It’s the summer. There’s nothing on, with few exceptions like Futurama and The Venture Bros. What’s a guy/gal who hates going outside to do? Watch old TV shows, that’s what. Recently, a friend mentioned that he wanted to start watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he wasn’t sure where to begin. He knew it was a great show and that you didn’t necessarily to start from episode one, which is where I’d usually suggest, but that was about it. This conversation got me to thinking, which season would I start with? They’re all great, but which is THE BEST.
Rather than simply rank every MST3K season, I expanded the parameters of the topic for this post, which lists the 10 best (American) sitcom seasons over the past two decades. I’m sure there were will be plenty of arguments, but let’s at least agree on one thing: NO FRIENDS. Also, only one season per show, but mostly NO FRIENDS.
#10. Community, season 2 (2010-2011)
Best episode: “Paradigms of Human Memory”
With all due respect to Happy Endings, Futurama, Archer, and that one season of Roseanne after the Conners won the lottery, it’d be tough to do a “best sitcoms of the past two decades” list and not include the show that gave us “Paradigms of Human Memory,” one of the best sitcom EPISODES of the past two decades. The second season of Community begins with a trio of episodes that are merely good, including The Betty White One, before — and you’ll forgive me for this terrible pun — launching into something special with “Basic Rocket Science,” a.k.a. The KFC One, later followed by “Epidemiology,” a.k.a The Zombie One, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” a.k.a. The Missing Pen One, “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” a.k.a. The Professor Professorson One, “Mixology Certification,” a.k.a. The Troy Uterus Explosion One, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” a.k.a., well, you know. It’s the show’s best season, and the main reason why we still root for Community, even with all the behind-the-scenes drama.
#9. South Park, season 8 (2004)
Best episode: “AWESOM-O”
South Park has defied the odds since the day Matt Stone and Trey Parker made Santa fight Jesus. There’s no good reason why the then-fledgling Comedy Central should have taken a shot on a weakly animated show about a bunch of young boys swearing and telling poop jokes, just as it makes no sense that the show suddenly get better around season five, when most other sitcoms begin to falter. Seasons six and seven are packed with brilliance (personal favorites include “Asspen,” “The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers,” “Casa Bonita,” and “All About Mormons”), but season eight is nothing but brilliance. Kenny throws a ninja throwing star at Butters, Cartman pretends to be disabled to join the Special Olympics, Cartman “becomes” a robot to get dirt on Butters, Cartman makes friend with a mysterious next-door neighbor named Mr. Jefferson, Cartman confronts Kyle and Stan to stop them from taking his dearly beloved Walmart away from him. Basically, there’s a lot of Cartman, all of it darkly superb, and as Cartman goes, so does South Park.
#8. The Larry Sanders Show, season 3 (1994)
Best episode: “Hank’s Night In the Sun”
Just watch “Hank’s Night In the Sun,” in which Jeffrey Tambor plays Hank at his most diabolical. You’ll be won over.
#7. Louie, season 2 (2011)
Best episode: “Oh, Louie/Tickets”
One of the dozen of things that makes FX’s Louie so great, outside of the waddling ducks and non-masturbating Christians, is how you never know what kind of episode you’re going to be treated to every week. In season two, for instance, Louie goes from getting life advice from Joan Rivers, who he then sleeps with, to an episode in which his kids are offered “n*gger toes,” this right after they had to suffer the embarrassment of their father rocking out to the Who’s “Who Are You.” One week, Louie‘s a raunchy comedy; the next, a thoughtful examination of prejudices. Few other shows can pull off this trick, and none as well as Louie. Plus, the Dane Cook episode. Christ.
