5. Firefly(14 episodes; Sept. 20, 2002 – Dec. 20, 2002; Fox)
Leave it to Joss Whedon to dream up a space show without aliens. The smart writing he brought to Buffy turned the universe into one big frontier, where those who didn’t conform to authoritarian rule were forced to eke out their livings among outlying planets where the long arm of the law can’t follow. Watch the way-too-short lived series in full before finishing with Serenity.
4. Sports Night
(45 episodes; Sept. 22, 1998 – May 16, 2000; ABC)
More than the rapid-fire dialogue or deft blend of comedy and drama, it’s the utter competence of the sportscasters and producers that quickly separates Sports Night from the other 30-minute laugh-tracked TV shows of the ’90s. The bosses are smart and helpful, except when they’re meddlesome network executives. You’re held accountable for mistakes, but your co-workers always have your back. Instead of the classic reliance on miscommunication for situational comedy, the tension arises from a pressure to excel in the national spotlight, and the humor comes from genuinely funny characters.With film-worthy writing and one of the best casts ever assembled for a sitcom (Robert Guillaume shone both pre- and post-stroke and William H. Macy was a regular guest), Sports Night changed the trajectory of television. It was a half-hour comedy with better, more emotional storylines than most hour-long dramas. It was one of the first hybrids of a multi-camera and single-camera show, benefiting from the strengths of both approaches. And its echoes could be felt in some of the best shows that followed: the volleys of witty repartee between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, The Sopranos’ psychiatrist scenes, and the meta-story lines about the show’s impending cancellation in Arrested Development.
3. Twin Peaks
(30 episodes; April 8, 1990 – June 10, 1991; ABC)
The surprising thing about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s weirdly wonderful series was not that it got canceled, but that it ever found a home on a broadcast network in 1990. Fortunately David Lynch went on to direct Mulholland Drive and blog about the weather, and Frost went on to, er, co-write The Fantastic Four.
2. Freaks and Geeks
(Sept. 25, 1999 – July 8, 2000, NBC)
Judd Apatow’s short-lived comedy made stars out of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco and Linda Cardellini. But just about everyone from the show has stayed busy in film and TV. Says Paste TV reviewer Sean Gandert: “It featured the same jocks and pimples and every other cliché the genre can offer, not only because its audience expected it, but also because that’s what high school is all about. By embracing these tropes (rather than pretending they’re mere clichés), Freaks managed to transcend the genre, focusing on human interaction and, above all, character. Ultimately, it’s this focus on character that turned another typical high-school sitcom into an incredibly funny and moving show.”
1. Arrested Development
(53 episodes, Oct. 19, 2004 – December 6, 2006; Fox)
Fox had one of the best shows of the last decade on its hands, but decided to dump the show’s final four episodes unceremoniously in one block opposite the Opening Ceremonies for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. We’re still not over it.
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