A groundbreaking single camera dramedy that mixed nostalgia, coming of age, politics, and family drama, The Wonder Years remains a show I must watch whenever I come across it on TV. A lot of it is probably because I was ten when it debuted after Superbowl XXII, and the things that Kevin Arnold and his friends were going through were things I was going through ( or about to go through).
It certainly was completely different than anything else I had seen on TV at that time. It could be sweetly funny and heartbreakingly sad with in seconds. Due to it’s 1968 to 1973 time line, the Vietnam War was never far from the story ( Winnie’s older brother was killed in Vietnam in the pilot). The show also made good use of the generation gap, as the constant head butting between conservative father Jack and hippie sister Karen helped illustrate the turbulence of the culture of the time.
Mostly, I just loved how the show felt real. It never was wildly over the top with it’s ideas or it’s feelings. And it was grounded by the brilliant performance of Fred Savage, who was simultaneously awkward and sweet as Kevin.
And any show with that series soundtrack- that alone gets my vote.
This is another show in which the pitch meeting might have been interesting. A sitcom about two Caltech physicists and their neighbor? You know if anyone but Chuck Lorre was behind it, this show would have never gotten the pilot off the ground, let alone restructure and shoot a second pilot when the first one flopped.
Also, the pilot that did air feels weak, especially when compared with where the show has gone since. Even I, who watches pretty much everything at one point, felt it wasn’t worth much investment. Then something astonishing happened. Chuck Lorre and co-exec Bill Prady took all cliches, conventions, and stereotypes perpetuated by sitcoms over history and turned them on their metaphoric heads.
Yes, we have a core of four clearly geeky, socially awkward scientists as our protagonists. Johnny Galecki’s Leonard is the most “normal” of these four, as in he’s clearly out of his element, he’s aware of his limitations, he isn’t so abnormal as to be off putting. He’s the most human of the four guys, even if he appears sometimes to be a whiny brat who clearly has mommy issues. I’ve dated many guys like that. None of them had IQs of 173. Simon Helberg’s Howard is the most obvious cliche of the bunch- horny, clueless, and the most obvious real world style geek with his array of comic book themed belt buckles. But he’s also been shown to be highly sensitive, afraid of real life, and somewhat impatient with the status quo. Kunal Nayyar’s Raj may come off as a neurotic East Indian stereotypical brainiac with selective mutism- okay, selective mutism is a device I cannot recall being used ever in a sitcom. His character on the surface would appear to be stereotypical simply if you look at it from a racial/cultural standpoint. Truth is, he’s very “American”, and his selective mutism is simply a tic, as he can let it go with just one sip of alcohol ( or with the belief he’s had one sip of alcohol). Then he turns into a boorish ass. Alcohol really does bring out ones true colors.
This basic rundown brings us to the two breakout characters of TBBT. First, Penny, who was actually played as the typical dumb blonde in the pilot. I am not blaming Kaley Cuoco, who has always been winsome and delightful as Penny, I blame the writers. Thank God they had the brains to remedy that. Penny is the “normal” one, an emotional, impulsive, nice girl who is in awe of the brilliant guys she knows and also is their link to what the outside world is really like. She is far kinder to them than most people ever will be, and she genuinely likes them. She is not without flaws, as she has anger management issues, and really enjoys needling on Sheldon’s many OCD neuroses. She also admits at times to being somewhat shallow, and she’s a shopaholic ( and the show actually tries to touch on the fact she shops to bolster her self esteem instead of making easy jokes about it).
Then there is the singularly brilliant Sheldon Cooper, who is played by Jim Parsons with such control and insight it actually freaks me out a bit. He is brilliant, a child prodigy who was thrust into the adult world at a young age but somehow remains in a state of arrested development. He throws tantrums like a child when his world is shaken up, and everyone around him does tend to bend to his will as it seems to be easier than putting up a fight and then losing. Kudos to the writers again, though, for allowing the other characters attempt at times to shake things up, as it allows for some of Sheldon’s finest moments ( the hug, being locked out of his apartment and being forced to stay at Penny’s, his decision to try to make a new friend). But despite Sheldon’s eccentricities, he is actually a very loyal and generous friend when he chooses to be, and Parsons himself is so sweet and likable and FUNNY that even when Sheldon is at his most annoying, you still like him.
