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!

One of the Best Decisions Friends Made

        Friends has consistently been one of my favorite sitcoms for well over a decade. Even if I go a few weeks without watching it (which has happened at least once or twice, I think), I still know each episode by heart and reference scenes on a daily basis.

But if you’ve read this blog before, you already know I’m a Friends fan. You also know that I have some relatively unpopular opinions about the series, including the fact that I’m not a fan of Ross and Rachel as a couple (but love the similar on again/off again Sam and Diane on Cheers) and consider Monica my favorite female character.

This post is about an aspect of the show that, while probably not as unpopular as the others, is nonetheless one that is often debated by fans: Should Joey and Phoebe have gotten together (however briefly) or were the creators right to keep them as just friends?

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Sitcom Study: The Friends creators were not only right to keep Joey and Phoebe just friends, but this was also one of their best and most important decisions.

For those of you who are fans of the Joey/Phoebe pairing, I can imagine at least a couple counterarguments you’re probably thinking right now:

  1. But Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow had such amazing chemistry!!

I agree. I’d also argue that one of the reasons Friends was successful in the first place is because ALL main cast members had amazing chemistry and so ANY combinations among the six worked well.

  1. Joey and Phoebe always had such sweet moments.

True. Still, I stand by the fact that all six characters had sweet moments with the others. Plus, if Joey fell for Phoebe, you’d have all six partnered off with each other (and no Paul Rudd). This would have been too unrealistic, even for a show with infamously unrealistic apartments.

Joey and Phoebe undoubtedly love each other, but this does not mean that this is a romantic love. I strongly believe in the notion that there are different types of love and that one is not necessarily more important than another. Many still believe that even if two people insist they are “just friends”, they will eventually fall for each other (or will harbor feelings until the “time is right” like The Office’s Jim and Pam).

This line of thinking is deeply problematic. Namely, it implies that a friendship’s only value is to serve as a stepping-stone for a romantic relationship. It also suggests that, if you do have romantic feelings for a friend, the best thing to do is keep this to yourself and wait for the stars to align. Let me get on my soapbox for just a second: do not ever wait for the stars to align. I believe everything happens for a reason and people can come into your life at the most unexpected times. Still, if someone truly wants to be with you, excuses such as “too busy” or “maybe it’s the wrong time” won’t matter in at least trying to make a relationship work.

The Joey/Phoebe relationship is perfect just the way it is; it serves as a reminder that the love between friends is beautiful in and of itself and should not be seen as merely the means to an end. Actually, in a way, I guess Friends did partner off all the main characters: the on-again/off-again couple (Ross and Rachel), the friends who do fall in love and get married (Monica and Chandler), and the pair who loves each other deeply as friends and share a special bond (Joey and Phoebe).

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th started out as a pretty standard day, great even. Then, I overheard the following at work: “Mary Tyler Moore just died.” I froze. Nooooo. I had known of Mary’s health problems, but I struggled with accepting the fact that the woman I had always viewed as a strong, resilient fighter was really gone.

The real life Mary was always an excellent role model—she was a lifelong animal rights activist and worked intimately with the JDRF to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes (a condition Mary herself had). Still, like countless others, it was through her two most iconic television roles that I came to “know” her: Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

In addition to the fact that each sitcom features iconic performances from Mary, both are essential viewing for anyone even slightly interested in comedy writing and strong female sitcom characters. Laura was charming, intelligent, quick-witted, just as funny as Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, and one heck of a dancer. Also, thanks to Mary’s influence, Laura revolutionized the way women dressed on television by donning her now iconic capris pants.

What is also worth noting about The Dick Van Dyke Show is how loving and mutually respectful the marriage between Rob and Laura was. Unlike many later sitcoms, where one half of the couple is “in charge” while the other half is often portrayed as a submissive buffoon, thus resulting in a somewhat repetitive cycle of “good cop vs bad cop”, Rob and Laura were true equals. They joked together, danced together, and when they argued neither of them ever came off as controlling or condescending. From episode to episode, the two alternated who was the “straight-man”, giving Van Dyke and Moore equal chance to play the fool.

A few years later (1970 to be exact) on her eponymous sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore continued to break ground as a woman whom was not a wife or mother—she was just Mary Richards. Career-driven, independent and funny, she was more than capable of helming her own story as the protagonist.

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In the pilot episode “Love Is All Around” (the same name as the series’ iconic theme song by Sonny Curtis), a newly single thirty-year-old Mary relocates her life to Minneapolis. She settles into a new apartment and quickly makes new friends (notably Valerie Harper’s quick-witted Rhoda Morgenstern). Then, in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, she interviews for a job at WJM-TV with Ed Asner’s gruff yet lovable news director Lou Grant:

Lou: “What religion are you?”

Mary: “Mr. Grant, I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.”

It’s a quick exchange, not nearly as iconic as the line anyone probably thinks of when remembering this pilot (referring to, of course, Lou’s “You know what, you’ve got spunk…I hate spunk!”), but it establishes something even more important about Mary’s character. Yes, of course Mary’s spunky; despite Asner’s excellent comic timing and delivery, the audience hardly needs reminding of such an obvious fact—especially when the aforementioned exchange between Mary and Lou so perfectly highlights Mary’s willingness to speak her mind, no matter whom she’s addressing or what the issue at hand may be. As the scene continues, Mary confirms that she will indeed be what the television landscape (and real life) is always in need of: an outspoken, confident woman who is willing and ready to fight for what she wants and knows she deserves. As Lou hired Mary as his Associate Producer, so too did countless women watching choose Mary as someone they not only wished to emulate as countless still saw her in themselves.

