The Jim Henson Hour (12 episodes: nine on NBC in 1989; two of the unaired episodes on Nickelodeon in 1992–93; one episode never aired in the US)
The Jim Henson Hour, in many respects, can be seen as two distinct shows, each representing different facets of Jim Henson’s creative work.
Out of the nine episodes that aired on NBC, six of them followed a format where the hour-long episodes were divided into two distinct segments.
In the first half-hour, viewers were treated to “MuppeTelevision,” a variety show styled after The Muppet Show, where Kermit the Frog and his pals took center stage.
In this segment, Kermit played the role of a television studio manager and welcomed prominent guest stars, including NBC celebrities of that era like Ted Danson, Willard Scott, and Jane Pauley.
Although it didn’t showcase all the beloved Muppet characters (as Frank Oz had embarked on his non-Henson directing career, leading to Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear’s limited appearances), this segment retained many of the Muppets’ trademark elements.
These included musical performances, satirical takes on pop culture (one memorable sketch was “hurtingsomething,” a parody of thirtysomething), and self-aware commentary (the fifth episode, “The Ratings Game,” had Kermit anxiously fretting over the show’s declining ratings).
“MuppeTelevision” also introduced several new characters, such as Clifford, who later became the host of 1996’s Muppets Tonight, and the groundbreaking CGI puppet Waldo C. Graphic, the first-ever computer-generated puppet, who still headlines Walt Disney World’s MuppetVision 3D*.
The second half-hour of the show featured a darker, more contemplative tone, reminiscent of Henson’s later cinematic works like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.
These segments often drew inspiration from episodes of Henson’s 1988 series, The Storyteller, presenting half-hour folk tales reenacted by a combination of human actors and puppets.
One of the genuine highlights of The Jim Henson Hour lies in the segments where Jim Henson himself directly engages with the audience. Each episode commences and concludes with Henson, who frequently delves into discussions about the puppets, technology, or the stories featured in that particular program.
The tenth episode, titled “Secrets of the Muppets,” stands out by featuring Henson providing the audience with an exclusive tour of The Muppet Workshop in New York and the Henson Creature Shop in London.
This special episode also delves into the behind-the-scenes intricacies of The Muppets, shedding light on how Waldo C. Graphic is brought to life and revealing the secrets behind the iconic bicycle scenes in the Muppet films.
This footage holds particular significance, perhaps even more so due to Henson’s passing (as this marked his final television series before he sadly passed away in May 1990).
Regarding viewership, the ratings for The Jim Henson Hour were, regrettably, a complete disaster. It frequently found itself among the five lowest-rated shows on network television throughout the entire week.
Nonetheless, critically, the show garnered substantial acclaim, receiving six Emmy nominations despite its brief run.
Jim Henson himself earned the title of Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program at the Emmys, and the series clinched the Television Critics Association award for Best Children’s Program in 1989.
[Note: It’s available on available on YouTube, complete with 1989 commercials!]
The Office (UK) (14 episodes on BBC Two/One from 2001–2003)
The mockumentary style has become somewhat of a commonplace approach in contemporary television, notably employed by series like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family to convey their narratives, while Community humorously parodied it on two occasions.
However, the show that triggered the current popularity of this format differs significantly from the polished, stylistic productions that followed, including its American adaptation.
When The Office initially debuted on BBC Two in the UK back in 2001, it teetered on the brink of cancellation.
Nevertheless, the escapades of David Brent and his colleagues at the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company have evolved into one of the country’s most successful exports.
This success has extended to local adaptations in the US, French Canada, Chile, Germany, Sweden, and Israel. Furthermore, the show’s adept utilization of cringe comedy, an art finely honed by its creators Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, positioned it as one of the most unconventional comedies of its era.
An impressive array of achievements indeed, especially when considering it comprised only 14 episodes.
Freaks and Geeks (18 episodes on NBC from 1999–2000)
While numerous TV series have delved into the trials and tribulations of the teenage years, few have done so as authentically as Freaks and Geeks.
Across a mere 18 episodes, it crafted a world so vivid and enduring that viewers felt as though they’d grown up alongside nerdy high school freshman Sam Weir, his somewhat rebellious older sister Lindsay, and their circle of friends.
What sets this show apart is its focus on the subtle, everyday moments, each one contributing a little more to our understanding of the characters and their complex relationships.
Although the series is set in 1980, it refrains from relying on clichéd period references for its humor. The kids talk about their favorite movies and music because that’s precisely what real teenagers do.
The show doesn’t ridicule the past for merely being “not the present,” which allows Freaks and Geeks to possess a more timeless and relatable quality than many of its counterparts. Every aspect of the show feels organic, even the geeks’ experiences of pain.
They endure bullying and humiliation, but they also find moments of happiness and triumph. The series avoids the simplistic route of wallowing in misery, offering a more balanced and authentic portrayal of adolescence.
In the years following the show’s conclusion, creator Paul Feig pursued directing, leaving his mark on episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, and other beloved single-camera comedy series.
Executive producer Judd Apatow achieved significant prominence in the realm of comedy filmmaking, while the cast members found consistent work in various projects, from Bones to Party Down to Cougar Town.
Slings and Arrows (18 episodes on Canada’s Movie Central/The Movie Network from 2003–2006)
Perhaps in the future, we’ll be treated to another outstanding television series that delves into the world of theater or the performing arts in a broader sense. For now, Slings and Arrows is the epitome of TV shows centered around this theme and ranks among the greatest shows ever crafted.
It consistently delivered moments of uproarious humor and, if nothing else, it should be celebrated for gracing us with three of the wittiest, most entertaining, and finest theme songs (one for each season, each cleverly tied to the Shakespearean play the characters were working on that season) in the annals of television.