Then there is the structure of the show itself. Yes, it is a typical multicam sitcom. It had a live studio audience. The laughter can be annoying. Whatever, it was good enough for Lucy and Gleason, it is certainly good enough for our nerdy friends. And yes, typical sitcom themes are introduced. But I admire greatly Lorre and Prady’s decision to use standard sitcom style without the standard sitcom play. Penny borrows money from Sheldon. Sheldon never really mentions it to Penny, but Penny drives herself crazy, convinced everything Sheldon says is a hidden dig at her. I was surprised by this, because she should have known Sheldon never lets anything go by him if he cares about it. Any other sitcom would have ( and has had) the story play out with the lender asking the borrower until a big fight, then miraculously everything is fine in the act out. Yes, our boys have moms that are polar opposites of each other and their own sons, but it also helps with psychology of why Leonard puts up with Sheldon when you see Leonard’s mom is Sheldon in a dress. Yes, The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom, but it’s actually much deeper than your typical one, and it actually loves the characters it brings to the world.
It seems to me that the definition of a cult classic is pretty vague. Low viewership seems to be a requirement. Usually this tag is applied to series in the sci-fi realm or whackadoodle comedies.
This show falls into the last category.
I vaguely remember watching it in real time back in the late 80s and laughing at the broken conventions used. There was no fourth wall for any of the characters. Garry essentially played himself, with monologues to bookend the show. The show was anarchic in comedy style, with a star that would manipulate the storytelling to serve his ultimate interests ( Dukakis winning, anyone?)
Ultimately, the show, which aired on cable’s Showtime for four seasons and 72 episodes in the late 80s. It petered out and Garry went on to bigger and better things. It languished on TV Critics ” DVDs we want” list, and we’re getting our wish in October. Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with what footage we have on ragged VHS and various websites. But if you want to be a great series completest, buy it when it comes out. Now all we need is Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.
I know some people are going to get on my case about having Fringe on my list. It’s only a season old, it struggled all last season, it seems to be one of those shows you love or you hate, I’m still in the middle of catching up on all the episodes I missed during the season…
Yeah, well, awesome is awesome. Bite me.
It does remind me a bit of The X-Files, with it’s clinical tone and whacked out nut bar teamed with more grounded federal agents. It deals with similar phenomena as well- the unexplained aspects of the universe that human nature dictates we need to find answers for. I can tell you right now that it took me a while to get into it, just like with The X-Files, even with the still adorable and surprisingly compelling Joshua Jackson in the cast ( granted, I was always more a Pacey girl than a Dawson girl, but I digress).
Ultimately, it’s among a new breed of Sci-Fi shows, that mixes self contained mythology, high concept drama, oddball humor, stunning visuals, and gutsy story telling. J.J. Abrams is so effing gutsy, the final shot of the season finale showed *SPOILER ALERT* the Twin Towers still standing in NYC ( and a great reveal of Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, which was too frickin’ awesome to bear). This show is great. Don’t try and tell me otherwise.
Canadians like myself love to mock our television industry. It’s easy- the top rated Canadian program of all time is Hockey Night In Canada. Our homegrown industry has not been without it’s successes, but the failures are spectacular. There was 20 years between truly successful sitcoms in Canada.
We do, however, do hour long drama better ( think- Flashpoint, the multiple Da Vinci series, the multiple Degrassi shows, which are truly half hour dramas and not sitcoms, Street Legal), and occasionally, we hit one out of the park. Due South is the one we hit out.
