Transatlantic crossing for laughter USA: book that sofa and prepare for the funfest
American drama has had us on the edge of our seats. Now we're going to be in stitches, says Hugh Montgomery
Sunday 24 February 2013
American television drama has become something of a British obsession in recent years. First came The Sopranos, then The Wire, then Mad Men; these days, you cannot move 15 metres in a built-up area without hearing someone rave about a sofa weekend spent chowing down on a Breaking Bad boxset.
But if we are to look across the Atlantic for our small-screen succour, then what about some funnies? After all, the US sitcom has been going through a purple patch in recent years, even if you'd be forgiven for not having noticed. For while Lena Dunham's controversial Girls and Emmys favourite Modern Family have received the publicity they deserve, other equally fantastic series have suffered obscure scheduling, fanfare-free launches or simple unavailability.
Hurrah then for BBC4, who have finally picked up one such gem, Parks and Recreation. Starring Amy Poehler, perhaps best known here for her storming turn co-hosting this year's Golden Globes alongside Tina Fey, the Office-like mockumentary will start on the channel next week, four years on from its US debut.
And so, in the spirit of celebration, here's our guide to that and all the other half-hour American comedies deserving of your immediate attention.
What it's about: The life and loneliness of misanthropic, middle-aged comic Louis CK.
Who's in it: Stadium-filling stand-up Louis CK, playing a fictionalised version of himself.
Why you should be watching: It's the ultimate "anti-sitcom". Where sitcoms are comforting, formulaic, desperate to be liked, Louie is odd, shambling, miserable. The self-consciously half-assed format throws together clips of CK on stage in clubs with vignettes of his life. It's in the former that he really comes into his own, ranting about life with a zeal that earns him comparisons with Bill Hicks and George Carlin. Meanwhile, the later scenes' comedy of social awkwardness will feel excruciatingly familiar to Curb Your Enthusiasm fans.
Signature line: "Every day starts, my eyes open and I reload the program of misery. I open my eyes, remember who I am, what I'm like, and I just go, 'Ugh'…"
Critical opinion: "Louie intelligently harnesses the dark cloud that follows a truly funny man everywhere he goes." Washington Post
How to see it: Season 1 is on Fox TV.
Parks and Recreation
What it's about: The parks department of an Indiana town council and its hapless attempts to serve the community – chiefly, a drawn-out mission to fill in an unsightly pit.
Who's in it: Ex-Saturday Night Live star Amy Poehler, with hip young comedy gunslingers (Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, Aubrey Plaza).
Why you should be watching: It's The Office meets Happy Days: part workplace mockumentary, part affectionate portrait of small-town life. Poehler's neurotic but determined deputy parks director Leslie Knope, is that rare sitcom thing: a female lead who is neither a klutz nor a bitch, nor defined by her relationship status.
Signature line: "This is where the rubber of government meets the road of actual human beings."
Critical opinion: "It has a kind of sunny charm [and] a premise fit for a novel." Los Angeles Times
How to see it: Series 1 begins on BBC4 on 6 March, at 10pm.
What it's about: The misadventures of a motley crew of mature students at Greendale community college
Who's in it: A diverse ensemble including rapper-actor Donald Glover and Mad Men ingénue Alison Brie, and National Lampoon legend Chevy Chase.
Why you should be watching: Because it has the lovable gang dynamics of a Friends or Cheers; and a breathlessly inventive script serving up pop-culture allusions, meta-jokes and high-concept storylines. There are pastiches of zombie horrors, spaghetti westerns and fantasy epics and a whole half-hour animated in claymation. Relatively low ratings mean it's under constant threat of cancellation. However, its small but full-on fan base is vociferous – last year taking a quote from the show to start a campaign demanding that it play for "six seasons and a movie".
Signature line: "I don't have an ego: my Facebook photo is a landscape."
Critical opinion: "Community can be fresh, funny, smart ... it also can be terrifically odd." Newsday
How to see it: Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD, while 3 will premiere on Sony Entertainment TV from May.
What it's about: The rebirth of Amy Jellicoe, an executive for a faceless multinational who follows a nervous breakdown with a stint in a Hawaii treatment centre, and who then surfs back into her old life and job as a desperate-to-be-changed woman.
Who's in it: Jurassic Park star and David Lynch muse Laura Dern, with Diane Ladd and Luke Wilson. Its creator is actor-scriptwriter-director Mike White of indie classic Chuck & Buck fame.
Why you should be watching: Because, in the very best way, you won't know what to make of it. Tonally, it swerves from broad comedy to autumnal melancholy. Thematically, it satirises and exalts its heroine's journey of self-discovery. And what starts as a tale of mid-life crisis morphs into something far-reaching, as Amy resolves to change her nasty employer from within.
Signature line: "I'm here to tell you you can walk out of hell and into the light."
Critical opinion: "Ambivalent, humane, and beautifully contradictory..." Slant Magazine
How to see it: Season 1 is out on DVD now and Season 2 will be on Sky Atlantic later this year.
What it's about: America's No 1 hipster enclave, Portland, Oregon, and its array of "alternative" residents, from feminist bookstore-owners to bicycle-rights activists.
Who's in it: Writer-creator-star duo Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, switching characters and wigs. Indie-music fans will recognise Brownstein from Nineties riot-grrrl band Sleater Kinney.
Why you should be watching: It's a TV sketch show that's actually funny. Brownstein and Arisen nail the lingua franca of hipsterdom: think artisan lightbulbs, heritage-breed chickens and boutique hotels with typewriters and turntables in every room. And it does well to avoid easy sneering; the stars' antic gusto makes the self-regardingly bohemian characters far more lovable than they have any right to be.
Signature line: "The dream of the Nineties is alive in Portland! The tattoo ink never runs dry!"
How to see it: Series 1 and 2 are available on Netflix.
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