What do an origin story about the world’s most famous wrestler, an inner city elementary school, and a haunted bed and breakfast all have in common?
They’re three of the best comedies currently on television. And perhaps shockingly, they all air on broadcast networks. You know, the channels you don’t have to pay extra money for? That are over-the-air? That you haven’t watched in maybe quite some time?
Network television has taken a beating of late. Cable and streaming platforms offer prettier, shinier, and more buzzed-about options. Think Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant and Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso. All terrific shows, but also shows on three different premium platforms that require three different subscriptions.
Of the eight comedies nominated for an Emmy last year, ABC’s black-ish, which concludes its eight season run on April 18th, was the only one that aired on network television. You have to go back to 2016 for a year when more than one network comedy made the cut. That year, both ABC’s Modern Family and black-ish were nominated.
Now for the first time in a while network television is offering up shows that are not only popular with viewers but are also receiving critical acclaim. While the comedies on paper couldn’t be more different, they all share a similar throughline: there is a sweetness to these shows. There’s no mean streak. They aren’t sardonic. But they also aren’t slapstick or saccharine.
Let’s take a look:
Abbott Elementary: This ABC comedy set in inner city Philadelphia is one of the season’s biggest surprises. It’s season finale airs April 12th but the show was picked up for a second season March 14th—a rarity in this day and age. The series was created by Quinta Brunson who stars as second grade teacher Janine Teagues. A little bit like The Office, but with students and optimistic but realistic teachers, the series thrives because of its fantastic performances. Janelle James is one of the show’s breakout stars as the clueless principal Ava Coleman, who we learned blackmailed her way into the position, and is seemingly more concerned with her number of Instagram followers than her students. In the opening moments of Tuesday’s finale she tells the kids she needs their permission slips: “They better be real. I can tell if you faked a Herbie Hancock.” When Janine corrects her that it’s John Hancock, she deadpans, “Girl I know. I just say whatever I want.” The exchange is a perfect example of what makes the show tick. A clever play on words with a pop-culture throwback and the idea that Ava does just say whatever she wants.
The show’s no-so-secret weapons are Sherly Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter as veteran teachers Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti (you need anything done? Melissa knows a guy). Barbara and Melissa’s friendship and wisdom are the show’s foundation. Add in a will they/won’t they romance between Janine and substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), and all the ingredients for a successful comedy are there. Like any TV show, there’s a willing suspension of disbelief (how do these teachers have so much time for lunch every day?) but its core foundation about the elementary school experience and what it’s like to be responsible for little humans day in and day out is so spot on.
Young Rock: In this NBC sitcom, Dwayne Johnson plays a fictionalized version of himself. Set in 2032 when Johnson is running for President (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t sound too far-fetched), he is being interviewed by Randall Park (played by Randall Park). During the course of the interview, Johnson flashes back to three periods of his youth. When he was 10 (Adrian Groulx), when he was 15 (Bradley Constant), and when he was a young adult (Uli Latukefu) trying to navigate college and a professional football career. It’s an intimate look at what made Johnson the star we know and love today starting with his parents: his mom, the level-headed and practical Ava (Stacey Leilua); and his dad, Rocky (Joseph Lee Anderson), a professional wrestler who has perfected how to “work the gimmick.”
For anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the show is a fun trip down memory lane complete with the beloved wrestlers of that era like Andre the Giant, The Iron Shiek, Junkyard Dog, and The Wild Samoans. What truly makes the show, though, are the three remarkable actors who play the younger Dwayne Johnson. Not only do they look like they could grow up to be one of the world’s most famous celebrities , but they truly give audiences an idea of the seminal moments in Johnson’s life that helped shape him. It’s also a look at wrestling as a profession and not the joke so many make it out to be. The overall interview structure can be awkward and, at times, the show’s weak link, but overall the series puts a new spin on one of television’s most popular genres- the family sitcom.
Ghosts: Perhaps the biggest surprise hit of the season is CBS’s Ghosts, which is based on the British series of the same name. Sam (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) leave their city lives behind when they inherit a country estate that they decide to turn into a bed and breakfast. Sam quickly discovers that the property is haunted and, unlike Jay, she is able to see and communicate with all the ghosts. Stemming from all different time periods—there’s Trevor (Asher Grodman), a 90’s Wall Street “Greed is good” kind of bro, Issaac (Brandon Scott Jones) a 1700s Militiaman, Pete (Richie Moriarty) a Boy Scout leader accidentally taken out by a fellow scout (hence the arrow in his neck), and the hippie era Flower (Sheila Carrasco) to name a few—these ghosts form an unlikely family. It sounds like a wacky premise and make no mistake: it is. But by giving viewers ghosts from so many different eras, the humor of the show can run the gamut (making both revolutionary war jokes and Y2k jokes funny) while also delivering genuinely poignant storylines. The show also recently solved one of its biggest mysteries of the television season by clueing viewers into why Trevor doesn’t have any pants. And yet, it was the friendships and bonds among the ghosts that made the episode truly stand out (as well as Jay’s truly terrible negotiation skills). Ghosts has its season finale on April 21st, but was renewed for a second season way back in January.
Add in ABC’s Home Economics and The Wonder Years, NBC’s Grand Crew, American Auto, and Kenan and for the first time in a long time, the answer to “what’s so funny?” can be found just by turning on your TV—no subscription required.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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