Yet, what truly set Slings and Arrows apart was its unflinching examination of the artistic struggles of its characters, as well as the very real financial challenges they faced in their quest to bring their creative visions to life.
This dynamic lent genuine dramatic weight to each of the show’s seasons, seamlessly interwoven with its frequent moments of side-splitting comedy.
The series finale, in particular, stands as one of the finest conclusions ever crafted, artfully bringing the 18 episodes of this brilliant and distinctive show full circle in a truly inspiring and flawless manner.
Frank’s Place (22 episodes on CBS from 1987–1988)
I find many of these nominations quite appealing, but my personal choice would be Frank’s Place.
This short-lived CBS comedy, which aired during the 1987-88 season, was a remarkable creation by renowned producer Hugh Wilson and starred Tim Reid. It fearlessly tackled significant issues related to race and class within the backdrop of a New Orleans restaurant.
For a late 1980s sitcom on CBS, a series that delved into themes of black culture, New Orleans cuisine, voodoo, and more may not have seemed like the most commercially viable idea.
As it turned out, viewers didn’t quite connect with Frank’s Place during its lone season.
Yet, the challenges extended beyond the show’s content; it also related to its unique shooting style. Frank’s Place was not your typical multi-camera sitcom; instead, it opted for a single-camera approach without a laugh track.
It’s worth noting that mainstream audiences didn’t truly embrace this style until the early 2000s, which makes it unsurprising that Frank’s Place failed to become a major hit.
However, this show’s distinctive narrative and innovative shooting style resonated with critics and scholars.
It garnered three Emmys and a TCA award, among other honors. In my research on comedy, place, and television genres, I’ve encountered Frank’s Place numerous times.
Unfortunately, it’s not available on DVD due to music rights issues, but there are some clips available on the Internet that I’ve had the pleasure of watching and enjoying.
It’s a thought-provoking series that likely had a more significant impact on television than many, including myself, may realize.
Spaced (14 episodes on the UK’s Channel 4 from 1999–2001)
Given my current focus on writing about Angela Chase, I chose My So-Called Life and Spaced. Ultimately, I decided to go with the latter.
Spaced, a gem among British sitcoms, only graced our screens for two seasons. Much like contemporary series such as Community, it expertly harnessed the power of pop culture references, setting the stage for memorable moments (prior to Community‘s iconic paintball episodes, there was Spaced‘s paintball escapade).
This influence resonates strongly in the subsequent works of director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, notably in films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and surely in their eagerly awaited project, The World’s End).
What’s remarkable is that it’s not just about parody or homage; they inject their unique brand of humor and characterization into what could otherwise be perceived as merely coasting on established references.
Spaced marked the inception of Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s collaboration, and they artfully wove in references to contemporary movies and shows, including The Matrix, Robot Wars, The X-Files, and Fight Club, along with countless older ones.
In fact, the DVD even boasts a special feature that dissects each reference, which may demystify the fun but vividly demonstrates the sheer abundance of them.
Spaced doesn’t stop at merely incorporating obscure references; it goes a step further by making you genuinely care about the eclectic group of misfits that populate its world.
From Brian with his avant-garde artistry to Marsha and her perpetually unseen, angsty teenage daughter, you become emotionally invested in their lives and root for their success.
In keeping with classic sitcom tradition, there’s a delightful “will they/won’t they” dynamic, particularly between central characters Daisy and Tim, who move in together under the pretense of being a couple, setting the stage for a farcical friendship.
While Tim pines for his ex, it’s evident that Daisy would be the better match for him. Much like the finest sitcoms, Spaced can evoke both laughter and tears, and I challenge anyone to watch the series finale without feeling a hint of nostalgia.
(Also, if Simon Pegg’s character Tim Bisley had known he would grow up to become Scotty, it would undoubtedly have blown his mind.)
Fawlty Towers (12 episodes on BBC2 from 1975–1979)
I understand your reservations about revisiting this topic, but I’m more than happy to delve a bit further into why Fawlty Towers, in my opinion, remains the most fitting choice for this category.
John Cleese, having already established himself as a member of Monty Python, wasted no time in following up with Fawlty Towers, a masterpiece among sitcoms.
I’ve been engaged in an ongoing project to review the series, and I share your difficulty in critiquing it because it’s a true challenge to find any points of criticism. Over the course of its 12 episodes (six in 1975 and six in 1979), Fawlty Towers provided a masterclass in farcical humor within the confines of an unassuming Torquay hotel.
These 12 episodes are a testament to error-ridden, masterfully heightened tensions that have remained remarkably timeless. Lines like “He’s from Barcelona” and “Don’t mention the war” have become iconic in the realm of comedy.
Portrayed by Cleese, Basil Fawlty stands as an immortal sitcom character: simultaneously obnoxious and obsequious, extremely conservative about matters of sex and money, and a source of some of the most brilliant physical comedy ever captured on film.
It’s genuinely challenging to think of a sitcom that has left a more profound impact on the television landscape than Fawlty Towers, particularly considering its relatively limited episode count.
Great multi-camera comedies like Cheers and Taxi openly acknowledge their debt to the show and the dysfunctional workplace/family dynamic it pioneered.
American networks have attempted several remakes over the years, often with notable figures like Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, and John Larroquette attached to different versions, but none have managed to capture the essence of the original.
Moreover, Fawlty Towers‘ influence goes beyond its content; it has influenced showrunners like Ricky Gervais (The Office) and Ben Elton (Blackadder), both of whom have publicly stated that they intentionally limited the number of episodes for their respective shows, inspired by the concise brilliance of Fawlty Towers.