Top 10 Greatest Sitcoms of the Modern Television Era
It is apparent to even the average television viewer that the days of the traditional sitcom leading the Nielsen ratings are quickly becoming extinct. Gone are the days when American families would crowd around the living room television set, open up their TV trays, dive into their pre-heated Salisbury Steak, sing or at least hum the opening theme in their shared experience of great situational comedy. The modern television era–or the New Golden Age as it has been labeled–is dominated by the one-hour series format breaking away from the studio set and laugh-tracks of a studio audience. Comedy itself seems to be taking a darker route, either through scathing satire or dark, deadpan humor. Therefore, as the traditional sitcom breathes on through the life-support system of the older television viewers who cling to those glory days, this list is going to serve as an ode to a once prolific art form. Below is a list of what I feel were the top 10 greatest sitcoms of the modern television era.
Before I jump brashly into this list, let me acknowledge two significant angles to how I formed this superlative. First, when I say “Modern Television Era”, I will primarily be focusing on the mid 80’s to the present day. The reason for this is, even though I understand the greatness of shows like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Hillstreet Blues, Taxi, All in the Family, etc.–and I have watched these programs quite regularly–these shows were more revolutionary in the eyes of much older television viewers and just do not appeal to the modern era. Second, I have also decided to leave out animated series. Yes, the word “sitcom” is a highly contested term when attempting to categorize the ever-evolving landscape of modern television series. So this list will be referencing the 10 most significant live-action comedy programs of the modern era. So here we go….
#10- The Big Bang Theory (Premiered September 24, 2007)
The first show on this list was the last to end its series run just this past year. Some may even argue that The Big Bang Theory might be the last great sitcom. For over a decade, this show owned the top of the Nielsen ratings and kept CBS sitcoms alive in the eyes of viewers, both old and young. In the current days when “nerdiness” has suddenly become the new cool, no show was able to cash in on the Star-Warsie, Star-Trekkie, Marvel-crazed fans more than The Big Bang Theory. Every week, fans clamored to watch Howard, Raj, Wolowitz, Penny, Bernadette, Amy, and of course, the always pedantic Sheldon, wimply quip back and forth over the dorkiest of topics, all while navigating the same trials and tribulations most adults face throughout the workday, the dating scene, and generally trying to fit into a judgmental society. Though I was not an avid fan of the show, I truly feel this may be the last great American sitcom to own the #1 slot for viewership. In the days when streaming channels seem to rule the realm, once a week American families still found something to love in this cast. And it is for this reason that I feel The Big Bang Theory might be a fitting closure to the sitcom dominance of our television world.
#9- The Office (The American Series) (Premiered March 24, 2005)
Though originally a British comedy series, the American version of The Office caught immediate pop-culture fire when it aired in 2005. Lead by the comedic genius of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott, The Office offered people a satirical view of the mundane environment of the average American job of sales. Nevertheless, you did not have to work in such a field to appreciate the dry humor of the myriad characters presented on the show. Of course, Rainn Wilson’s Dwight became an instant fan-favorite and a rather common Halloween costume for most of the decade, it was the show’s mockumentary style that offered something refreshing to a sitcom. This is one of the first sitcoms on weekly television that did not rely on the laugh-track to produce a response from its audience. Instead, the comedic power of its cast and the witty dialogue that tackled some very serious subjects provided all the key ingredients for such a revolutionary comedy. The show is finding a new fan base once again in the younger generation as it is one of the more highly streamed programs on Netflix.
#8- Cheers (Premiered September 30, 1982)
The oldest show to premiere on this list, Cheers was the most formidable sitcom of the 1980s. Some critics have gone so far as to call the show “the perfect sitcom”, which is a label that seems almost impossible to use in a critique. Set in a bar in Boston with the show’s titular name, Cheers used its unique ensemble of characters to appeal to a wide range of viewers. Everyone found something to love in Sam, Woody, Cliff, Norm, Frasier, Carla, etc. And I think the average American who frequents a bar to unwind from the normal stress of life felt like they could see their own similar bar experiences through the dialogue of the characters at Cheers. One of the most prominent aspects of this show was the perfectly timed one-liners that helped develop each character and required your complete attention span for the entire program in order for you to not miss a single laugh while viewing the show. Sure, this might be more of a show for the fathers of Generation X, but even us Gen-Xers and today’s millennials still find something brilliant in what Cheers did for the direction of sitcoms.
