Sometimes great TV comedy makes you laugh so hard you cry. And sometimes it just makes you cry.
If one thing became entirely clear in 2014, it’s that traditional descriptors like “sit-com” are so last century. Defining what makes a small screen laffer is no longer cut and dry. Digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon are following in the footsteps of industry innovators like HBO and Showtime and shattering the barrier between drama and comedy — and the obvious winner in this genre revolution is the viewing audience.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t great examples of the classic multi-camera comedy format still on the air (our list includes two of them), or that trendy single camera shows can’t be non-stop joke machines (we’d argue both “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” place laughs over pathos in every episode). But let’s also thank the shows pushing the envelope to make TV comedy a riskier, edgier, more exciting place than it ever has been.
To prove our point: One example we would have included on this list — the CW’s sparkling freshman “Jane the Virgin” — already landed a spot on Brian Lowry’s list of top 10 TV dramas. But any argument over what’s a comedy and what’s a drama risks distracting from the most important point of all: This is a damn fine time for television.
Here’s our list, in alphabetical order:
The Big Bang Theory/Mom: Chuck Lorre’s Thursday tandem is obviously known in part for the producer’s broad and frequently ribald comedy, but they have each tapped into emotional depths as well — the former by delving deeper into its brilliant yet emotionally vulnerable characters and beefing up guest roles for the likes of Bob Newhart and Billy Bob Thornton, the latter by exploring on a serialized basis the financial struggles of a working mom (Anna Faris) — and her mom (Allison Janney) —- both grappling with addiction and recovery.
Black-ish: Just as modern as the Dunphys and as crazy as the Goldbergs, ABC’s newest residents — the Johnsons — are hitting their stride. Led by zany-yet-loving dad Dre (Anthony Anderson) and mom Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), the brood tackles growing up in the 21st century, dealing with the generation gap and respecting traditions, while often taking a sharp look at racial and gender stereotypes.
The Comeback: Oh, Valerie — how we’ve missed you. Absence indeed made our hearts grow fonder for our favorite misguided sitcom star (Lisa Kudrow), oh-so-desperate to make a, well, comeback. Tartly written by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King, “The Comeback” took razor-sharp aim at everything from reality TV to its own network (HBO).
Louie: In the fourth season of his innovative FX comedy, Louis CK took huge swings — the beautifully bittersweet six-part “Elevator” arc, the feature length flashback “In the Woods,” the buzzworthy deconstruction of gender politics “So Did the Fat Lady” — and hit home runs every time.
Orange Is the New Black: How do you top a first season as terrific as what Jenji Kohan’s Netflix dramedy delivered in 2013? By digging deeper and deeper into one of the most intriguing casts of characters on TV (played by, arguably, the most talented and diverse ensemble in the medium right now). The drama stings, but the laughter heals. We’re ready to volunteer for life sentences at Litchfield.
Parks & Recreation: From the tear-jerking departure of beloved cast members Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones to the epic star-studded Unity Concert finale, it was another banner year in Pawnee. All topped off by a flash forward to the future that no one saw coming (Hello, Jon Hamm! Goodbye, Jon Hamm!) to perfectly set up a final season victory lap in 2015.
Silicon Valley: They may be newbs on the HBO comedy scene, but this nerd crew loudly announced themselves as big-time players with a start-to-finish hilarious first season. Led by Thomas Middleditch’s spectacularly awkward star turn — and an invaluable assist from the late, great Christopher Evan Welch — the first-rate ensemble kept us howling with optimal tip-to-tip efficiency.
Transparent: Consider Amazon Studio’s “Transparent” as a family comedy — the Pfeffermans bicker and squabble and good-naturedly torture each other, in that way that only loved ones can. Against that framework, creator Jill Soloway skillfully unfolds the story of father figure Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who’s revealing herself to her adult children as transgender. Touching and tender, “Transparent” simply transcends.
Veep: Is there nothing Julia Louis-Dreyfus can’t do? Yes, it’s getting repetitive watching her accept award after award, but it’s frankly well-deserved for her work on HBO’s hilarious send-up of the White House. Wickedly funny and profane as ever, Armando Iannucci’s biting satire hit its stride in season three, as power-hungry Selina achieved the unthinkable.
You’re the Worst: With a cleverly crafted mix of sarcasm and genuine feeling, the first season of the FX comedy told the amusing tale of two horrible people falling for each other, despite being convinced any relationship is doomed to fail. Well-written and smartly performed, characters don’t stay one-dimensional for long, adding an intriguing layer to the story sparked by sex, denial and awkward situations.
Too Many Cooks: It may be just over 11 minutes long, but the surreal Adult Swim short from writer-director Casper Kelly was clearly one of the comedic highlights of the year. What begins as a lovingly cheesy tribute to those dorky family sit-coms from the ’80s and early ’90s morphs into a wild — and increasingly unsettling — satire of TV tropes from the police procedural to the low-budget space serial. Oh, and there’s also a psycho killer fit for a long lost slasher movie classic. You’ve never seen anything like it. Guaranteed.
Honorable mentions: “Alpha House” (Amazon); “Archer” (FX); “Enlisted” (Fox); “Episodes” (Showtime); “Looking” (HBO); “Nurse Jackie” (Showtime); “Shameless” (Showtime); “Survivor’s Remorse” (Starz)
(Compiled by Geoff Berkshire, Debra Birnbaum, Brian Lowry, Shelli Weinstein)