As you’ve noticed by now, this blog is mostly political in tone. That said, even the most hard bitten current event fetishists crave the occasional break. That break is hereby granted as I contemplate my choices for the best television sitcoms of all time. Before you say it, “I Love Lucy” is often recognized as the top choice. Lucille Ball invented the sitcom and how to shoot it, how to write it and Desi Arnez came up with the idea of syndication. You have Ricky Ricardo to thank for your billions, Jerry Seinfeld. Okay, with Lucy in a separate and permanent state of sitcom excellence, on to the work at hand. In reverse order, here are my choices for three all time best sitcoms.
Number 3 — “Frasier”
This Cheers spin off equaled its parent show in longevity, running 11 seasons. Beginning with playing a throw-in character to provide another romantic interest for Cheer’s Diane Chambers, Kelsey Grammer led one of the best ensembles in TV history. David Hyde Pierce was an inspired choice to play Frasier’s brother and the only thing hard to accept about the show was the refined and sherry swilling Crane boys having sprung from a Seattle cop who retired with a debilitating gun shot wound to the hip. Peri Gilpin’s Roz Doyle kept Frasier grounded, at least part of the time. Daphne Moon, played by Jane Leeves, provided the will they or won’t they romantic intrigue with Niles that has become a sitcom staple. Like my next two choices, Frasier kept up its standard of great writing from the pilot to the finale and the show represents a brand of truly literate writing that has passed away in deference to the gnat sized attention spans of most current day viewers. Though Frasier was a pretentious blowhard, he was easy to root for because he usually failed spectacularly for the right reasons.
David Angell, a Cheers alum and a creator and producer on Frasier, deserves special mention for his talents. Tragically, he and his wife, Lynn, died on one of the planes on that awful September day in 2001. So much more great television will forever remain unwritten. The Frasier finale drew 33.7 million viewers.
Number 2 — “Seinfeld”
Many have installed this show as the best all time and it’s hard to argue as a general rule. It only misses the top spot on my list because the humor was so subtle, outlandish and original, it may not have appealed to all demographics. I am making a faint criticism here and maybe Seinfeld should be the top choice but remember, a monster hit in the 90’s pulled fewer viewers than a decade or two before. Regardless, calling Seinfeld the best show would not get much of an argument from me but I think my top choice had wider appeal generally while running longer than Seinfeld as well. The market is so divided now between network, cable and Netflix, the definition of a true popular success has changed. Before cable was so dominant and prior to steady on demand viewing, all of these shows were true heavyweights. The viewership numbers prove that easily.
Seinfeld was clearly an all time great show but it’s like comparing athletes of different eras. It’s very hard to do. The legendary episodes are known to most viewers but I will pick “The Apology” as my personal favorite. In that one, George demands an apology from an alcoholic going through the 12 Steps. The alcoholic’s crime? He would not loan George a sweater at a party because he didn’t want his, “… big, bulbous head stretching out the neck hole of my finely knit sweater.” Jerry finding fault with his gorgeous, blonde girlfriend being naked too much for his taste was a classic subplot. I would choose “The Contest” running a close second. Seinfeld’s last episode was watched by 76.3 million viewers.
Number 1 — “Cheers”
Despite many younger viewers never having seen a Cheers episode, it gets the top slot thanks to the incredible chemistry between Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers and Ted Danson’s Sam Malone. Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows, alums of Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi, among other shows, made the long story arc fashionable. Cheers finished near the bottom in its first year but NBC President Brandon Tartikoff believed in the show and gave it time to find its audience. When Nicolas Colasanto died and Shelley Long left after Season 5, Cheers retooled with Woody Harrelson and Kirstie Ally and pulled even better ratings after that. To write so well for so many characters and for such a long time nudged this show to the top. It’s wide appeal and the craft it brought to the airwaves still makes it required viewing for anyone who wants to write TV comedy.
My favorite episode is “Showdown“, where Sam and Diane are battling and end up of in a passionate embrace. The scene I have posted here is from “I’ll Be Seeing You , Part 2″. The performances made the show and they still do. Kirstie Ally was great as well and ironically, she played the character first envisioned by the producers in the first year. The choice to make Diane Chambers a perpetual student instead of a suit was a great choice for Long’s underrated talents. Long carried the show in those early years. Ally played a hard charging business woman until her comic ability took her away from her character’s early persona. Her presence on the show allowed other characters to get their day in the sun after the Sam and Diane years.
Shelley Long is knocked by some for leaving the show but the criticism is completely without merit. She was the most talented performer and left when the Sam and Diane story was played out. She brought the show to lofty heights and left in time for it to shine in new ways. She should be thanked every time her old antagonists on set get a residual check. The Cheers final episode was watched by between 80.4 and 93.5 million viewers, second only to M*A*S*H for the highest rating. 64% of all sets in America were tuned to the gang at Cheers for the last show. Now, that is something worth toasting.
Those are my top three. Click the comment box and tell me I’m wrong. I hope you enjoyed this break from all things political. I should swing outside my strike zone a bit more often.