#6. Mystery Science Theater 3000, season 8 (1997)
Best episode: “Prince of Space”
Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains one of the most frustratingly under watched great shows of all-time, partially because of its seemingly dumb (wrong), definitely simplistic (correct) premise — two robots and a human make fun of terrible movies — but mostly because it’s tough to know where to start. It ran for nearly 200 episodes over 11 seasons on two networks, not to mention an (excellent) movie. Thing is, with MST3K, you can start wherever. If you begin with, well, the beginning, enjoy Joel. If you check in midway during the show’s run, you’ve got Mike to look forward to. If you’re looking for a single episode to start with, though, I’d recommend the ever-quotable “Prince of Space” from season nine. An entire wonderful world of references will be opened to you (“Crank…whore?”). From there, backpedal to “Jack Frost” and continue along to “Space of Mutiny” and “Time Chasers.” And then go straight to season nine’s “The Final Sacrifice” and season four’s “Manos: The Hands of Fate.”
#5. The Office, season 3 (2006-2007)
Best episode: “Ben Franklin”
The Office finally concluding last month was the best thing that happened to the show. We don’t need to revisit the reasons why Dunder-Mifflin should have closed up shop years ago, after its star literally walked away from the cameras, because it’s more fun reexamining why we cared so much about Michael, Jim, Pam, & Co. in the first place. Look no further than season three, with its perfect mixture of cringe-inducing comedy and heart-warming romance. It was the year that began with Jim in Stamford, introducing viewers to an entire new cast of office drones, including Andy Bernard and Karen Filippelli, and ended with Pam walking across a fire in “Beach Games.” OK, that’s not totally true: the actual final episode is the two-part “The Job,” but Pam’s act of bravery was one of The Office‘s defining moments, one that we needed to remember during the later, leaner years.
#4. Seinfeld, season 5 (1993-1994)
Best episode: “The Raincoats”
The older Seinfeld got, the wackier it became. That’s why smack-dab-in-the-middle season five is the series’ best. Seinfeld was always a show about nothing, but it became increasingly showy and proud of itself over time (not necessarily a bad thing, just…different). The 1993-1994 season, from “The Mango” to “The Opposite,” was the finest blending of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s eventually divergent personalities, the former’s “what’s the deal” observations working in perfection with the latter’s anger and disappointment at said observations. Plus, despite being quoted incessantly, George’s monologue from “The Marine Biologist” is still perfect.
#3. 30 Rock, season 2 (2007-2008)
Best episode: “Ludachristmas”
It’s tough thinking of 30 Rock in terms of episodes. Most people don’t remember “Secrets and Lies”; they recall lines from “Secrets and Lies,” like Tracy saying, “Don’t want to disappoint my Japanese public, especially Godzilla. I’m just kidding. I know he doesn’t care what humans do.” 30 Rock was a joke machine, and in the abbreviated season two (thanks to the writers’ strike), the show was running on all cylinders. Even just saying “MILF Island” makes me laugh.
#2. Arrested Development, season 2 (2004-2005)
Best episode: “Spring Breakout”
We’re all in agreement that the Emmys are terrible, right? Right…unless what we’re rooting for wins, in which case: F*CK YEAH AWARD SHOWS. When Arrested Development won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2004, beating out mainstays Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City, and Will and Grace, it felt like the beginning of something huge. This tiny, referential, whip-smart comedy with miniscule ratings and jokes about staff infections, missing kittys, and incest, winning an award over Debra Messing’s shrieked punchlines? Woah. Obviously Arrested got even better in season two, thanks to a writing staff that let no line in a script go by without roughly 24 jokes and callbacks, but went one for eleven at the Emmys, then was cancelled one year later. Good grief. Still, Arrested got the last laugh — no one’s exactly pining for Raymond to be resurrected — after the one million it already provided in season two.
#1. The Simpsons, season 5 (1993-1994)
Best episode: “Deep Space Homer”
As if it’d be anything else. Honestly, the only question was whether it should be season five or season six. Both are supremely, ridiculously excellent, but season five — from “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” “Cape Feare,” “Homer Goes to College,” and “Rosebud,” to “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” — is better by the skin of an orange. For you see, ranking Simpsons seasons is a lot like an orange. First you have the…