Last post I mentioned the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, a show I’m currently mini-binging on Hulu. When I wrote that, I was still very much on the fence as to whether I even liked the show. In fact I was puzzled about why I liked it at all, since it’s a fairly standard sitcom in many regards.
Ever since I’ve been paying more attention to my reactions while watching, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not a matter of being undecided — it’s a matter of having developed a strong like/dislike for the show. As I wrote with Halt and Catch Fire, my feelings are mixed, not vague.
And it turns out to really tap into what attracts or repels me to sitcoms.
Long-time readers know I’m categorically unable to name a favorite single anything. Instead, I have Top Five lists (or Top Ten or Top Whatever lists). Among the short takes last time, I mentioned two sitcoms that were in my sitcom Top Five.
Which of course raised the question: Just what are my Top Five sitcoms? Turns out that fifth slot had a lot of contention for it (the picking a fave problem in small). It also turned out I need multiple categories, because there is a Top Five animated sitcom category as well as a Top Five dramedy category.
And while these have been different in the past, and may be different in the future, for the record right now… the envelopes please… we have:
Live Action Comedies:
- Rick and Morty (Cartoon Network)
- Futurama (Fox, Comedy Central)
- South Park (Comedy Central)
- The Simpsons (Fox)
- Assassination Classroom (Hulu)
- M*A*S*H (CBS; finest kind, classic)
- Mad About You (NBC)
- Episodes (Showtime)
- Murphy Brown (CBS; which might return!)
Interesting that two of those (Community and Rick and Morty) are from Dan Harmon, which says something about my regard for his art. For that matter, both The Simpsons and Futurama come from Matt Groening (and yet I thought Binky was lame and stupid; no one is perfect).
But all that serves as introduction to (or perhaps digression from) the main topic, which is about what makes a comedy work for me… or not.
Early in the blog I wrote about what ruined science fiction for me. Basically, the science and the fiction need to not piss me off. I’ll suspend my disbelief from strong steel cables, but if I’m pushed too far it pisses me off, and we’re done.
When it comes to plain old fiction, the rule is the same: Don’t piss me off. Don’t get so stupid my brain cells cry out in pain. With comedy in particular, don’t work so hard for a joke you forget all reason, logic, and sense.
Simply put: Don’t make the “Yeah, but…” voice in my head too loud.
On the flip side, the best way to engage me is to take me someplace I’ve never been. When a storyteller can find fresh territory (while not pissing me off — the current fade of random nonsense is out), I can be enthralled.
When it comes to sitcoms, I find there are a things that pretty much always piss me off. Sadly, they tend to be very common tropes, which is why most sitcoms leave me pretty cold. Some shows seem to consist entirely of these tropes, and I wonder why anyone bothers to watch.
#1A: Someone pretends to be something they are not and then spends much frenetic effort living up to that lie. Hilarity ensues (he wrote very sarcastically). In the end, the truth comes out.
Shakespeare pretty much explored this trope to death (literally in some cases). It’s been worn out and tired ever since.
#1B: Someone tells a lie and then spends much frenetic effort maintaining that lie. Hilarity ensues (you understand I mean “not at all,” right?). In the end, the truth comes out.
I try very hard to be as honest as possible all the time. I place a very high value on truth-telling, and I despise lies. (Which is a key reason politics makes me insane, especially lately.)
About the nicest thing you could say is that these are parables about the value of telling the truth. OTOH, you’re supposed to have learned that in kindergarten. As an adult, the lies just piss me off. A lot.
#2: A bad writer’s inept comedy ability requires that one or more characters suddenly become incredibly stupid and blind. Their IQ drops to zero (or negative numbers — they suck intelligence from others) and they can no longer see what’s right in front of them. Or hear loud noises. Whatever the gag requires.
Another version of this involves a character doing something completely out of their character, again purely to make the gag work. If the character acts normally, the gag fails.
#3: Speaking of gags, I generally hate them. I prefer organic comedy that flows from the situation and the characters. Of course, that requires a modicum of talent to create, and a great deal of content today seems lacking in that essential quality. (Blame it on the vast ocean of content being produced. Sturgeon’s Law always applies!)
Getting back to what started this post, it turns out that Fresh Off the Boat manages to be interesting and fresh, but also falls into those bad comedy tropes I listed above. Hence the like-dislike relationship.
Some episodes have really grated on my nerves. Others have charmed me.
For example, the second season episode, “Hi, My Name Is…” tells the story of how all six characters got their American first name. (Grandma Jenny, husband Louis, wife Jessica, sons Eddie, Emery, and Evan.) That episode was wonderful! Not a lie in sight. I actually clapped when it was over.
An episode I watched just last night (S2E23), “The Manchurian Dinner Date” starts out stupid, but ends up really quite good. It revolves around how Jessica (mom) doesn’t know about oldest son Eddie’s (white) girlfriend. Problem for Eddie: mom has long expressed a strong desire he date someone Chinese.
