In any given week, there’s only a handful of first-run comedies I really want to watch: “The Office,” “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock,” and “New Girl.” Yet thanks to an unexpected source -- Netflix -- I find myself watching more TV comedy that ever before.
Yes, Netflix -- the same service I was on the verge of cancelling last year because of its poor selection of movies -- is now the place to go for quality time-shifted television. The New York Times reported two weeks ago that TV series now account for more than half of all Netflix streaming. Much of this streaming is undoubtedly for dramatic series like “Friday Night Lights,” “Rescue Me” and “Breaking Bad,” but for me, the real treasure is in comedy. At a time when so much of television comedy is aggressively offensive (I’m talking to you, “Two Broke Girls”) it’s a gift to be able to go back and mine the gems of the past.
Not every Netflix offering is worth resurrecting; “Married with Children” is no funnier today than it was 20 years ago. But what is surprising -- and heartening -- is how much outstanding TV comedy has been made over the years. Clicking through the Netflix offerings is a reminder that television was never completely a vast wasteland.
There are, for example, hundreds of hours of “Saturday Night Live” offerings. And you can revisit “The Wonder Years,” “Scrubs,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Arrested Development,” and other great series that were critically acclaimed when they aired but never became the huge hits they deserved to be.
But for the sake of this column, I’d like to call out a few shows for special attention. These are the series that are in my current rotation and deserve to find new audiences.
“The Larry Sanders Show.” This is hardly an unknown show, having received critical accolades when it first appeared in the early 1990s, but it seems to have faded from public consciousness, perhaps because it was only previously available to HBO subscribers. Too bad, because it’s easily one of the most hilarious series of all time. Gary Shandling plays a put-upon talk show host, sort of like Leno or Letterman would be if they were funny in real life. The show revolves around the neuroses, ambitions, petty concerns and mordant observations of the host and his crew, some of whom are dimwits, while others are sharp-witted. And since the series portrays a Clinton-era talk show, there is a steady stream of ‘90s cameos (Roseanne Barr, Brett Butler, a young Jon Stewart) to fill us with nostalgia.
“Sports Night.” Created and written by Aaron Sorkin and produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, “Sports Night” is a behind-the-scenes look at a lightly fictionalized version of ESPN’s “Sports Center.” Highly literate and verbal, this show rewards viewers who can concentrate and pay close attention.
“Sports Night” is so good that you have to wonder what ABC was thinking when it green-lighted the series in 1998; it’s a miracle it lasted even two seasons. Although a comedy with actual laughs, this is a show where the characters bruise easily; hardly an episode goes by without someone opening a vein and letting pure emotion flow out. For 14 years, I have kept alive the memory of the series’ second episode (“The Apology”), when Josh Charles (now on “The Good Wife”) is forced to apologize for the loose comments he made about marijuana in a magazine profile; when I watched it again two weeks ago, it was as powerful and emotional as the first time around. Like “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Sports Night” is actually better now than it was when it premiered.
“Louie.” Louie is one of those series that more people know about than actually watch. Running for two years now on FX, the series stars the comedian Louis C.K. as a comedian who bums around comedy clubs, gets into trouble for accidentally speaking his mind and generally suffers from the petty humiliations of modern life. The series is unsparing in exposing the irascible Louis’ all-too-human faults. The laugh-out-loud quotient is low, but the amount of humorous observation is high.
“The Sarah Silverman Program.” Unlike the three previous shows, which were fictionalized versions of real shows or real people, “The Sarah Silverman Program” is (I hope) a highly exaggerated look at life. The series itself is, like its star, relentlessly politically incorrect. Sarah Silverman plays a remarkably self-absorbed and insensitive narcissist who lives off her sister, a nurse (played by her real-life sister Laura Silverman) and her brother-in-law, a cop. Most comedies thrive on the embarrassment of the main character, but Sarah is too clueless to know she should be embarrassed. The show is silly, exasperating, occasionally crude, and frequently hilarious -- but best in small doses.
So, congratulations to Netflix for making reruns fun again. Maybe it’s time to change the name of the company to NetTV?