It’s a TV show that is very Canadian- the references alone are hilarious ( Forbisher, Fraser, Diefenbaker, the Jay Semko music, Dawn Charest, Mackenzie King, hockey, Esther Pearson, Red Green did a guest spot, ” Northwest Passage”, the veritable who’s who of Canadian actors in the four seasons) . I always have an amusing time watching episodes with non- Canadians and having them stare at me blankly while I’m laughing my ass off. But tone and inside jokes aside, it’s not like the show is wildly groundbreaking in theme. It’s a cop show ( granted, one with a lot of humor and even some supernatural influences, and one mighty red serge). The crime of the week was always a bit over the top ridiculous, and then there is the suspension of belief you needed to think that Chicago PD would let a Mountie help them.
The true highlight in the series was the characters. Start with the headliner, Paul Gross’ charmingly straight arrow, by the book Benton Fraser. He would stand outside the consulate like a Beefeater, stone faced and dutiful, while people would have complete conversations with him. He was law abiding to a fault ( he would never shoot a gun, as he had no permit to do so… in the US, but cross the border on the Great Lakes, all bets are off, man). His trusting nature got him into many a sticky situation. Then there was the dirt tasting… among other things. He was a good cop who was also completely uncynical, a rarity on a cop show. Match him up with Ray Vecchio ( played by David Marciano), the more typical TV cop, and you got yourself a sweet buddy-cop pairing. Oh, and then the fabulous Diefenbaker, the deaf half wolf who can read lips. Genius right there.
Due South had been picked up by CBS to air in the States and the first season did air there. But they cancelled it due to low ratings. The show continued on for three more seasons in Canada, where it remains one of the top rated homegrown shows of all time. It left the air in 1999, due more to Gross’ desire to do other projects than anything else ( he would later produce and star in the now classic Canadian cable theater drama Slings And Arrows, the movies Passchendale and Men With Brooms, and is showing up this fall on US television as the devil in Eastwick). It remains in constant rotation though on Canadian cable networks specializing in classic TV ( it aired at one point on TVtropolis).
Honestly, if I had been a NBC exec in the early 90s and heard the pitch for this show- six single friends living in New York City- I would have passed. Why? On the surface, it all seems kind of- blah. But then again, I would have passed on Seinfeld’s ” It’s about nothing” premise, so all this tells you is that I should never be a T.V. exec. But it’s also meant to illustrate that once upon a time, simple premises made for likable T.V. pilots that turned into really funny T.V. shows.
Would Friends succeed today? I actually believe it would. The show holds up well for multiple viewings, and while certain references may be dated, the core conceit of these six twenty-somethings living and loving in NYC is anything but old. Jokes still come fast and furious, the cast still charms, and the writing is still sharp.
Friends is also one of the first sitcoms I can remember that came with what we now call a mythology, but is really more of an accidental series long question. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane admitted that the romance that fuelled the show was originally to be between Monica and Joey. It takes some smart, flexible TV show runners to throw original plans out the window upon seeing the chemistry between two secondary costars like David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston. The Ross and Rachel love story also did not play out like a TV cliche. Yes, there were moments of sitcom cuteness, and the will they/won’t they was drawn out to ridiculous extremes, but the point is it wasn’t easy. Real life is never easy, why should TV be so simplistic. The Ross and Rachel break up episode ( ” The One With the Morning After”) remains one of my personal favorite half hours of television in history- it was real. It wasn’t pat, it wasn’t irrationally over the top, it was the way two people would behave when trust is broken down in a relationship. Ross and Rachel were never the same again, even as they repaired their friendship, had accidental name slips at the altar, drunkenly wed in Vegas, have a baby, and go through numerous other relationships.
Then there was the surprise of Courteney Cox Arquette’s anal Monica and Matthew Perry’s clownish Chandler. I never saw it coming, but that relationship again seemed grounded in reality. They were both scared that the friendship would change, only to realize it did, but for the better. It’s the type of romance that can only come with growth and maturity, particularly for Chandler. Again, it was never easy, and even after the wedding, the realism of infertility hit them, and that and the adoption story were well done.
I guess my over riding point about Friends is this: there were six stock characters- dumb guy, funny guy, geeky guy, flaky girl, the princess, and the neurotic girl. This show could have flailed for six episodes and then been pulled. But the writers refusal to allow their stock characters to remain static and never fearing change, this sitcom about latte loving people remains fresh, funny, and real.