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Published: Monday, 12/30/2013 - Updated: 6 months ago

TELEVISION

Lots of funny business all over TV

BY DAVID HILTBRAND
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Jim Parsons, right, and Simon Helberg in a scene from "The Big Bang Theory," one of only two comedies that rank in Nielsen’s Top 20. Jim Parsons, right, and Simon Helberg in a scene from "The Big Bang Theory," one of only two comedies that rank in Nielsen’s Top 20.
CBS ENTERTAINMENT Enlarge

Enough with the drama!

All you hear these days is how we’re basking in a Renaissance era of sophisticated and daring TV drama. OK, Miley Cyrus’ name gets bandied about a lot, too, but mostly it’s the exquisite quality of shows like Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, and Mad Men.

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, a season when before Halloween even arrived people were asking, “Is The Michael J. Fox Show still on the air?”

So you may be surprised to learn that laughs are still to be found. Look no further than these five very 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, ‘larious 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, Tony Hale, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, etc.) for another riotous go-round of nuclear dysfunction, surreal storytelling, and priceless throwaway gags.

■ 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 (Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, et al) to find her something, anything that will lend her the veneer of importance.

The deliciously caustic creation of Armando Iannucci, Veep also boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Kevin Dunn, Dan Bakkedahl, Nelson Franklin, and Timothy Simons.

■ 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 (a la The Dick Van Dyke Show) stocked with sharply drawn characters in conflict. Allen, as a right-wing crank running a Cabela’s-like outdoors superstore, is a crafty pulling guard. But the rest of the ensemble has remarkable chemistry, even the kids (Molly Ephraim and Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever). 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, helium-voiced 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 (Nashville’s Connie Britton, New Girl’s Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, Kristen Wiig of Bridesmaids) in period costume to act out these garbled re-creations with solemn seriousness.

Don’t know why Drunk History works so well. I only know the past looks far more amusing through the bottom of a bottle.

I’ll take these comedies over Sons of Anarchy anytime. You have to be in a certain mood to watch Homeland, but comedies are reliable entertainment — in half the time!



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