First, a couple of ground rules for this 10-List.
The sitcoms appearing on the list may still be on-air with syndicated reruns, but can no longer be producing new episodes. Also, I need to have watched all of the existing episodes, or close enough to “all” as to make no difference.
Another arbitrary rule: No animation, puppets or muppets. This immediately excludes some fine television programs such as The Simpsons, The Flintstones, and Dinosaurs. It didn’t eliminate Alf, because there’s no way in Hades it would have made the list anyway.
Also, no sketch comedy shows such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mr. Show, Saturday Night Live or The Kids in the Hall. Situation-comedies only.
Non-American shows were elegible. In fact, Spaced, Coupling, the original The Office, The Young Ones, Extras, Black Books, The IT Crowd, and Episodes were on the big list. As was Trailer Park Boys. None, however, made the final 10.
My methodology was familiar. I generated a list of sitcoms that I have watched over the years. It took only three passes and about thirty minutes to pare it down to 10 series.
Once again, I would have been more content with a 20-List. But, I have to follow my own rules. The final ten series that I cut would have also made a great list, which I take as a sign that I chose wisely.
As always, your mileage may vary. This is a purely subjective and extremely biased list. The series are in chronological order from the date of the first episode. You may be shocked that half the list came from the twenty-first century. I was.
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
This is the first sitcom I remember making plans to watch each week. My parents were also fans, which was fortunate because we had only one television set. The ensemble workplace comedy was set in a Minneapolis, Minnesota, television news room. Mary Tyler Moore surrounded herself with a brilliant cast that included Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Gavin McLeod, Valerie Harper and Betty White. The characters all seemed like real people to me. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is one of my favorite sitcom episodes of all-time. If you’ve ever gotten the giggles at a funeral, you’re a member of my tribe.
- The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
It seems like this series always followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and it was also produced by her company MTM. This was another ensemble sitcom, split between workplace and Bob’s luxury Chicago apartment. The series relied heavily on Newhart’s unique comic sensibilities, wherein much of the humor was found in Newhart’s reactions as straight man. Newhart plays psychologist Bob Hartley, and the ensemble cast includes Suzanne Pleshette as his wife Emily, Bill Daily as pilot neighbor Howard, and Peter Bonerz and Marcia Wallace as part of the workplace cast. Classic TV from the hip ’70s.
- WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982)
Speaking of “hip ’70s.” This series kicked off during the latter part of the decade. Another workplace ensemble show, this one took place in a fictional radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the plot of a single episode, but I could talk at length about the characters. The series begins during a time of change in format from easy-listening to rock-and-roll. Program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) hires Gordon Sims (Tim Reid), who assumes the on-air name “Venus Flytrap,” to be the funky, soulful evening DJ, while Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hessman), a veteran deejay whose career seems to be on the wane, rules the days. The remainder of the ensemble cast are a talented, memorable lot as well, including Loni Anderson as the buxom Jennifer Marlowe. This is the first American television series I can remember that included some mild drug humor.
- Cheers (1982-1993)
From Cincinnati to Boston. The workplace for this ensemble is a Boston bar named, naturally enough, Cheers. What started out as a meet-cute, will-they-or-won’t-they premise between Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) gradually morphed into something else. The bar’s regulars and staff round out the ensemble. Everybody knows the names of Carla, Coach, Woody, Cliff and Norm, and later Rebecca. This series was almost cancelled during its first lackluster season. And then it was on for eleven years.
- Seinfeld (1989-1998)
This “show about nothing” remained on the air for a couple of seasons after co-creator/writer Larry David left the show. It was still a good show, but it lacked what I didn’t know at the time was the Larry David touch. The ensemble cast was always funny and hit their marks, and there were still episodes that I would declare as “essential” if I were to write such a list. This is one of those classic shows that I never watched until it was off-the-air.
- Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
I never thought this would be the kind of series that would appeal to me. I had written it off as another of those “family” shows such as 7th Heaven or Party of Five. After watching this one, I should probably give those other series a tryout as well. Another ensemble dramedy centered around our two “Gilmore girls,” Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). This series was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the same person responsible for current Amazon hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This series is about a lot of things, including the relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s also a treasure trove for writers interested in learning how to develop setting and plot stories. Stars Hollow, Connecticut, is one of those idyllic New England towns that you hope still exist.
