Fans of the now-legendary U.K. series balked when a U.S. “re-imagining” was announced, wondering how an American spin on the day-to-day drudgery of a second-rate paper company could hope to match the decidedly British vibe and humor of its predecessor. The pilot was an almost beat for beat remake of the U.K. pilot, albeit with slightly shorter pauses (us Yankees can only stand silence for so long, after all); later, the show stopped both competing with and relying on its predecessor and formed its own identity, emerging as a pretty terrific comedy series in its own right. Steve Carell is, of course, spot-on perfect as the Ricky Gervais stand-in, channeling both the naive sweetness he exhibited in The 40 Year Old Virgin and the sociopathic cluelessness he pulled off so well in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy; the supporting cast is top-notch, too, particularly John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer as the star-crossed office lovers. Carell left the series after Season 7, with both Ed Helms and Season 8 newcomer James Spader now splitting the leading-man duties; while it’s not quite the same (how could it be?), there’s still plenty of paper in the copy machine.
The kinder, gentler companion piece to The Office, Parks and Recreation follows the various staff members of the sorely underfunded Parks and Rec department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, led by the ever-enthusiastic Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her quietly suffering man’s man of a boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Whilst The Office finds laughter in discomfort and humiliation, Parks and Rec is a more good-hearted beast, balancing its sometimes surreal small-town humor with its genuinely sweet characterizations and frequent touching moments. Chris Pratt, as shoeshine boy/musician Andy, has particularly blossomed in later seasons, going from the lazy boyfriend of cutie-pie nurse Anne (Rashida Jones) to the show’s resident everyman philosopher. . . and husband to Swanson’s cynical assistant, April (mumblecore queen Aubrey Plaza). Aziz Ansari serves as the show’s court jester as mischievous staff member and would-be entrepreneur, Tom Haverford — and, like Alec Baldwin before him on 30 Rock, former Brat Packer Rob Lowe has embraced middle age by reinventing himself as a comedian, providing some of the show’s biggest laughs as the super-health-conscious, endlessly positive city manager, Chris Traeger.
NBC’s meta-comedy is also one of the network’s best-ever series, funny or otherwise (and boy, it is most definitely funny). 30 Rock follows the behind-the-scenes adventures of the cast and crew of a Saturday Night Live-style variety show, concentrating on head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) as she tries to juggle her own chaotic personal life with the demands of the show’s egotistical aging diva, Jenna (Jane Krakowski, perhaps the show’s most underrated player), the sweet-natured yet completely unpredictable and almost sociopathic resident celebrity, Tracy (Tracy Morgan), and her own ragtag writing staff, often turning to her boss and mentor, the suave yet somewhat eccentric Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), for guidance — although Jack often ends up needing her as much as she needs him. A consistently funny, witty and often surprising satire of show business, New York City living and whatever else it might feel like taking a poke at during any given week, 30 Rock is currently in its sixth season (Seasons 1-5 are currently available on Netflix) and will hopefully be around for at least another six. As good as the supporting cast can be, the show belongs to Fey and Baldwin, who make quite the formidable comedy team playing total political, professional and social opposites who also happen to be inseparable platonic soulmates.
One of the pioneers (at least on these shores) of the semi-improvised situational comedy that dared make us laugh without the safety net of a laugh track (at least outside the realm of HBO, which paved the way over ten years earlier with The Larry Sanders Show), Arrested Development concentrates on the Bluth clan, perhaps the most dysfunctional family in the history of television, as the endlessly put-upon middle son, Michael (Jason Bateman), attempts to keep his incarcerated father’s business afloat — and keep his kin more or less together, even though each and every one of them seems bound and determined to make that as difficult a task as possible. Even though it ended its three-season run almost six years ago, AD is still the show against which almost every other like it is weighed and compared, with the answer usually being “No” to the question, “Is it as good as Arrested Development?” All three seasons are available on Netflix, though it was announced last year that the show will return in 2013 for a nine or ten episode mini-series (on Netflix!) that will lead up to a feature film. We’ll believe it when we see it, but please let it be so.
One of the more unique (and deliciously uncomfortable) comedies currently on the air, Louie stars Louis C.K. as a fictionalized version of himself, a stand-up comedian and recently divorced father of two daughters living and working in New York City. The show follows Louie through alternately strange and mundane situations as he braves the big bad city as a middle-aged man who’s now suddenly single again; these “extended vignettes” are intercut with his stand-up performances, where he makes scathing, brutally honest and often hilarious observations about life, love and the ever-ticking clock that is our mortality. Louie is a one-of-a-kind character; he’s not exactly a nice guy (in fact, he’s sometimes a complete asshole), and yet he’s undeniably likable as he challenges combative audience hecklers, endures bizarre sessions with his confused psychiatrist (David Patrick Kelly) and tolerates the wildly morbid humor of his doctor (Ricky Gervais). Some people buy Ferraris when they experience a mid-life existential crisis; Louis C.K. made a TV show pretty much unlike any other, and the world’s all the better for it.