If you’d told me that 2013-14 would be the season of the sitcom, I’d have said you were crazy. The genre has been in decline for ages. It’s become an annual ritual for the broadcast networks to premiere scads of comedies in the fall, only to see most of them sink.
This year, they don’t sink. They soar. Whether the networks are trying harder or just got lucky, most of the new sitcoms are fresh and funny. It helps to have proven stars such as Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams at the top of their games. But when you find yourself laughing at so many actors you’ve never heard of before, not to mention bigger names not known as comedians, you realize you’ve stumbled onto the rebirth of the sitcom.
And despite the plethora of viewing options, from cable outlets now producing top-notch programming and streaming services such as Netflix getting in on the action, the Big 4 - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - still adhere to The Fall TV Season, with the arrival of new programs rolling out in the coming days and weeks.
If The Fall TV Season is itself a throw-back featuring the return of icons of sitcoms past Fox and Williams, the sheer number of new comedies hitting the small screen may have us waxing nostalgic, too.
Here are the best of the bunch, along with a handful of duds. I didn’t even mind the duds so much – they just proved I wasn’t dreaming.
8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 17 (Fox)
Many of us were concerned when Andy Samberg retired from “Saturday Night Live” last spring. Would the comic genius get trapped in more forgettable movies like “Hot Rod,” then disappear?
We needn’t have worried. Samberg stars in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a single-camera sitcom that perfectly showcases his talent. He plays hotshot detective Jake Peralta, who jokes his way through investigations and clashes with his by-the-book captain (Andre Braugher). You won’t be surprised to see that Samberg – known for his absurdist SNL videos – finds just the right level of deadpan weirdness. (The pilot features a memorable sight gag with Jake in tie, holster and underpants.) You might be surprised to see him slip so effortlessly into a leading-man role. Jake is not only silly, but also confident in a sexy way.
“Humility over!” Jake announces after a brief attempt at self-effacement. “I’m amazing!”
I would have to agree.
9:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 23 (CBS)
Just when you think old-fashioned, multi-camera, laugh-track sitcoms are dead, here comes Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men”) to prove you wrong. Lorre’s latest throws one problem after another at its hapless protagonist, Christy (Anna Faris): a dead-end waitressing job, an incorrigible tramp of a mother (Allison Janney), a promiscuous daughter (Sadie Calvano) and a married boyfriend (Nate Corddry). Overwhelmed by the chaos in her life, Christy is reduced to reciting “daily affirmations.” “I open my heart and allow wonderful things to flow into my life,” she intones, right before catching her daughter’s shirtless boyfriend sneaking out a bedroom window. The daily affirmation transforms into: “My daughter is an easy lay and it’s not my fault.”
Mom is blessed with deft comedians, a witty script and, best of all, a humane perspective. Open your heart and let this wonderful new series flow into your life.
9 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 24 (ABC)
The 1980s take a beating in this comic gem. An adult narrator looks back on his childhood in the days when REO Speedwagon seemed profound and even middle-aged moms wore the Madonna hairdo. The Goldbergs are a hostile-yet-loving family with a nutty grandfather (George Segal), a bossy mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and a dyspeptic dad (Jeff Garlin), plus three kids for the adults to yell at. Dad is the champion yeller, though the narrator insists his insults are really endearments cloaked in harsh language. When Dad snarls, “You’re not a total moron all the time,” a subtitle appears with a translation: “I love you.”
The Goldbergs could have settled for easy laughs about Burt Reynolds and Gobots, but it wants to be more than just an ‘80s parody. It wants to find humor in an unsettling family dynamic that feels all too real (indeed, the series is based on producer Adam F. Goldberg’s own childhood). I found myself both laughing and cringing at the mixture of guilt, shame and affection.
The Goldbergs is the hardest-to-watch sitcom of 2013-14. Translation: I love it.
9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 24 (ABC)
The hot blond trophy wife is usually an object of ridicule, but here she’s the heroine. Kate (Malin Akerman) marries an older man (Bradley Whitford) who comes with a chaotic extended family: a flaky ex-wife (Michaela Watkins), a mean ex-wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and several children. The ex-wives are resentful of her, and the kids suspicious, but Kate does her best to reform her party-girl ways and fit in.
“Trophy Wife” is an excellent variation on “Modern Family.” The whole cast is funny, right down to the grade-schooler playing an adopted son. In the title role, Akerman is at once sexy, warm and relatable – the Holy Grail of sitcom qualities. I have no doubt her character will succeed at fitting in…fitting into my Tuesday-night viewing schedule, that is.
Back in the Game
8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 25 (ABC)
Terry (Maggie Lawson) is a former star pitcher with a young son (Griffin Gluck) who has no talent for baseball. She signs on to manage his Little League team, which is populated by all manner of misfits. The sexist men in town look askance at a female manager, but that only stokes Terry’s competitive fire.
Sound like another “Bad News Bears?” It might have been but for one ingredient: Terry’s gruff father (James Caan), a former Major League pitcher known as the Cannon. The Cannon rode Terry hard as a kid, giving her hell on and off the field. He’s still riding her hard, and he’s just as merciless with his grandson.
Caan makes this character as mean as possible in the context of a comedy. It’s a risky performance, but it pays off. The relationship between Terry and her dad is more complicated than what you’d find in the average sitcom, resulting in edgier humor.
You can’t knock a baseball series with the guts to throw a few curveballs.
