Something old, something new, something… drawn: My favorite comedies of the fall season

The fall television is overflowing with comedy. Despite the delay of some of the best shows on until the spring, either out of standard scheduling (Archer) or network maneuverings (Community), a reasonably fruitful crop of new shows, combined with the continued blossoming of relatively young ones and the continued quality of now-veteran series, means the fall schedule is still loaded with watchable half-hour comedies.

I want to focus on three that have stood out from the pack to me. Conveniently enough, these three are all at different stages of their life cycle. One is an old veteran comedy having some of its finest episodes in what will be its final season. One is a first-year comedy that seems to have immediately found its voice and is buoyed by terrific performances and chemistry between its cast. The third has just run over twenty-five episodes to this point, and seems to be hitting its creative peak.

The something old is 30 Rock. Perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that this, the show’s seventh season, will be its last, Tina Fey and co. have pulled out all the stops, are making all the jokes they want to make, and even getting in some real character work and development toward the show’s endgame. We’ve gotten the brilliant “NBC tanks” plotline (“How long has this been going on? Seven, eight years?” “Five weeks.”) which has given us fake shows like the game show Homonym (“It’s always the other one!”) and “Joe Rogan as Mandela“. We’ve gotten two fictional Tracy Jordan characters (his version of Governor Dunston, the new Republican vice-presidential candidate, as well as Aunt Phatso) that led to two great episodes. We’ve gotten some fine Jenna material  (overstating her age on purpose, her “crabcatcher” fans, her inner monologues to and songs about herself). And, this week, we got a Liz Lemon wedding, in the only Liz Lemon way possible– fighting it as another symbol of the expectations placed upon her in a patriarchal society before begrudingly admitting she really does want a wedding, albeit once where she’s dressed like Princess Leia and one of the rings is a drug dealer’s grill her fiance picked up at a police auction.

30 Rock hit some shaky ground in its middle years– jokes that didn’t land, plots or characters that didn’t work or were confusedly trying to send up something (seriously, what was “Khonani” trying to say about the Tonight Show feud, anyway?), but I felt the sharp edge returning to the comedy increasingly throughout seasons 5 and 6, and if things keep up the way they have so far, we may be looking at that rare feat: a long-lived comedy show going out on its own terms with one of its finest seasons.

Our midlife show is technically in its third season, but with its first two orders being quite short (nine and thirteen episodes), it’s at that point in its lifespan where the world and the characters have become more fully realized, but the ideas for stories and jokes are still fresh. Bob’s Burgers seems to be really hitting its stride this season, and while it was a show that seemed to get its act together early (for my money, the show’s sixth epsiode, where Bob moonlights as a cabbie to pay for his daughter Tina’s 13th birthday party, was what hooked me for life), it also had some consistency problems throughout the first couple of seasons, with the occasional flat episode or lifeless stretch. Those seem to be fewer and fewer in number as the show goes on, however, and season three has pretty consistently delivered.

The show manages to generate affection for its characters and show they really care for one another as a family, but it never feels sentimental or cloying, in large part because those characters are so demented. None of the Belchers are without their strange side; the children’s are more overt (Tina’s awkwardness and budding, occasionally zombie-confused sexuality; Gene’s purveyance of sounds and smells; and Louise’s criminal-mastermind machinations and bunny hat), but parents Bob and Linda are known to go a little insane. Bob’s cases are frequently drug-fueled (taking painkillers while playing a video game; drinking absinthe and talking to a turkey), but Linda drops hints she drinks a little too much, too. And even when she’s not drinking, she occasionally sings ridiculous songs or dances like… let’s say, an earthworm with hips, or maybe a bowling pin.

The ocean-resort town where Bob’s Burgers (the store and the show) are located is similarly populated with weirdos, from Teddy the handyman / contractor / guy who will eat anything / is overly attached to a gerbil / is afraid of mechanical sharks, to Mr. Fischoeder (played by Kevin Kline!), the Belcher’s landlord, who usually has any number of shady schemes going on and frequently hangs out on the pier with no pants on on foggy nights. The town’s background is gradually being sketched in with strange characters, a la Springfield or Pawnee, and the show is becoming richer and more rewarding to its fans for it.

It helps that the cast records their lines together (which is no blight on the other best animated comedy on TV, Archer, which does the opposite). The episodes have a looser, more improvised feel, and the great chemistry of the cast shines through with the way they banter. (And I really haven’t said enough about the performances– I think the whole main cast is terrific.) Bob’s Burgers is my favorite animated show on the air, and I hope it lasts for a long time.

