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Five shows prove comedy’s still alive

Fri., Jan. 3, 2014

Enough with the drama!

All you hear these days is how we’re basking in a Renaissance era of daring TV drama, with quality shows like “Breaking Bad,” “The Good Wife,” “Mad Men” and “Masters of Sex.”

Sitcoms have become the forgotten stepchildren of primetime. Not hard to understand in a season when only two, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” rank in Nielsen’s Top 20.

So you may be surprised to learn that laughs are still to be found. Look no further than these five diverse comedies, all working wonders in and out of the traditional sitcom framework:

• What if they made the funniest show on TV and nobody watched? It already happened with “Arrested Development.” The loopy saga of the Bluth family languished in the ratings basement at Fox a decade ago. This year, the streaming service Netflix reunited the sterling cast (Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera) for another go-round of nuclear dysfunction, surreal storytelling and priceless throwaway gags.

Because the actors’ schedules were impossible to reconcile, “Arrested’s” creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, had to come up with a narrative gambit that initially seemed odd and disjointed. But when all the plots began to coalesce, round about Episode 5, the comedy magic was back in the bottle.

• HBO’s “Veep” is the sharpest Beltway satire the medium has ever seen, mostly because it focuses not on the power wielded by politicians, but on their desperate venality. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays an image-obsessed, perpetually out-of-the-loop VPOTUS, riding her incompetent staff to find her anything that will lend her the veneer of importance.

Confession: I’ve never liked Louis-Dreyfus, not in “Seinfeld,” not in “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” But thanks to her work in this nearly note-perfect farce, I’m now her biggest fan.

• The unlikely comeback vehicle for Tim Allen, “Last Man Standing” on ABC, is a thoroughly traditional, absolutely charming sitcom. No bells or whistles, just the old home/workplace split stocked with sharply drawn characters in conflict. “Last Man” is both economical and efficient, getting excellent comic mileage out of the most marginal bit players.

• “Sam & Cat” on Nickelodeon puts a juvenile topspin on a sure-fire comic formula that harks back to Abbott and Costello: a partnership of diametric opposites.

Jennette McCurdy (“iCarly”) plays the lazy, devious Sam, and Ariana Grande (“Victorious”) the innocent, idealistic Cat. Their adept handling of silliness and physical comedy makes the pair the Laverne and Shirley of their generation.

• Compared to the preceding roster, “Drunk History” is a pretty high-concept project. But what a concept.

The show, adapted from a Web series, uses a revolving door of narrators. Their challenge: to recount a well-known historical tale while soused to the gills. You can throw out most of what you’ve learned about famous figures like Lewis and Clark, Billy the Kid or even Patty Hearst, because the facts get fairly muddled when your chronicler is totally inebriated.

“Drunk History” then uses well-known actors in period costume to act out these garbled re-creations with solemn seriousness.

I’ll take these comedies over “Sons of Anarchy” anytime.


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