The Michael J. Fox Show
9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26 (NBC)
Michael J. Fox is one of our most lovable sitcom stars (“Family Ties,” “Spin City”), and he’s become even more beloved during his fight with Parkinson’s disease. With “The Michael J. Fox Show,” he returns to sitcoms as a very unconventional leading man, given the involuntary contortions of his face and body. It’s a gutsy move, both for Fox and for NBC. Viewers have deep reserves of goodwill for this actor, but few would sit through a labored comedy merely for charity’s sake.
Believe me: You will not laugh at “The Michael J. Fox Show” just to be nice. You will laugh because you can’t help yourself. The single-camera series puts Fox’s physical predicament in a comic context, with no trace of sentimentality. Indeed, it’s the opposite of sentimental, as the star mercilessly pokes fun at his limitations. Fox sees the humor in his condition and allows you to laugh along with him.
He plays Michael Henry, a former TV news star who left work after developing Parkinson’s. His family loves him but tires of having him around the house; meanwhile, his old boss wants him back at work so the network can play the sympathy card for higher ratings. Michael worries he’ll perform poorly but will still be given credit just for trying. “I don’t want to be the guy who gets a standing ovation every day at work,” he grumbles.
Fox surrounds himself with fast-talking comic pros and has no trouble keeping up with them. You don’t just give him credit for trying; you give him credit for turning in yet another brilliant performance. Sorry, Michael, but for that I’m going to give you a standing ovation.
The Crazy Ones
9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26 (CBS)
It would take a miracle to get me interested in a whole season’s worth of Robin Williams. He’s been doing the same speed-freak funny-voice free-association schtick since “Mork and Mindy” in the 1970s, and CBS has built yet another sitcom around it.
But wait: “The Crazy Ones” finds a perfect context for Williams’ act. And for the first time since 1992’s “Aladdin,” it’s funny again. Williams plays Simon Roberts, an eccentric advertising genius who runs an agency with his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The business has fallen on hard times, so Simon must summon all his wit and charm to woo back his once-faithful clients.
That’s similar to what Williams does here to woo back once-faithful fans like me. His manic improvisations are sharper than they’ve been in years, and Gellar’s exasperated Sydney is the perfect foil.
A miracle has occurred: I’m interested in a whole season’s worth of Robin Williams.
We Are Men
8:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 30 (CBS)
A sweet goofball named Carter (Chris Smith) who is jilted at the altar by the only girlfriend he’s ever had, after which his life falls apart. He winds up in an apartment complex in the middle of nowhere – Tarzana, on the outskirts of L.A. – to start over again. There he meets three silly older dudes (Tony Shalhoub, Kal Penn, Jerry O’Connell) who’ve been around the block with women. They’re happy to impart their wisdom, despite the fact that they’ve all screwed up their own relationships.
“We Are Men” could have been just another male-bonding sitcom engineered to drape beer ads around. But it’s better than that, thanks to the cast’s comic skill and the writers’ keen sense of the pathetic. Carter falls in love with the silly older dudes, and you find yourself falling in love with them, too. Maybe Tarzana won’t be such a bad place to hang out after all.
Welcome to the Family
8:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 3 (NBC)
The parents of Molly (Ella Rae Peck), an underachieving white girl, are overjoyed at her high school graduation. “Suck it, doubters!” her dad exclaims. “She’s Arizona State’s problem now!”
Meanwhile, the parents of Junior (Joseph Haro), an overachieving Latino, are overjoyed for a different reason. He’s giving his valedictorian’s speech and preparing for a college career at Stanford. As he reads the speech from his laptop, he gets a message from Molly: “I’m pregnant.”
Thus begins a culture-clash comedy, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. “Welcome to the Family” throws two unlikely families together and forces them to get along. Mostly they don’t, and the comedians work wonders with resentment, anger and misunderstanding. Mike O’Malley and Mary McCormack are particularly good as Molly’s parents, trading mordant wisecracks about her limitations.
To everybody’s dismay, Molly and Junior decide to get married. It’s a terrible decision that, as a viewer, I fully support.
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, (CBS)
Multi-camera, laugh-track sitcoms have been in decline, but here’s one that works. Nate (Will Arnett) and Debbie (Jayma Mays) have always kept their distance from their insufferable parents (Beau Bridges, Margo Martindale), but that becomes impossible when Mom and Dad break up. She moves in with Nate, he moves in with Debbie, and madness ensues.
Bridges does one of the best dumb acts I’ve ever seen on TV, while Martindale specializes in inappropriate behavior. Their fight about whether he masturbates correctly is one of the fall season’s funniest scenes.
Then there’s the scene where Mom crashes a party with Nate’s friends. He’s horrified at first, but finally gives in and dances with her because he knows it will make her happy. “This is either gonna be very sweet or very creepy,” says Nate’s friend Ray (JB Smoove), observing the spectacle.
The genius part is: It’s gonna be both.
9:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 8 (Fox)
It’s been awhile since the last great military sitcom. “Enlisted” brings the genre into the “Arrested Development” age with a single-camera style heavy on irony. And judging from the pilot, the series could give “M*A*S*H” a run for its money.
Super-soldier Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) makes a misstep in the heat of battle in Afghanistan, after which he’s relegated to a pathetic unit in Florida. This is where the Army misfits mow lawns and look for lost dogs, and it’s also where Pete rejoins his two soldier brothers. Derrick (Chris Lowell) and Randy (Parker Young) are the biggest misfits of all, the one smart aleck, the other not smart in any way. Pete must come to terms with them as both family members and as soldiers under his command. Yeah, good luck with that.
“Enlisted” is dense with absurd dialogue and sight gags, and the cast pulls them off masterfully. This is the rare military comedy that deserves a 21-gun salute.
Dean Robbins is editor of Isthmus, an alt-weekly newspaper in Madison, Wisc., and writes a weekly syndicated TV column.