lois’ sons, including the show’s narrator Malcolm (played by Frankie Muniz, who was definitely my first celebrity crush) are undeniably troublemakers, but arguably only make trouble to cope with the fact that they are all outsiders in some way. The show also makes a point of giving each son a remarkable talent/gift all his own. For instance, Reese (Justin Berfield) is an amazing chef, while Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan) is a skilled pianist.
Malcolm in the Middle never glosses over important issues such as a family struggling to make ends meet or bulling. It even briefly touches on the dangers of alcohol and the importance of not taking advantage of someone. When an intoxicated girl asks Malcolm to have sex with her, he declines and makes sure any remaining alcohol is gone. He later worries about what kind of “man” he is for not going through with it but, in a pivotal moment, Francis (the oldest brother, played by Christopher Masterson) tells him how important it was that he did not take advantage of her.
When watches the show, it comes off as a cohesive whole, with no weak seasons and very few weak episodes (unlike even Frasier and Friends, which both definitely had some). The writers never fully allow the characters to catch a break but, when a character does grow, the progression is subtle and earned. Notably, Francis evolves from the biggest troublemaker in the family to the most responsible and grounded (not to mention he inherits Lois’ sense of justice—another subtle yet fitting touch).
2. The King of Queens

If “Adam Sandler movies” or Paul Blart: Mall Cop are what come to mind when you think of Kevin James, we need to talk. Actually, we can skip the talk. Just promise me you’ll turn on TV Land, TBS, or one of the other many networks to frequently air King of Queens reruns and enjoy Kevin James at his peak in terms of physical comedy and wit (though I’m intrigued to see what’s ahead for Kevin Can Wait, especially with Leah Remini on board as a series regular).

Though frequently (and unfairly) lumped in with other sitcoms to have the “Ugly Guy, Hot Wife” trope, King of Queens deserves better because it, in fact, is better. First of all, it deals with this trope in a unique way. On King of Queens, it is the husband (James’ Doug Heffernan) who is generally the “good guy”, calmer, better with kids, and the moral compass when the wife (Remini’s Carrie) goes astray. On many sitcoms, this is typically the opposite.

Doug, of course, is not without flaws and is not above pulling his own schemes, but the couple often schemes together; when they don’t, one can often bring the other to his or her side within the episode. Despite any perceived difference in looks, Doug and Carrie always make sense as a couple because they’re equals and comparable in several key ways: neither is particularly book smart or career-minded (generally maintaining a “work to live” philosophy, with living together as their priority), both can be selfish at times (though it’s nothing the other can’t balance out), and both know how to laugh and have fun with each other. Oh, and they even have their own song (aptly called “Doug and Carrie”).

Though James and Remini are the show’s anchors, King of Queens boasts an impressive supporting cast, notably Jerry Stiller as Carrie’s annoying, quirky father Arthur who moves into their basement, Patton Oswalt as lovable “nerd” Spence Olchin, and Victor Williams as Doug’s best friend Deacon Palmer.

Definitely do yourself a favor and give this underrated classic a (re)watch. Plus, if you’re a fan of crossovers, expect to see Everybody Loves Raymond characters pop up as guest stars throughout the show’s nine seasons.
3. The Middle

This current ABC comedy stable is helmed by Patricia Heaton (aka Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond) and Neil Flynn (aka the Janitor on Scrubs), delivers solid ratings, is heading into its ninth season this fall, and…has only been nominated for ONE Emmy thus far for its entire run?! That’s crazy!
As much as I love sitcoms (obviously), I’ll be honest: The Middle is the only current sitcom on broadcast that I consistently watch on a weekly basis. It’s consistent and well-rounded (unlike Modern Family, especially in recent years), relatable and touching (unlike The Big Bang Theory), and doesn’t rely on the same tired plot points and jokes (unlike The Goldbergs). Also, unlike many sitcoms, its child actors are in no way a weakness; they’re in fact a strength and each one consistently delivers great performances.

Heaton’s character, Heck family matriarch Frankie, is also perhaps the furthest thing from Debra. Well, actually, I like to think of Frankie as Debra if the latter finally gave up, moved far away from the other Barones, and decided to be lazier once removed from Marie’s constant visits.

 

Which sitcoms do you think are underrated? Please let me know in the comments!

