With the important yet smaller categories out of the way along with the bulk of Vulture’s inaugural Best of TV season-ending celebration, it’s time for me to reveal my first list of top programs, which we’re breaking down by genre. (Look for my best-drama selections tomorrow.) I’m restricting the following countdown of the season’s best comedies to those from the past six months owing to reasons mentioned here, so that explains why you won’t see a Louie nod below. And now, without further setup, this is my list of the five best comedy programs to air in the first half of 2013. Drumroll, please!
5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
This little-sitcom-that-could might be the best example of how a half-hour comedy can apply the world-building strategies of Lost and create something far richer than a set of situations. By now we know so much about the history and traditions of the nonexistent Pawnee and its citizens that we could write a whole series of books about them. The show is still silly and sweet and wacky, but over time it has acquired a heft that feels nearly literary.
4. Girls (HBO)
“Can a show this dark and sad really be called a comedy?” a friend asked me. The question presumes that comedy’s only purpose is to make you forget your troubles, and that the ideal sort of laughter is warm and bright. As Woody Allen, Elaine May, Paul Mazursky, and early Albert Brooks proved, comedy can also illuminate delusion so mercilessly that you want to crawl under your couch in horror and shame. Sometimes you laugh because it’s an alternative to feeling nauseous. Some of this series’ season-two episodes were basically radio to me; I could listen but I couldn’t watch. This is praise.
3. 30 Rock (NBC)
Tina Fey’s super-meta sitcom went through the usual arc of a lot of long-running shows, becoming progressively broader and weirder over time, and there were points when even devotees complained that it had worn out its welcome. I binged-rewatched almost the entire run of the series before diving into its final stretch, and there wasn’t a single episode that didn’t make me laugh a lot. I think the show has very sturdy legs, and that its sign-off season was a great final flowering of energy.
2. Archer (FX)
No regular series makes me laugh as loudly and as often as FX’s animated spy spoof. That it’s Get Smart with an R-rated streak of nastiness — bloody, raunchy, profane — might have been enough to secure its popularity, but damned if it isn’t also flat-out beautiful: a weekly gallery show of frequently stunning retro-future designs, with action sequences as intricately imagined as the best of Bond, and way funnier.
1. Arrested Development (Netflix)
If you were wondering why none of the individual episodes from Arrested Development’s fourth season made my short list during Vulture’s Best of TV week, despite all the praise I’ve heaped on it, it’s because, more so than any sitcom I can think of, the long-delayed fourth season is all of a piece. Creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his collaborators have made something bigger and bolder than anything that AD, indeed any sitcom, has attempted in the past. It’s so fresh that I struggle to label it accurately. It’s not just a situation comedy. Calling season four a mega-movie or mini-series doesn’t quite do it justice, either. The intricacy of its structure, which hides and reveals characters, situations, and jokes over time, then revisits them again from new vantage points, makes it feel like an evolutionary leap forward for sitcoms. It’s wired to connect with how we watch TV right now, not how we watched it ten years ago, or even five years ago. It was made for binge-watching via online streaming video. The writing is amazingly intricate; the story has a dramatic endoskeleton and an exoskeleton and a circulatory system, and everything supports everything else, and there’s no way you can properly appreciate it without watching as much of it as possible in one sitting. I can’t remember the last time — HBO’s The Comeback, maybe? — that form followed function in a TV sitcom as dazzlingly as it does here.