#7- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air– (Premiered September 10, 1990)
I struggled on where to rank The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or even whether to rank it at all. However, when I consider this show, I do not think there was another show during my childhood that connected more with most young adults, and even older adults, than Will Smith’s brilliant The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This show has one of the most iconic opening theme songs, which I find even my students and the young children today still know every word. In fact, of all the shows on this list, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the one show that is still watched avidly by millennials and the youth of society. At a time when the vast majority of family sitcoms focused on mostly an all-white cast, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air followed right behind The Cosby Show as it captured the hearts of viewers of all races. Now I know I might catch some heat for the following statement, but for as much as I know how much The Cosby Show influenced the direction of television, I just never loved it the way I loved The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; and the latter show has remained the more popular program in today’s society (However, if someone wants to argue that The Cosby Show was clearly the more important of the two, I would totally understand that argument…it’s a strong argument I am sure one that most people would make). Okay, so the sitcoms prior to The Cosby Show that focused on mostly African Americans characters were not as popular with the average white American household. Of course, The Cosby Show changed that perspective, but The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was just cooler! Yes, the dichotomy of the wealthy Banks family brushing up against the West Philadelphian-raised culture brought into the family dynamic by Will took the current thriving hip-hop culture of the late 80s and early 90s directly into American homes. I do not think it can be stressed enough what this show did in changing the culture and direction of television for the 90s. No longer were studios timid in greenlighting sitcoms with predominantly African American casts; and in fact, they now hungered for these types of scripts. Shows like Martin, Living Single, Moesha in the House, etc., all followed closely on the footsteps paved by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
#6- Married With Children- (Premiered April 5, 1987)
At a time when Fox was in its infancy, it was searching for a way to separate itself from the major three broadcasting networks. As Fox tried to venture into the sitcom world and make its mark, it decided to reach outside of the box and explore shows that were more unique to the sitcom genre. It struck sitcom gold immediately in Married with Children. Unlike most other sitcoms, the patriarch of the Bundy family and main character of Married with Children, Al Bundy, was more like a contemporary anti-hero. Where he is truly at heart a morally grounded man, his gross and obnoxious masculinity drove a show, which probably would fail to work in today’s socio-political milieu. Al Bundy was a slight call-back to Carol O’ Connor’s Archie Bunker, and he would steer the narrative with his misogynistic and Alpha-male one-liners. Yet, unlike conventional anti-heroes, there was still a sensibility and ultimately a reliable code of honor that would make Al lovable to the American public. Let’s not forget that his wife Peg (Katey Sagal), his daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate), and his son Bud (David Faustino) helped fill out this classic family dynamic. Still, what made this show a top sitcom of the modern era was its willingness to break normal sitcom conventions and ultimately usher in a new style of comedy. Along with The Simpsons, Married with Children is almost single-handedly accredited with putting Fox on the map, and it continued to see success from 1987 and on.
#5- Community- (Premiered September 17, 2007)
Probably the least known show on this list, Community was a short-lived, cult phenomenon. It never was a rating juggernaut, and it never captured the pop-culture like the rest of the shows on this list. So why is it rated so high here? Well, it was simply genius! Yes, I said genius! Creator Dan Harmon set Community, an absolutely brilliant satire, at the fictitious community college campus of Greendale. The show centered around the study group of an Island-of-Misfit-Toys-like cast of characters, who all ended up in community college due to one setback or another in their personal lives. The cast is lead by Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Ivette Nicole Brown, and the amazing Ken Jeong. Without launching into a long-winded synopsis of why this show works on almost every comedic level, it is one of the greatest sitcoms of the modern era due to its innovation in satire. Never before has a non-animated show parodied society more astutely than Community. Never before has a show’s dialogue been wittier and more cerebral. It was once called the “Inception of sitcoms”, and such a description could not be more accurate. It is almost impossible to explain the clever writing to someone who has never seen it. Any words I write will fail to do it justice. The one thing keeping it from being the greatest sitcom of the modern era is simply the ratings and viewership. At the risk of sounding arrogant or pretentious, there is just a great portion of the American television viewer who probably just “didn’t get it”…and, understandably so. This is not an American family show, but if you like both whimsical and inventive satire, you will fail to find a greater sitcom. The interactions of the characters of Troy and Abed remain some of the most enjoyable scenes to ever grace our television sets. If you are one of the vast majority of viewers who have never watched this show, I suggest you give it a chance. But be warned! As I stated, the comedy is just not for everyone. You’ll know about 5 episodes in whether or not this show is something you need to continue to watch.
#4- Arrested Development- (Premiered November 2, 2003)
It’s hard to find a more impactful show in shaping the direction of television comedy of the 21st century than Arrested Development. Mitch Hurwitz brought to FOX one of the most functionally dysfunctional families, the Bluths. The quirky and obscure trials faced by the Bluth family brought something fresh and dynamic to American sitcoms. Though this is the one show on this list that is debated whether or not it is even classified as a sitcom, the fact that it stirs that debate is one of the reasons why this show was so radical. The direction of the show was unique in its own right with handheld camera shots, historical footage, and pitch-perfect voice-over narrations that all blended into a show that unfortunately a great deal of the American public was not ready for. Just like Community, Arrested Development garnered a strong but small following; and even the diehard fan base couldn’t keep it from being canceled after just three seasons. Distraught fans beseeched producers to bring it back, and it returned in 2011 on Netflix for two new yet somewhat disappointing seasons. Sure the new seasons felt like Arrested Development, but they failed to recapture that magic that it hit television with years before. Still, its bold ingenuity and its biting humor make its many viewers all-time favorite comedy…and for that reason alone, it deserves its spot here among the upper echelon of great modern television programs.