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Female Sitcom Characters Who Changed My Life

In honor of Women’s History Month (and because a new post is definitely overdue), I’ve comprised a carefully considered list of the female sitcom characters I have cared about most over the years. Listed in no particular order, these characters have resonated with me more than others; I’ve come to personally identify with some, while others inspire me, and others still are just hilarious and well-written (or all of the above). My main rules in deciding the list: I could not choose more than one female character from the same series and I had to limit the list to three or four key characters. Now, onto the list!

  1. Monica Geller (Courteney Cox on Friends)

Memorable Lines: “Fine! Judge all you want to but, married a lesbian, left a man at the altar, fell in love with a gay ice dancer, threw a girl’s wooden leg in a fire, livin’ in a box!!! and, of course, “SEVEN!”

As far as the Friends universe is concerned, I’m definitely a Monica-type. In addition to having this listed on pretty much all of my social media accounts (plus the About Me page of this very blog), Monica is my go-to “Starbucks name” (mainly because I know from experience that they won’t spell my real first name correctly anyway). While I’m not a “neat freak” to the level that Monica is (but I’m not sure if anyone really could be), I consider myself very ambitious, competitive, and organized; I’ve also been called either “the planner” or the “mom friend” by myself and others too many times to count.

For these personal reasons, Monica clearly holds a special place in my heart, but that’s not the only reason she matters to me. She’s also incredibly inspiring, arguably the most inspiring of the six Friends. Sure, it’s admirable how Rachel goes from the stereotypical “spoiled rich girl” and Phoebe is undeniably a strong woman who has overcome a great deal, but let’s not ignore the amazing journey Monica undergoes.

The product of an emotionally abusive household where she struggled with her weight and had a mother who constantly criticized her, Monica nonetheless overcomes this to become a strong, confident woman who goes after what she wants and never settles. In Season Two, she memorably dates the older and sophisticated Dr. Richard Burke. Even though she comes to love him deeply and, at the time, sees him as the probable love of her life, she musters the strength to let him go when she realizes a key difference between them: unlike her, he doesn’t want children (well, in his case, he doesn’t want children again.

Her personality was also never confined by any gender stereotypes. She excelled at football and was repeatedly proven to be one of the physically strongest Friends, but also relished in planning her wedding and took pride in cleaning. She was the glue that held the Friends group together and made them feel more like a family (and was probably the funniest drunk out of the six).

  1. Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched)

A Couple Memorable Lines: “I am a witch. A real broom riding, house haunting, cauldron stirring witch!” and “Oh my stars!”

In an earlier blog post, I credited Bewitched as the first sitcom I ever cared about enough to watch religiously (not to mention it was the first one I enjoyed analyzing closely). Even in my college thesis (which dealt with sitcom relationships), Sam and Darrin were the first couple I chose to analyze. Basically, there was never any doubt in my mind of whether or not Sam would make this list.

As I briefly mentioned in my aforementioned post, I’ve always stood firm in my belief that Bewitched is, indeed, a feminist show. Samantha, expected to live a supernatural life of wonder among the clouds, defies her family by marrying a mortal man and choosing to live (mostly) without witchcraft. Sure, Sam’s choice may seem a bit bizarre, but what matters is that it is her choice and it is one she proudly defends, whether she’s going up against the Queen of the Witches or her own mother. Played by the incredibly talented Elizabeth Montgomery, Sam was intelligent, unwaveringly kind, strong, and funny. She could have anything she wanted with a twitch of her nose, but used her powers for good and only as a last resort, always choosing to solve any problem first and foremost with her mind and heart.

  1. Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin on Frasier)

Memorable Lines: “I’m smarter than he is, more confident, more articulate, but the stupid little wusses think I’m a hothead!”and “When I die, I want it to be on my hundredth birthday, in my beach house on Maui. And I want my husband to be so upset he has to drop out of college.”

            On countless sitcoms, female characters are generally depicted as “incomplete” until they find “the one”, settle down, and marry. And then there’s Roz Doyle: snarky, career-driven, and unapologetically sexual. She takes pride in her work as a producer and, despite many a verbal jab from Niles and Frasier, she enjoys living an active single life (and can out sass the Crane brothers any day of the week).

