Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (I have a stockpile, but keep ’em coming!)
MDay991 asks… What do you think is the best sitcom episode from 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001, 2011, and 2021?
Just glancing over a document of everything I’ve covered on this blog (and therefore excluding 2011 and 2021), these are the episodes that I would currently posit as answers to your question. If I spent more time thinking about this, they might change, but for now…
1951 – THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW (S2): “Gracie Goes To A Psychiatrist”
The two funniest sitcom characters on TV in 1951 are the Kingfish (from The Amos ‘n Andy Show) and Gracie Allen. This is one of the latter’s smartest applications in story.
1961 – THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (S1): “My Blonde-Haired Brunette”
This is the first example of the ’60s’ finest sitcom realizing its purpose: big comic centerpieces motivated by leads more realistic than the genre had heretofore seen.
1971 – ALL IN THE FAMILY (S2): “Cousin Maude’s Visit”
All the top entries from 1971 come from All In The Family; this one pits the well-established Archie Bunker characterization (specifically, his beliefs) against his soon-to-spin-off opposite.
1981 – THREE’S COMPANY (S6): “Two Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”
1981 has a few great shows with a few solid samples, but this half hour is the funniest.
1991 – SEINFELD (S2): “The Chinese Restaurant”
Early Seinfeld is legitimately rebellious and exciting because of how it leans into its low-concept premise in similarly low-concept story. This is the most explicit example of that style.
2001 – EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (S6): “The Angry Family”
2001 has some strong choices, but the best segment of the best season of the year’s best sitcom is hard to beat — the comedic (and dramatic) summation of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Jon B asks… What do you think ALL IN THE FAMILY could have done to keep itself from getting so bad in its last few years?
The issue is foundational and related to identity. I think if the series had indicated in its pilot that the characters were going to be more important to the show’s weekly self-determined notions of situational excellence than the mere novelty of narrative topicality and Lear’s overarching sociopolitical thesis, then the show’s aperture for story would have been less narrow. Unfortunately, by setting the audience up to expect certain types of subjects as a vital part of the show’s DNA — while defining all the leads so heavily around how they could validate a chosen perspective — all deviations from this formula in episodic plot came to feel like a rejection of the show’s premise. As such, this created a lot of room for disappointment, and a wider gap than most series have between what we call its highs and what we call its lows.
Lee H. James commented a few weeks ago after the holiday contest, featuring my picks for the five best sitcom seasons per each TV year from the 1970s, saying… This was fun. Will you do this again for the 1980’s?
As I said initially, “Probably not. I won’t be covering as many ‘80s sitcoms, so a list like this wouldn’t be as varied or interesting.” However, I can share my selections for a few years of this decade right now, as we’re moving along on Sitcom Tuesdays, and if there are any Wildcard options that might pop up, I don’t foresee them being competitive. So, here you go — my picks for the five best sitcom seasons on the air from the 1980s’ first three years.
- TAXI (S3)
- THREE’S COMPANY (S5)
- THE JEFFERSONS (S7)
- SOAP (S4)
- BARNEY MILLER (S7)
- TAXI (S4)
- BEST OF THE WEST (S1)
- THREE’S COMPANY (S6)
- WKRP IN CINCINNATI (S4)
- BARNEY MILLER (S8)
- CHEERS (S1)
- TAXI (S5)
- BUFFALO BILL (S1)
- MAMA’S FAMILY (S1)
- THREE’S COMPANY (S7)
Brittany Blue has a question…Which “Xena” episode should I watch first if I’m looking to get hooked by only one episode? Should I start at the beginning?
I don’t think it’s essential to start at the beginning — not only because it takes a little while for this show to find its rhythm, but also because the characters and the premise are neither hard to understand nor heavily serialized (at least, not initially). However, you don’t want to get too late in the run, so I’d suggest staying in Season One and checking out the strongest segment from that debut year — Episode 22: “Callisto,” which I ranked as my third favorite entry of the ENTIRE series. (Check out my current rankings here.) If you like what you see, then you can go back and start at the top. If not, at least you tried with one of the show’s best.
Toby Griffith is back about Aaron Sorkin’s Being The Ricardos… I just saw the film. Mixed feelings. What did you think?
I appreciated the performances (contrary to some viewers, I think Nicole Kidman does a great job — she transforms herself) and I loved the production design — it looks like a million bucks. Also, unlike many of my Lucy fanatic friends, I wasn’t bothered by the little inaccuracies either. Those are to be expected, and, fortunately, the film got much more right than wrong… But I had big problems with Aaron Sorkin’s script — and this was no surprise, for from seeing his prior stuff, I don’t think he’s ever quite “gotten” the sitcom form, and accordingly, he’s always implied a subliminal contempt for it. So, his take on a production week for one of the sitcom’s formative masterworks was bound to be challenging. And sure enough, he did an interview before the film was released and said what we only would have assumed: he doesn’t find I Love Lucy funny. Sadly, that view ended up being obvious throughout the film too, as he took every opportunity to bash the show and its writing, validating his perspective with a post-modern critique of Lucy Ricardo that both totally destroyed the integrity of the writers involved (blatantly misrepresenting the true dynamics and personalities of these public figures), while indicating a massive misunderstanding of the series and the context in which it existed.
For instance, if we have to talk about where Lucy Ricardo stands in the depiction of women on TV, then instead of moaning about whether she’s “infantilized” (how 2021!), it would be more accurate and fair to talk about how her objective throughout the show is feminist: she wants to be in show business — something more than the “typical” housewife and mother — with most episodic plots reflecting her attempts to break out of the home and reject the depiction of womanhood that she’s supposed to embrace. That’s not only progressive, it’s what makes her such a rich character, capable of pushing comic story, earning those iconic slapstick centerpieces, and securing our emotional investment… 70 years later. So, I don’t think Sorkin gets her or the show, and while he’s fine to have any opinion he wants about its merit (including one with which I disagree), he should back it up without being dishonest and insulting. Also, he’s self-defeating; if he’s telling us that Lucille is throwing herself into her work to make it perfect, but that her work — at its best — is terribly imperfect (and actually subpar), then he’s fundamentally trivializing her and her low-stakes goal. So, why should we care at all?
Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.
Come back next week for more sitcom fun and another new Wildcard Wednesday!
Excellent analysis of “Being the Ricardos.” You put your finger on an element of it that was bugging me with genuine insight.
Hi, halhillco! Thanks for reading and commenting.
What a nice compliment — thank you!
I hope you don’t mind me throwing my two cents in, but I’d recommend One Against an Army as the best “gateway” episode for Xena, as it’s basically a microcosm of the series: it’s got humour, drama, high stakes, Xena kicking ass on a whole bunch of dudes, and it highlights the Xena/Gabi relationship at its best, showing how they care more about each other than they do themselves. (Yes, it’s my favourite episode.)
Hi, Mike! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, that’s also a good episode — I ranked it fifth in my 2020 series of posts — but I don’t think it’s as strong a display of the series’ premise as “Callisto” (where Xena has to face an active personification of her past crimes), and coming in the third year, I certainly don’t think it’s a better access point for a new viewer than something produced in Season One.