There was a period in my life during which I was paid to review television shows. This was the equivalent of a pyromaniac being told that he’d be financially rewarded for every building he burned down – of great personal convenience but probably not in anyone’s best long-term interests. A lot of what I watched was so terrible that it destroyed a large chunk of my soul which can never be recovered. Luckily, though, some of it was magnificent and I’m now at a point in my life where I can recall those moments without suffering a PTSD blackout caused by having watched too many episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys (one). Here’s the first three.
Freaks and Geeks: Baseball game from The Diary
There’s an argument (to which I’m amenable) that Freaks and Geeks is the most underrated show in TV history. It’s an 18-episode masterpiece. In The Diary, Bill – after years of misery – convinces Coach Fredricks to turn the tables and let the least athletic kids captain the teams for a baseball game in PE and it’s glorious.
Sam pitches hopelessly, Neil sledges a fellow classmate (“I sure had a lot of fun with your wife last night”), Bill fulfils his long-held ambition of calling a meeting on the mound and, ultimately, the three celebrate what feels like their first ever victory at school. They’ve finally achieved a moment of triumph and while it proves incredibly minor and ephemeral, it works because they’ve ascended to a place that’s less unhappy than their usual place and that’s enough for now.
Better Off Ted: Beating a Dead Workforce (full episode)
Better Off Ted was a rare and intriguing show. It was a subversive, left-leaning sitcom whose central theme was the soul-destroying victory of corporations over people. It had its ups and downs but it was unlike any other sitcom and when it was good, it was magnificent. “Beating a Dead Workforce” is one of its finest hours. A barely known mid-level office guy called Gordon Jenkins dies on the job and upper management propagandises his death to encourage everyone else to work longer hours for no extra reward (“do it for Jenkins”, “it’s what Jenkins would have wanted”). When Ted decides to go home at 8pm one day, it’s met with incredulity (“But it’s still dark out?!”).
The vast majority of TV shows and movies that deal with work life try to ram home one point: “If you just work harder, everything will work out great.” It’s bullshit, of course. It’s the mantra of the uber-wealthy who repeatedly reinforce the message, “If your life isn’t as great as mine, it’s because you don’t deserve it like I do. So don’t worry about structural reform or creating a society that affords everyone the same opportunities. Just work even more hours and have even less leisure time than you do now and then you’ll get the same riches I have. And if you don’t, it’s because of some character flaw you possess. But just remember that the system itself is fine.”
Better Off Ted undermines that drivel brilliantly and says, “Fuck that. Capital hasn’t just triumphed over labour, it’s massacred it. And now you’ll eke out an existence if it pleases the company which so kindly pays your wages. You should be grateful we allow you to work long hours in return for enough money to barely cover your bills.” This episode isn’t the funniest episode of Better Off Ted but it’s the most culturally important.
Seinfeld: George’s reaction to Susan’s death in The Invitations
The sitcom I hate most is The Big Bang Theory. Not because it’s the worst comedy on television but because it’s so lazy, formulaic and ritualistic in its insistence upon always delivering an ending that tells us that the characters have learned a lesson from this week’s antics. Seinfeld was the opposite. These characters learned nothing and liked it that way. There was no personal growth to be found anywhere and it was never better illustrated than The Invitations.
At the start of Season 7, George proposes to Susan in a moment of impetuousness that he almost instantly regrets. He then spends the rest of the season hoping to find a way out of his predicament that doesn’t involve him having to tell Susan (of whom he’s afraid) the truth. In the final episode of the season, he’s rescued when Susan dies from licking toxic envelopes for the wedding invitations. George’s reaction to the news from the doctor is a hilariously dark moment in sitcom history. He’s delighted. He’s surprised (because good things don’t tend to happen to George) but it’s really the ideal solution to his problem. This kind of low-level sociopathy as a comedic device would never, ever cross the minds of the writers of The Big Bang Theory. It’s too complicated. But here, George Costanza’s fiancée has just died and he’s turning emotional cartwheels. I love everything about it.