Roz’s tough exterior masks a warm, sensitive heart; the times she allows herself to be vulnerable are few but beautiful to watch. She’s been let down and had her heart broken more times than she’d like to admit, but she never gives up on herself. Despite her initial fears when faced with the reality of becoming a single mother, she overcomes these hesitations and successfully balances her career with the demands of motherhood.

More than being unapologetically sexual, Roz was always unapologetically herself. She’s proof that a woman’s happiness does not have to be anchored by one person, but instead can come from within as a result of self-confidence, inner strength, and determination. Frankly, TV is still very much in need of more female characters like her.

  1. Diane Chambers (Shelley Long on Cheers)

Memorable Lines: (in response to Sam noting she’s drunk) “Wow, you’re stupid. I’ll be sober in the morning!” and “Diane has the bar.”

I’m aware that Diane gets a lot of flak for being pretentious and loquacious, but I absolutely love her. One half of my favorite will they/won’t they TV couple of all time, Diane elevates every scene she’s in on Cheers (and later as a guest on Frasier) to new heights (and Sam Malone’s character suffers deeply when she’s no longer around to simultaneously challenge and ground him).

If Roz Doyle guards her vulnerabilities with a mask of snark, Diane Chambers guards hers with one made of steel. Diane is bookish, quick-witted, moralistic, and not so secretly believes she deserves only the finest things in life. For all her book smarts, she often struggles to fit in with the “average Joe’s” at Cheers and in her most vulnerable moments, it’s evident that she longs to be accepted. Diane is frequently mocked by the other characters who don’t take her seriously, while she in turn often takes herself far too seriously. She can become giddy over simple things (such as when she’s given brief control of the bar) and has a treasured stuffed animal collection—proving she’s not as haughty as she’d like to appear. Beneath her pseudo intellectualism, Diane is very much simply a woman in search of her place in life—and she should absolutely be taken seriously (even if Shelley’s performance leaves you in stitches).

Bottling Frasier’s Success

In many ways, the success—both commercially and critically—of many iconic sitcoms has come down to one crucial element: familiarity. How relatable are a character’s trials and tribulations to the ones the audience watching has faced? How comforting is the world of a particular sitcom and, moreover, to what extent is it able to serve as an “escape” from reality?

Timeless sitcoms Cheers and Friends are two such shows that exemplify this aura of intimacy between series and viewer. Cheers’ iconic theme song famously boasts the following line: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”––indeed, for eleven seasons millions of viewers came to feel as if they would fit right in among the titular bar’s quirky customers. Similarly, people to this day comment (whether jokingly or not depends on the person) that Friends’ Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross feel akin to true friends—maybe even family.

This is precisely why sitcom bottle episodes (aka an entire episode mostly, if not entirely, confined to the main cast in one primary location) come off as so endearing. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” are memorable examples of this formula and, while I love and have repeatedly watched both episodes, it is the two expertly crafted bottle episodes from my other favorite (and often the most criminally underrated nowadays, out of the three) sitcom, Frasier, that will be highlighted here.

Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “My Coffee With Niles” (1×24) and “Dinner Party” (6×17)

Like any good bottle episode, these Frasier episodes primarily take place in one setting; in the first, season one’s finale “My Coffee With Niles”, it is the characters’ go to hangout Café Nervosa and in the latter, season six’s “Dinner Party”, it is Frasier’s apartment. What puts these episodes into a league of their own—aside from the witty repartee that exists in every Frasier episode but is at peak form here—are two additional factors. First, each episode is not merely about the show’s core cast; it is primarily about its two leading characters: Frasier and Niles Crane, which arguably double as the show’s primary “relationship” in that a consistent, central theme of the entire show is their brotherly friendship and, more often than not, inevitable rivalry. This leads to the second factor: the two episodes focus on exploring, and attempting to answer, two primary questions that are imperative as much to the episode’s plot as to the show’s eleven-year arc.

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1) “My Coffee With Niles”

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier and Niles spend the entire episode chatting about their lives at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa.

Primary Question: Is Frasier happy? Moreover, what does it mean to be happy?

While Martin, Roz and Daphne periodically and briefly speak to the brothers throughout the episode, the crux of the episode is Frasier’s response—and lack thereof—to Niles’ inquiry of whether or not he is happy. Note their initial exchange regarding this question:

Niles: “So, Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something?”

Frasier: “No, go right ahead.”

Niles: “Are you happy?”

