5. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Blatant nihilism and self-absorption makes for pretty funny television—shows like Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm are proof-positive of this new maxim. But onscreen celebrations of this emotional insularity are usually somewhat self-aware. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia takes this über-ironic humor to it’s logical conclusion: amoral sociopaths who think they’re lovable sitcom archetypes (whence “The Gang”). Your jaw will drop and you’ll squirm in your seat when you hear Frank dismiss his daughter Dee’s pregnancy with a deadpan “Do yourself a favor and flush it out.” And then, despite yourself, you’ll laugh until your sides hurt. — Michael Saba
4. Party Down
Underneath the white button-downs and ridiculous pink bow-ties, the employees of L.A.’s Party Down catering company are writers, actors, comedians and aspiring restaurant franchise owners—but it hardly matters to the folks they’re pushing appletinis and crudites for. What could easily be a bleak, recession-era tale of thwarted egos—or worse, just another exercise in “awkward!”—skirts both entirely; it surely doesn’t hurt that the cast draws from the Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow universes, or that Paul Rudd is one of the dudes at the helm. Care for a cheese cube with that quiet desperation? — Rachael Maddux
Community is a show suffused with pop culture. Almost every episode’s plot has been done by a sit-com or movie previously, but Community revels in its referentiality. Nearly everyone watching Community has spent countless hours watching other TV sitcoms and trashy Hollywood movies. The characters of Community have done the same, and aside from Abed’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, they respond to clichéd show tropes in the same way you do. They know that Jeff is the cool guy, that Britta has been set up as a romantic interest regardless of the lack of chemistry between the two characters. They know that Pierce is comic relief and that they’re the center of the universe because they’re TV characters. They’ve managed to take the oldest jokes in the book and make them completely new. — Sean Gandert
2. 30 Rock
The spiritual successor to Arrested Development, 30 Rock succeeded where its competition failed thanks to star/creator Tina Fey. 30 Rock never loses track of its focus and creates a surprisingly deep character for the its circus to spin around. But Fey’s not the only one that makes the series. Consistently spot-on performances by Tracy Morgan—whether frequenting strip clubs or a werewolf bar mitzvah—and Alec Baldwin’s evil plans for microwave-television programming create a perfect level of chaos for the show’s writers to unravel every week. It may be a little off its game, this season, but an average episode of 30 Rock is still better than a good episode of almost any other sitcom. — Sean Gandert
1. Modern Family
The funniest debut season of a sitcom in a long while belongs to Modern Family on ABC. The story of three inter-related families works because its characters seem familiar to life but fresh to the screen. Not that the show is above archetypes: There’s the rebellious teen seduced by popularity, the beautiful Colombian second wife, the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool dad, the patriarch who doesn’t like to show affection, the flamboyantly gay boyfriend. But it’s not taken long for TV veterans Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan to let each character’s uniqueness flourish through the myriad relationships within the family.
We’ve seen Jay Pritchart (Married With Children‘s Ed O’Neill) struggle to relate with his new stepson Manny and his son-in-law Phil, but surprisingly connect with Cameron—his gay son’s boyfriend—over football. We’ve seen 10-year-old Manny give parenting advice to Jay’s daughter Claire and fight with Claire’s slow-witted, hyper son Luke (technically, his nephew). And then the cameo from Jay’s first wife, played by Shelley Long, took the craziness to a whole new level (as Cameron says, “There’s a fish in nature that swims around with its babies in its mouth. That fish would look at Mitchell’s relationship with his mother and say, ’That’s messed up.’”)
There’s dysfunction here, and while a meanness sometimes creeps in, there’s also as much love for these characters as there is laughter at their expense. Mitchell’s tendencies to get uptight are mellowed by Cameron’s constant joviality. Jay’s crotchetiness is mitigated by his wife Gloria’s vivaciousness. Even Phil, the show’s version of The Office’s Michael Scott—with no self-awareness and a self-sabotaging quest to seem hip—is protected from his own antics by a loving wife.
It’s these relationships that make even a completely messed-up family a valuable thing. No matter how bad things get in this Modern Family, it always beats the alternative of not having each other. They’re flawed individuals, offering only broken bits of love to one another, but that’s more than enough to cling to. As Dylan, the boyfriend of Claire’s oldest daughter so sweetly an wisely said—before breaking into a song about Haley with the lyrics, “I just want to do you, do you” in front of the family—“You’re reaching out, trying to hold on to something awesome… Haley’s got the kind of confidence that you get from having a family like this that’s passionate and accepting of hot foreigners and gay dudes and nutty people—you know, family that actually loves each other.”
And a funny one at that. — Josh Jackson