Girlfriend Allison freaks out and sends a Chinese friend of hers to meet Jessica. The friend shows up (to Eddie’s shock and surprise) pretending to be Allison. Eddie goes with it, but (to the show’s credit) later asks Allison, “Just what was your end game here?”
Things get resolved and (again to the show’s credit) in a slightly unexpected way, so it ultimately got a thumbs up. (The expected way: mom finds out, is mad, gets over it. In fact: it turns out mom found the Chinese girlfriend too dull for her wildcard son, Eddie.)
So how does a show that can be this smart fall into being so stupid at times?
I often have a huge problem with Louis (dad), who is usually the one whose IQ drops to negative numbers. He is a reasonably capable businessman (owning and running a steak house), but becomes a complete idiot at times.
A recent example: middle son, Emery, has been presented as the lady’s man, all the girls just adore him. Louis (who [sigh] has been pretending to be a fan of high-brow films to impress the kid who works at Blockbuster) finds out someone in his family has been renting action movies. In particular, action movies featuring bare-chested heroes on the VHS cover.
Louis, at first, thinks Jessica is craving some stud muffin action (as so he shows up to breakfast shirtless to Jessica’s surprise and derision). Then he finds out it was Emery who rented the movies, and — apparently still fixated on the bare chests — begins to think Emery might be gay.
Turns out Emery’s friends were entering puberty and Emery was just trying to understand how “macho” men behave in an attempt to fit in.
Mostly it’s the idea of a character becoming a complete idiot that grates on my nerves. Plenty of other shows have shown it’s not necessary. Your characters can act organic and still be really funny.
I dunno… maybe it’s me… I never found the Three Stooges at all interesting let alone funny. To me, stupid is dangerous and depressing, not funny. Love of money may be a root of most evil, but stupid is right up there.
My bottom line: The show has a lot going for it. The period is kinda fun, the all-Chinese cast is good to see, and the writing is often very engaging (except when it isn’t). And I like what they’ve done with grandma Jenny (Lucille Soong) — she’s a hoot and brightens any scene she’s in.
I also get a kick out of Jessica (Constance Wu) who is filled with snark and cynicism. I can totally relate. I get her. (And, full disclosure, yeah, I’m a little attracted personally. The actress is too young for me, but currently she is single!)
As a closing note, there is something about ABC shows that seems to miss me, sometimes quite badly. I’m appalled by Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, for example. I filed those two shows under: repulsive, reprehensible, and revolting.
I watched Agents of SHIELD for a couple of seasons, but got very tired of the Hydra arc (betrayal, betrayal; yuck), and — truth be told — I’m kinda over the whole superhero thing. I did watch all two seasons of Agent Carter and found it okay.
Once Upon a Time is another ABC show I’m watching (for the first time) on Netflix. As I mentioned in the last post, I haven’t decided whether I like it or not. Mostly not that much, but it’s just interesting enough to keep me watching. So far.
But the weird fact is that nearly all the network shows I really like come from CBS and NBC. With the former, it’s largely dramas: NCIS, Madame Secretary, Person of Interest, Bull. CBS seems to offer kinda lame comedies to my eye (boring “family” sitcoms; yuck) — NBC has been a far more reliable source of comedy (as you see in my lists above).
OTOH, the only NBC drama that’s really grabbed me recently is The Blacklist, which I really quite like.
I’ve also found that Fox comedies engage me while most of their dramas do not. I watched Gotham for a while, but never found it that engaging. I stopped after a couple of seasons and don’t miss it at all. As I said, pretty much over the whole superhero thing.
I’m obviously on a TV post binge here, and it ain’t over yet. I haven’t talked much about Japanese anime, which I do enjoy and (thanks to Hulu) now can watch a lot of (commercial free! yay!).
I love TV, what can I say. It’s the new movies (which is good, because movies these days seem lamer and lamer).
 Mini-binging: watching just one, two, or three, episodes per day, but doing that most days.
With “half-hour” shows (actually 22-minutes at best), watching three in a row provides a nice hour-long dose. With “one-hour” shows, watching two adds up to about a 90-minute movie (88 minutes).
I find I have to be in exactly the right mood for serious binging.
 A Japanese anime series I’m currently mini-binging and just loving to pieces. It’s funny, engaging, endearing, and surprisingly deep and textured.
The premise is plain goofy fun, and yet pretty solid hard SF, so it’s hitting a lot of high notes for me. It’s so much fun that it deserves its own post, so more later (I have six episodes left to watch).
 This is why NBC’s The Good Place is so awesome (and, no kidding, must see TV; if you’re not watching this show, you’re missing something wonderful).
 The show is set in the late 1990s. The first season is in 1995. So some of the fun lies in the period references.
 Which is sad, because I very much support the success of Shonda Rhimes (on two counts: female, person of color). I guess she’s just way not my cuppa. (Never watched Grey’s Anatomy, but it sounds dreadful.) I did try to watch (and like) the two shows I mentioned above, but ended up turning them off in severe disgust.