[Frasier is silent]

Niles: “Did you hear the question?”

Frasier: “Yes, I’m thinking. It’s a seemingly complex question.”

Niles: “No, it’s not.”

Frasier: “Yes, it is.”

Niles: “No, it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not.”

Frasier: “Are you happy?”

Niles: “No, but we’re not talking about me.”

With the show’s first season coming to a close, there could not be a more apt time for Niles to ask Frasier this. By this point, viewers (many undoubtedly initial Frasier Crane fans from his Cheers days) have watched twenty-four episodes in which Frasier has worked to adjust to returning to his home city, tackling a new job, reestablishing relationships with his family and being a country away from his only son. So, is Frasier happy with this life-changing decision? This is not the last time such a question will be asked of him, though it often will take more specific forms, typically regarding his level of satisfaction with his job or love life.

One aspect of the aforementioned exchange that intrigues me so much is the fact that Niles and Frasier differ on the complexity of saying whether or not one is happy. In theory, I agree with Niles; I tend to think and speak of happiness as something akin to love in that it is instinctual—if you feel either, you know, otherwise you do not. In practice, however, I have found myself more on Frasier’s side of this discussion in that I usually take a few moments to reflect on recent events before offering a response.

Furthermore, of course, it is simply not in Frasier’s character to simply say “yes” or “no” to this or really any question without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Later in season four, Frasier will spend an entire episode agonizing over whether or not he believes Niles and his first wife, Maris, truly belong together. Even further along in the series, he will also struggle to choose between two women, asking literally anyone and everyone he encounters for input.

In the case of “My Coffee With Niles”, Frasier continues to evade the question until, finally, it is presented to him again, this time by a waitress growing tired of adjusting his order to meet his specificities:

Waitress: “Zimbabwe decaf, non-fat milk, no cinnamon in sight. Now—are you happy?”

Frasier: [really answering Niles’ initial question] “You know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.”

Arguably, perhaps it is up to the viewers to decide how true this will prove to be for him as the seasons continue.

2) “Dinner Party”

Relevant Episode Information: Niles and Frasier decide to co-host a dinner party, but struggle to agree on the people they should and should not invite.

Primary Question: Are Niles and Frasier too reliant on one another? Are they odd?

Almost any episode that deals primarily with the brothers Crane rivalry is among the most re-watchable for me. In “Author, Author” and “The Innkeepers”, their egos humorously and inevitably clash as they try to co-write a book and co-manage a restaurant, respectively. In “IQ”, Frasier’s personal ego takes a major hit as he learns that Niles is the brother with the higher IQ—and that it’s more than just a mere couple of points in difference. Many of the show’s best one-liners are also directly relevant to their tendency to one up the other, for instance:

Frasier: “Niles, I would shave my head for you.”

Niles: “A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.”

 

Niles: [filling in for Frasier’s radio show] “Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”

 

Indeed, “Dinner Party” is not without its bickering moments between the two. Nonetheless, aside from the joy of watching these two play off no one but each other for most of the episode, what makes this episode so memorable to me is that it poignantly touches on the fact that Niles and Frasier do, ultimately, have a loving and very close relationship despite everything. Still, a running joke throughout the series questions if they in fact spend too much time together; other characters repeatedly tease them for bringing the other as a “date” to one function or another.

Here, the brothers accidentally hear someone they are planning on inviting to their party refer to them as “that one” and “the other one”; it is unclear which is which but the underlying suggestion that the two are almost interchangeable to some is clear. Niles and Frasier proceed to over-analyze and debate its meaning:

Frasier: “Perhaps she has a point. Ever since your divorce you have become more and more attached to me. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.”

Niles: “What?”

Frasier: “You get Frasier, you get that Niles!”

Niles: “She didn’t say that. She said, “you get the one, you get that other one.” What makes you think that you’re the one and I’m that other one?”

Frasier: “I am the one giving the party, and you are that other one!”

Niles: “I’m the one that invited her, so that makes you that other one!”

And, in one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:

Niles: “Why is Joaquin on such a strict diet?”

Frasier: “Because the Joaquin they’re bringing to dinner is… their foster child, from a tiny village on the Pampas. He speaks no English and he gets nauseated when he eats American food.”

Niles: “So, he’s not the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?”

Frasier: “Oh, you are so “that other one”!”