#3- Roseanne- (Premiered October 18, 1988)
In 1988, Roseanne took its place at the top of the hierarchy of family-style sitcoms. The Connor family–Dan, Roseanne, Becky, Darlene, and DJ–along with the eccentric and brilliantly acted Aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), were immediately beloved by television viewers young and old. Like Married with Children, Roseanne brought a crass, unsophisticated, loud-mouthed titular character. Played by the ever controversial Roseanne Barr, America felt like it was growing up with this family. One of the aspects that made the show work was the common everyday struggles that the family faced, such as trying to find work, struggling to pay the bills, and living in a world that seemed to always kick you when you are down. Middle and lower class America finally had a show that seemed to project an honest view of living and struggling in the American suburbs. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the show was really powered by Roseanne Barr, who brought a new face to the tv sitcom housewife. Gone were the days of a male-dominated household, and gone were the days of the picturesque housewife, cooking and cleaning and engaging in all the conventional modes of what a housewife was “supposed” to be. In addition, the entire cast was strong, which drove this show to last for over a decade. Of course, everyone is aware of its recent revival and the controversy stirred by some of Roseanne Barr’s most recent comments on social media. That aside, there is no denying that the original run of Roseanne helped usher in a new decade of family-style sitcoms. Though many other shows tried to copy its formula, no other show was ever able to conjure the perfect yet rare blend of the warm family life with unsophisticated, even boorish personalities.
#2- Friends- (Premiered September 22, 1994)
There were two shows in the modern television era that stood as giants amongst all other programs. The first of these shows on this list is Friends. Though originally having a rather trying opening season, over the next nine seasons, it became the highest rated and, lest we forget, highest salary per actor show on television. The first names of Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, Chandler, Ross, and Joey have forever become attached to the characters on this show. With each character possessing their own idiosyncrasies to separate one from the other, the cast of Friends felt authentic. And let’s be honest, I cannot think of another show with more recognizable quotes or moments, from “We were on a break!” to “PIVOT!” to “meat sweats” to Phoebe’s oddball performance of her folk song “Smelly Cat”, the dialogue in Friends found its way into the everyday dialogue of America. In fact, I have personally witnessed people who claimed to have never seen the show still use popular quotes or references in their general conversations. But it was more than just a comedic phenomenon. Friends, like most sitcoms, was at its core a heartwarming show that relied on pathos to capture its audience. Even today, like The Office, a new generation of teens is experiencing Friends for the first time through streaming channels. And, I’ve noticed that the show may seem dated from an outside perspective, there is still something magical that reaches out and captures the hearts of even the roughest and rugged individuals. You will be hard-pressed to find a show that will make you laugh, cry, and cheer more than Friends.
#1- Seinfeld- (Premiered July 5, 1989)
Rounding out the list of greatest sitcoms of the modern television era, there can only be one show that will forever define a generation. No show was more important than Seinfeld. Now, as an honest reviewer, I was never one of those obsessed Seinfeld fanatics who held the show up as the glorified king of all comedies. However, I have seen more than enough episodes (some numerous times), and I have witnessed first-hand throughout my entire life the impact that Seinfeld had on society. By all accounts, the show seemed like it was destined to fail. Dubbed “The Show about Nothing”, Seinfeld took one of the biggest risks in television as it absconded from the traditional sitcom formula of centering its episodes around a moral or underlying message. Instead, Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine took fans on a journey through the triviality of daily life. The creator, Larry David, decided to shun the sentimentality that most sitcoms felt crucial to embrace for success, and instead, he used broken story arcs and just regular conversations to make the show feel more real to its fans than any other sitcom. By real, I mean that Seinfeld seemed to hold a mirror up to that slightly darker side of our society, as the characters rarely reacted to major emotional events with any real emotional response; which, if many people are being honest with themselves, is kind of how a great number of people deal with such situations. Though clearly a hyperbole of everyday moments, Seinfeld was the one show on television that was able to break all traditional conventions, and yet still win over the hearts of its viewers by creating a lexicon that still exists today. Have you ever heard someone boast “yada-yada-yada” or “no soup for you!” or “double-dipping” or “low-talker”? Have you ever met someone who can’t wait to celebrate Festivus? Are you a “re-gifter”? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, then you have experienced the impact of Seinfeld on everyday life. No show will have a more devoted following, and it will be a while until another show changes situational comedy more than Seinfeld! It truly is the greatest sitcom of the modern television era.
So do you agree with my list? Did I leave off a show that you felt deserved a top 10 slot? If so, don’t be afraid to voice your response! After all, isn’t that a major point in discussing great works of art?