- The Office (U.S.) (2005-2013)
The British version of The Office is a work of genius. I’m a Ricky Gervais fan, and I admire his capacity to hold himself up to ridicule in the name of uncomfortable comedy. The U.S. version that Gervais helped bring to the small screen is no slouch either, although it is a different series. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott became a different sort of inept boss than Gervais’ David Brent, but no less hilarious. Another workplace sitcom with a talented ensemble cast. Even the characters we know the least about, such as Creed Bratton (played by Creed Bratton—you figure it out), become individuals with their own unique personalities. Yes, the show changed after the “will they or won’t they?” dance between Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) ended, and after Steve Carell left the show, but it was still a good series, just a different one.
- How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
The framing device of this series, a father in the future telling his children the story of how he met their mother, is what initially sold me on this series, which looked like just another Friends knockoff. It quickly became it’s own thing, and I dutifully watched all nine seasons. The show developed its own shorthand, a secret sort of language, where certain metaphors stood in for real-life counterparts a father wouldn’t want to share with his children. For instance, “eating a sandwich” came to mean “smoking marijuana.” If you joined the series during a random episode in the middle of the run, you might initially be confused. I was fully invested in the story arcs of all the main characters—Ted, Marshall, Lilly, Robin and Barney—and, like many viewers, was a little disappointed in the finale (which I understand was given an alternate ending in the DVD collection). But, my mild disappointment was bittersweet, because the series did end up with Ted Mosby in a relationship with the person I wanted him to be in a relationship with. All the actors were terrific in this, but Jason Segel and Neil Patrick Harris were definite standouts.
- Modern Family (2009-2020)
I was hooked on this ensemble family comedy from the first episode. It was one of those rare series that my wife and I enjoyed watching together. It was shot “mockumentary”-style (like The Office), and the premise revolved around three different types of families—nuclear, blended and same sex—the families all interrelated through closet magnate Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) and his children Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). O’Neill managed to completely shake his Al Bundy image in my mind. I’ll never see him again without thinking Jay Pritchett. Eleven seasons and 250 episodes is a lot of story time, and we learn a lot about the extended family tree along the way. This was a unique take on family sitcoms and was certainly a snapshot of the segment of time it inhabits. Mitch and Cam’s nuptials weren’t the first example of a gay wedding on television, but they did celebrate the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages. Ironically, an earlier gay wedding example took place on Roseanne, between characters played by Martin Mull and Fred Williard, who would later play the father of Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell). Full disclosure: I still watch reruns of this series on a near-nightly basis.
- The Middle (2009-2018)
Another ensemble family sitcom. I was never a regular Malcolm in the Middle viewer. I hear it was a great sitcom, and maybe I’ll watch it someday. However, I had seen the show enough that my initial impression of The Middle was that it was ripping off this earlier series. I thought the evidence was there even in the title of the sitcom, and for some reason youngest son Brick (Atticus Shaffer) reminded me of the younger son on the other show. The Middle soon distinguished itself and became another one of those rare shows that Sharon and I liked to watch together. The series centers around the Heck family in Orson, Indiana. Wikipedia characterizes the Heck family as “lower middle class.” I’m not exactly sure where the dividing line between “working poor” and “lower middle class” is, but the Hecks are definitely living paycheck-to-paycheck, which a lot of us can identify with. Frankie Heck is played by Everybody Loves Raymond alum Patricia Heaton and her husband Mike is played by Neil Flynn, who was the janitor on Scrubs. I always liked both of these actors, which certainly made this series initially accessible for me. The actors playing their children, Axl (Charlie McDermott), Sue (Eden Sher) and Brick, were unknown quantities to me at first, but they soon fully inhabited their roles in the show. I probably can’t recount the complete plot of any of its over-200 episodes, but I was invested in the characters and interested in whatever happened to them along the way. As with any television series, there were a lot of second act disasters between the pilot episode and the finale.
That’s my list.
It just occurred to me that this 10-List of favorite sitcoms is also somewhat a tour of the United States of America. In order, these series were primarily set in the following cities: Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; NYC, New York; Stars Hollow, Connecticut; Scranton, Pennsylvania; NYC (again); Los Angeles, California; and, Orson, Indiana. The Southern US isn’t represented on this list, but only because none of the sitcoms set in the South (Dukes of Hazzard, Golden Girls, Andy Griffith, etc.) made my top-10.
Astute readers will note that four of these series made my 10-List: All-Time Favorite Television Series post last year. Since there are no other sitcoms listed in that post, that seems pretty consistent to me.
What would your list look like? What sitcom’s exclusion from my list is a travesty of justice? I invite your feedback.