And now Fienberg and I come to the end of our longer-than-planned (in days, not posts) trip through some of the top Emmy categories, with our look at the contenders for Outstanding Comedy Series. The ballots are already in, but we wanted to get these last two categories done before the nominees are announced on July 14, at least.
As we have throughout this project, we’re approaching the idea in two ways, with me as the optimist and Dan as the pragmatist. So while Dan has his usual exhaustive photo gallery of potential nominees (starting with the most likely and moving on down to longshots he wishes were favorites), I’m going to pretend that I was given an actual ballot to fill out in this category, and narrow it down to the six shows I’d most like to see make the cut.
Where my drama ballot was largely dominated by cable shows (the only pick to air on a broadcast network, “Friday Night Lights,” is technically produced for DirecTV), my comedy picks are mostly from the big networks. There are a lot of worthy cable comedies, but comedy is the one area where the broadcasters are still willing to take significant creative risks, and that’s paid off with a bunch of shows on my list.
On one level, “Parks and Recreation,” actually isn’t all that risky, in that it’s a show done in the style of “The Office,” featuring several people in front of and behind the cameras who worked on “The Office,” and was even at one point going to be an “Office” spin-off. But behind that familiar format, behind recognizable faces like Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, and behind the show’s warm, happy, inviting tone lies a series with tremendous ambition, and even better execution. “Parks and Rec” came back this year with an extended story arc about Leslie trying to put on a harvest festival to save her department’s budget (and everyone’s jobs, including her own) that was brilliant from beginning to end, then segued into a series of standalone episodes that ran the gamut from startlingly romantic (April & Andy’s wedding) to wonderfully silly (Tom pretending to be Leslie’s soulmate, Ron Effing Swanson in a swivel chair) to simply heartfelt (the final 10 minutes of the season finale). Admittedly, they only had to make 16 episodes as opposed to the usual 22 or 24 for a network sitcom, but this was as still as consistently great a season of a comedy as I’ve seen in a long time.
“Community” was even more ambitious, trying on so many different styles, formats and moods that it would be very hard to pick out a representative episode from the season to show to a newcomer. And in aiming high, the show didn’t always hit the target (I preferred, for instance, the zombie episode to the “Apollo 13” pastiche), but the versatility and guts involved almost always left me dazzled. And it helps, of course, that it was still, when it wanted to be, screamingly funny (sometimes literally, as in the case of Troy’s reaction to meeting LeVar Burton). I know some fans preferred the consistency of season 1, but I imagine the season 2 DVD is the one I’ll be reaching for first years from now. (Assuming technology hasn’t advanced by then to simply imprint all the episodes directly in my brain – I think Abed may have already figured out how to do it.)
FX’s “Louie,” like “Community,” was a show where you didn’t really know what you were going to get from week to week – and, because of the show’s anthology-esque format, sometimes from an episode’s first half to its second – but its insight and honesty were present whether the show was going incredibly dark (Louie is humiliated by a teenage bully), silly (Louie gets stoned with a neighbor) or somewhere in between (Louie is humiliated by his doctor buddy’s assessment of his middle-aged physique).
Where “Louie” some weeks only seemed to resemble a comedy in those brief moments where we saw his stand-up act, “United States of Tara” all but left comedy behind in its third and final season, a serious, at times sinister examination of the emotional toll that Tara’s condition would take on her and the people around her. And we can debate whether or not it – or “Nurse Jackie,” “The Big C,” “Glee,” etc. – should be eligible in this category or not. But the fact is that they are, and that the category is called Outstanding Comedy Series, not Funniest Comedy Series, and “Tara” was easily one of the six best shows that were submitted in this category this year, even if it was only occasionally funny (or even trying to be).
“30 Rock” isn’t the dominant comic force it was in its early days, but the show’s fifth season was its strongest in several years. Focusing more on the dominant trio of Liz, Jack and Tracy worked wonders (and, unsurprisingly, the show struggled a bit when Tracy Morgan had to take a medical leave of absence), Liz’s long-distance relationship with Matt Damon’s Carol allowed her to be less pathetic while still providing plenty of time for Liz/Jack bonding, the guest stars were better used, and the show was just plain funnier, on a more consistent basis, than it had been in a while.
I had several contenders for the last slot, and probably could have talked myself into, say, “Chuck” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” just as easily as “Cougar Town.” In the end, though, I think “Cougar Town” had the most consistent – and at times deepest – season of any of the remaining candidates. What can I say? I’m in love with the Cul de Sac Crew. That, or I’m drunk. Possibly both.
Tough omissions: “The Office” had a bunch of problematic episodes, but also some fantastic ones, especially towards the end of Steve Carell’s tenure. “Chuck” had a season with a bunch of strong episodes (particularly Sarah’s tenure as the Giant Blonde She-Male of Thailand, plus the two different series-finales-that-weren’t) but also had some unevenness in the second half thanks to a misconceived big bad in Vivian Volkoff. This wasn’t one of my favorite “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” seasons overall, but the episodes dealing with Sweet Dee’s pregnancy were great, and the “Lethal Weapon 5” episode was some vintage “Always Sunny.” In its second season, “The League” had a better command of its strengths and weaknesses, to the point where I tended to look forward to it more than that week’s equivalent “Always Sunny” ep. “Modern Family” got a little lazy in its second season, hitting certain beats much too often (in particular, Cam-as-oversensitive-diva), but on occasion still offered episodes that reminded you why it won this category a year ago. And though it was critically ignored at the start of the season because it came from the “My Name Is Earl” team and not the “Arrested Development” team, “Raising Hope” not only outlasted “Running Wilde” but turned out to be the much more self-assured, funny, sweet show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com