I’m saving the “something new” for last, because it’s the one I want to talk about the most. It’s struggling in the ratings and could really use some viewership, and I’d like to use what platform I have to champion it. That show is Ben and Kate.

While on the surface, Ben and Kate might seem like one in the wave of hacky “guys raising kids is wacky!” shows to premiere this fall (see The New Normal, Guys with Kids), it stands alone in terms of quality. The premise– young single mom’s ne’er-do-well brother moves back to town and ends up helping raise the kid– seems like a stock premise ripe for Wacky Misunderstandings set to a laugh track, but almost immediately the show exhibited that it was both much funnier and deeper than that.

The relationship between Ben (Nat Faxon) and Kate (Dakota Johnson) is unique on TV. They’re siblings, but they have a rich backstory that illuminates their characters and their relationship and gives it depth. While it’s never been specified, their parents tend toward the “absentee” side of the scale. Ben has always been the irresponsible one whose antics get him in trouble, so Kate has had to be the mature sibling and, essentially, raise them both (while helping Ben solve his problems).  Fortunately for Kate, this left her well-equipped to raise a child when she got pregnant and the father left the picture. As the series begins, her daughter is five, and Ben has just returned to town after some time living elsewhere in the state causing hijinks and having misadventures.

I can’t say enough about the cast of this show, but for starters, Faxon and Johnson are the reason the Ben and Kate relationship works. It’s a tricky dynamic to develop on television, siblings who can convincingly portray a relationship that’s intimate and affectionate without crossing over into sexual territory. Yet Faxon and Johnson manage to convey all of this, and Johnson is great at portraying Kate’s combination exasperation with Ben’s antics / protectiveness of and willingness to stick up for him.

The rest of the cast shines too.  Maggie Elizabeth Jones is Maddie is never overly precious or precocious, and they don’t overuse her. Echo Kellum fits in the universe perfectly as Tommy, Ben’s best friend who’s long held a torch for Kate, but the real gem is Lucy Punch as Kate’s best friend (and personality foil) BJ. Kate and BJ’s personalities are almost perfectly complementary, in a way similar to 30 Rock’s Liz and Jenna: One is more mature, reserved, socially awkward, and generally into her own thing; the other is brash, attention-seeking, and overtly sexual. This being a more grounded show, BJ is more stable and supportive of Kate than Jenna ever was, but it’s still an apt comparison.

But coming back to the top, the real revelation has been Dakota Johnson as Kate. I’ve never seen her in anything before and I knew very little about her besides her famous parentage and the fact that she apparently cussed like a sailor as a freshman in high school (I have an inside source on this). But she’s been a real find as Kate, and hits all the right notes, especially portraying Kate’s social awkwardness in a way that’s unique to her and richly detailed, and ends up being an endless source of comedy.

One more thing about this show: I’ve never seen a show get so much mileage out of simple reaction shots. Every single cast member is capable of conveying so much with an expression, and since each character is frequently doing or saying something at least one of the others finds ridiculous, the opportunities to do so come often. Even Maddie gets a few chances to react to Ben’s cockamamie ideas or BJ’s total inappropriateness.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a comedy where the characters primarily function as joke machines or otherwise don’t resonate emotionally. Really and truly, I measure a comedy’s success by how often and how hard it makes me laugh. But a comedy can find rich depths if it creates characters the viewers can develop affection for and then fleshes them out accordingly. It not only means the show can get more mileage out of character-based humor, but that it can also build a deeper experience for the viewer, one that keeps them coming back. Ben and Kate makes me laugh, a lot, but it also leaves me feeling good, and a large part of that is the warmth the characters have for each other (and that their creator, Dana Fox, has for them). That warmth and affection carries the show a long way. An ordinary, conventional sitcom might mock the characters for their predicaments or have Kate treat Maddie as a nuisance, but the show has already made it clear in episodes like “21st Birthday” that for all the headaches and foibles of raising a child and dealing with a slightly cracked brother and best friend, Kate loves them very much, is thrilled to be a mother, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s also already at a place where I simply enjoy the low-key episodes and the hangout time with the characters (and the performances thereof). Even shows like the US Office and Parks and Recreation didn’t master this until about midway through their second season. For Ben and Kate to be at this place after a handful of episodes is really special. I hope FOX realizes what they have on their hands here, and I hope that, despite low early ratings, the show gets a chance to find an audience. We’re about halfway through season one now. This is me imploring you to tune in for the second half.

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