Decades later, this legacy continues. Thank you, Mary; thank you for your smile, individuality, independence, and spunk.

Thank you for paving the way.

The One With the Sensitivity

There are several sitcoms worth analyzing, praising and re-watching several times; none is ever completely above the struggle to master the magic formula that makes certain sitcoms so memorable. This, of course, includes the struggle for a sitcom to be innovative while honoring an already successful formula, and having distinctive characters while inevitably including more familiar tropes. We have seen such tropes a million times and can recognize them a mile away: the ladies’ man who never seems to want to “settle down” (i.e. Friends’ Joey Tribbiani or Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli), the “mother hen”-type woman who cannot wait to wed (i.e. Sex and the City’s Charlotte York or Friends’ Monica Geller) and the “mother-in-law from hell” (i.e. Bewitched’s Endora or Everybody Loves Raymond’s Marie Barone) are just a few. All of these tropes are understandably exaggerations, some more harmful than others, but there is one that particularly annoys me: the guy who cannot (or will not) show his sensitive, emotional side because it is “wrong.”

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Sitcom Study: Friends’ “The One With the Male Nanny” (9×06)

Relevant Episode Information: To Ross’ chagrin, Rachel hires a “manny” named Sandy (Freddie Prinze Jr.) to watch over their daughter, Emma.

That’s right, I am starting with Ross Geller, Friends’often-maligned yet undeniably hilarious (ie. “I’M FINE!” and Unagi) dinosaur-loving leading man. If you are anything like me and know Friends very (perhaps too) well, you will probably agree that, this episode aside, Ross typically does not fit into this trope. He is a loving father to his children, Ben and Emma. He is repeatedly romantic and sensitive (if not also deeply insecure, but that is for another post) during his relationship with Rachel. In this episode, however, he is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a male nanny. Meanwhile, Chandler jokes about Rachel hiring a “manny” and Joey, arguably the closest to a “guy’s guy” on Friends, proves to be the most comfortable around Sandy and even develops a friendship with him. If Joey does not see anything emasculating about Sandy, why should Ross?

Ross explains to Sandy: “You know, I’m just not, um, that comfortable with a guy who’s as sensitive as you.” Ross eventually reveals that his dad would often make him feel as if he were not a “real boy” since he was not particularly athletic as a child. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Ross’ real issue with Sandy is not really because he thinks he is “weird” (as he previously claims), but because he equates Sandy with how he fears his father saw him when he was younger: too sensitive.

While the fact that Ross becomes increasingly sensitive and emotional while explaining this to Sandy is undeniably done for comedic value, it also addresses a key issue I have seen countless men (both onscreen and in real-life) confront: What is the line between being sensitive and “too sensitive?” Can a guy be romantic and sensitive toward a significant other while also maintaining his “bro” side in addition to his independent self?

Here is what I have concluded: the very obsession with this question is in and of itself the problem and it is something that desperately needs to change. I know it is far easier said than done, but if a friend or romantic partner ever makes you feel like you are not being “man” enough, run away as fast as you can. Stereotypically, it is considered “hot” if a girl loves something like Star Wars or South Park, while I have witnessed several guys ashamed to admit to enjoying Disney movies or Sex and the City. This is absurd, especially because if you can honestly look me in the eye and tell me there is not at least one Disney film that owns your heart (mine is Aladdin by the way), I will know you are lying and probably are also lying about your name and where you obtained a magic carpet (but then I would know you definitely watched Aladdin, and that would just be awkward for everyone involved).

The real question, where this subject is concerned, should not be a guy worrying about being “too sensitive”, but moreover if a guy is being respected. Now, I have always had several guy friends from varying backgrounds, so I am acutely aware that the “aw how cute, so-and-so has a new boyfriend/girlfriend” teasing is to be expected, and most of the time it is all in good fun (and I have done it too, to be fair). When the “teasing” turns into guys calling their supposed guy friend a “pussy” or making him feel bad for, say, not being able to have a guys’ night due to established plans with a partner, that is when it is a problem. That is when it is not okay. Thus, it is imperative to know the difference.

If you enjoy holding hands in public or surprising your girlfriend with flowers to remind her you love her, there is nothing “too sensitive” about that—it is actually extremely sweet. Even Ross knows: “It’s always great when someone tells you they love you.” Despite this, several guys still seem terrified of being labeled as “that guy”, always saying this in a tone that implies “that guy” has a death sentence in a few hours, when in reality “that guy” is truly and simply one who is mature and confident enough in himself to show his partner that he or she is loved. Whether it is Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass or Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, we are all guilty of being enthralled by at least one fictional, emotionally unavailable and utterly damaged character. In reality, however, the “too cool to show his feelings” guy is far from attractive.

My own father is one of the most level-headed, mature “manly” men I know, and even he recognizes the importance of and maturity in being forthright with one’s feelings and showing affection for those he loves. Back to Friends, each of the show’s three male characters are in no way hindered by their sensitive, romantic sides—and neither should anyone else.