This episode’s key question is not given a clear answer. Niles and Frasier bicker (whilst becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of throwing this party at all), Martin maintains that they are not odd (“just special”), and the episode ends with the brothers resolving to not care what others think and enjoy each other’s company at dinner—before quickly changing their minds.

Well then, are Frasier and Niles too dependent on one another? I am an only child and so cannot personally identify with a sibling relationship. At the same time, I—as, I believe, can most people—understand how rare and wonderful it is to find even one person with whom you can talk endlessly and share similar interests or ways of thinking and that there is nothing wrong with valuing such a friendship. To paraphrase Frasier’s final response in “My Coffee With Niles”, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is one of the keys to lasting happiness.

Tossed Salad and Bulletproof Bracelets

Author’s Note: My apologies for the delay between posts, I recently returned from a few weeks of study abroad in London. 🙂

            Whenever I give my father a card for a holiday such as his birthday or Father’s Day, I always mention Frasier. Amidst thanking him for things like, you know, paying for my college tuition and co-raising me, I thank him for introducing me to TV’s snobby yet lovable Seattle-born psychiatrist. From frequently quoting the show in everyday life (“If you need me, I’ll be at my club” and “I am wounded” being two of my favorites) to rejoicing when Kelsey Grammer retweeted me on the 21st anniversary of the sitcom, Frasier has definitely left its mark on me. Incredibly smart, funny and critically acclaimed (it currently holds the record for most Emmy wins of any sitcom), it is safe to say this will not be the only post I dedicate to Frasier. While it would not be Frasier without Frasier Crane (and he’s also the character my dad and I both identify with most on the show, go figure), this post will not focus on the titular character; this one is for Roz Doyle (and Wonder Woman).

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Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “Room Full of Heroes” (9×06)

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier hosts a Halloween costume party where he asks his guests to come dressed as their personal hero. When Roz shows up as Wonder Woman, he belittles her decision, thinking she confused “personal hero” with “superhero”––but did she?

Years before Sex and the City premiered and introduced the self-described “try-sexual” (aka she’ll try anything once) Samantha Jones, Roz was a character who took almost as much pride in her active sex life (despite frequent jokes from Frasier and his brother Niles) as she did in her career-driven nature. She was never afraid to speak her mind or go after what she wanted, two undeniably admirable qualities despite what you (or Frasier for that matter) may think of her love life. It is because of Roz’s flirtatious nature that Frasier jumps to the conclusion that she is not taking his game seriously and merely wanted to wear something “frivolous.”

Roz initially pretends to have simply misunderstood the rules of Frasier’s game before finally coming clean: “Actually, I didn’t misunderstand anything. You made so much fun of my costume, I got so embarrassed, so I lied. Wonder Woman really is my hero! I mean, she’s smart and beautiful, moral, and totally independent.” Realizing that Roz took the game seriously all along, Frasier offers her a sincere apology.

There are several reasons why I find this scene so poignant, but there are two in particular that stand out to me. First of all, like Roz, I have always admired Wonder Woman. Ever since my dad introduced me to Justice League (thanks again, dad) in fourth grade and my mom introduced me to the Lynda Carter series around the same time (thanks, mom), I have been a diehard fan: I have dressed as her for Halloween (but Roz’s costume was more authentic looking than mine), pretended to fight crime as her, read countless Wonder Woman comics and graphic novels, enjoyed the 2011 animated film about her and became thrilled to know she is finally starring in a live-action movie (if you have not yet seen the Batman v Superman trailer, go do so…and then watch some Frasier, of course).

Secondly, also like Roz, I recognize the merit in admiring fictional characters. While reality is full of admirable figures (here’s thinking of you, grandpa), there is a reason why “which character from show X” quizzes are so popular. There is something special about recognizing that a fictional character resonates with us. I have seen each episode of Frasier several times, but maybe the show would not be as important to me if I were not able to have those moments where I realize I can relate to a particular character’s situation or personality. Frankly, I find it fun to be able to say that the Friends character I am most like is Monica (with Chandler’s humor and a few of the other characters’ elements, as my About page says) and the Disney heroines I identify with most are Jasmine and Megara. So, the next time someone you know finds comfort in a work of fiction or is proud of identifying with a certain character, remember it is perfectly okay—and we all do it.