The Best Sitcom Beginnings

Modern Family and Community both return to the air with new episodes this week, marking the start of the new fall TV season. Last year, those two shows turned in undeniably strong opening seasons, helping to temporarily quell talk about sitcoms dying. (Until this year, when new shows like Mike & Molly kill off networks for good.)

But where do they rank among the all-team best premiere seasons ever for American sitcoms? Which finished ahead of the other? Was either season the greatest of all time? To celebrate the return of two great young upstarts, we’re counting down the ten best opening seasons in American sitcom history.

A lot of classic sitcoms took some time to find their legs. Seinfeld, Cheers, The Office, Family Ties — these and many others didn’t exactly come roaring out of the gate. They needed some time for the writers to find the characters’ voices, for the actors to learn the intricacies of their roles, and for the show-runners to figure out how to straddle the line between broad and subtle comedy. So these ten sitcoms stand out for their promising beginnings.

10. Undeclared

Judd Apatow’s follow-up to Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season. And while Undeclared was underrated in its time, I don’t want to overrate it here. It provided a prelude to the Apatow film juggernaut to come, and it was reliable for a few laugh-out-loud moments per week.

9. Action

Another one-and-done effort, Action was always too abrasive to last on network television (even the supposedly gonzo Fox of yesteryear). It also marked the last time that Jay Mohr wasn’t an insufferable douche. In addition to its tone, Action was doomed by an “unlikable” lead character (basically Mohr’s evil agent from Jerry Maguire) and the fact that Americans don’t care about Hollywood stories one-tenth as much as Hollywood does.

8. The Wonder Years

A show that overstayed its welcome by a fair number of seasons, and a show that flirted with celebrating nostalgia for its own sake, The Wonder Years still had a very lovely, very sweet first season. Plus: Olivia d’Abo as a hot teenage hippie. Everyone wins.

7. Newhart

Like the #2 entry on this countdown, Newhart started with just a little bit of an advantage — a pre-existing character. While not a spin-off per se, the Dick Loudon running that country Vermont inn wasn’t fundamentally different from the shrink, Robert Hartley. Newhart the show would get stranger as it went along, thanks in part to an overdose of Larry, Darryl and Darryl, but it wouldn’t get funnier than its debut season.

6. Newsradio

Newsradio was not entirely unlike Modern Family — a classical sitcom done right. Newsradio showed more of a penchant than Modern Family for playing with and subverting television tropes, but it wasn’t born into the world a fully functional adult like its later counterpart. Newsradio would grow and get better in subsequent seasons (until Phil Hartman died), but that’s not to say it wasn’t pretty damn strong from the get-go.

5. Weeds

Weeds didn’t shine for long, but it burned brightly before dying an interminably slow and painful death. Way back in the halcyon days of 2005, Nancy Botwin was a complicated, likable heroine. Quirky characters like Andy and Doug were relegated to subplots and comic relief. The stories had deniable plausibility. Life was good.

4. Community

Community is most similar in spirit to 30 Rock in that its gods are throwaway gags and pop culture references. 30 Rock (a show that just missed this countdown itself — Liz Lemon & co. didn’t really hit their stride until season 2) is funnier at its best, but Community has a greater number of likable, unique characters. Community also seems like its built for the long haul, and is well positioned to avoid a sophomore slump. My only real complaint with the show is the casting of Chevy Chase. Pierce is Community’s weakest character, and it can be hard to not think, “Hey, that’s Chevy Chase,” every time he’s on screen.

3. Modern Family

It’s almost amazing how self-assured Modern Family was the start. There were no growing pains, no feeling-out periods, no getting-to-know-you awkwardness. I sense that Community will end up being the stronger show over time, but while that show took a quarter-season to figure things out, Modern Family came out with guns blazing. It probably has a slightly lower degree of difficulty than Community, but its execution was nearly perfect. So while Community may have attempted more triple salchows and impressive combinations, Modern Family managed a better figure-eight than anyone has in a long time. The cast has crackling chemistry, and if the humor’s a bit broad at times, nimble enough to perform several different types of comedy.

2. Frasier

It’s tempting to say that Frasier got off to such a good start because it’s a spin-off from “Cheers.” While it’s true that Frasier Crane was already a fully developed, well-rounded character before the show even started, look around at some other spin-offs’ sputtering, inept starts: Joey, Archie Bunker’s Place, AfterM*A*S*H, and Cheers’ own The Tortellis. It’s simply not as easy as the creators of Frasier made it look. The new show stayed true to the spin-off character’s integrity, while creating an entirely new surrounding for him. In the end, the only real resemblance Frasier had to Cheers was a set of great characters, and an ideal combination of heart vs. humor. Frasier didn’t stay at its peak for longer than a few seasons, putting it a notch below other all-time greats like Cheers and Seinfeld, but it debuted fully formed.

We also shouldn’t overlook Frasier’s place in the then-burgeoning culture war. What else was Frasier’s time-slot battle with Home Improvement if not an opening salvo in the red state/blue state brouhaha that now overwhelms us all?

1. Arrested Development

The best sitcom ever also gave us the best first season ever. We can argue about whether season one or season two of AD was stronger overall, but it’s safe to say that the show didn’t get much better than in its first season. The series pilot did all the expositional heavy lifting, freeing the remaining 21 episodes to get progressively weirder and more intricate. Classic episodes like “Bring Up Buster,” “Pier Pressure,” and “Staff Infection” established early on that we were watching something special.

So, the 2009-2010 TV season contributed two of the four best opening sitcom seasons ever. Not bad, and not a feat that’s likely to be repeated anytime soon, if ever.

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