Writing the list of the greatest sitcoms of all times may seem like a daunting task to some, but fortunately I saw most of them growing up. This has saved me a lot of time, which I have been able to use for endlessly rewatching them throughout my adult years.
6. Allo Allo: Are you listening carefully? I shall say zis only once. Ahh Allo Allo. When has wartime France ever been more fun? From the first episode, hapless hottie and restaurateur Rene Artois gets tangled in webs of intrigue, romance and silly accents. This show is a pure joy, wonderfully balancing a cast of absurd characters as they drag themselves deeper and deeper into farcical plots that somehow always manage to leave them in about the same place they started. I adore the running jokes, the cunning plans, and the knowledge that no matter what, these characters will always take the stupidest choice on offer…for France. Or Germany. Or Italy. It wasn’t always the best show, and we probably don’t need to mention the overstretched fifth season, but I love it.
(Side-note: A few years ago, my family and I got to go and see Allo Allo performed live with three original cast members, including Rene and Gruber. It was an absolute treat, and it wasn’t until much later that we discovered the show never actually went on tour, it just came across the world to Brisbane for some reason.)
5. The Nanny: I have vague memories of first watching this show on TV as a kid (possibly even when it originally aired) but I didn’t realise what a gem of a show it was until I got the first season on DVD. To my surprise the early seasons focus much more heavily on the family as a whole, leaving room to explore the romance plot between her and Mr Sheffield later. I adore the banter with Niles and the nonsense Fran brings into their lives, but what really made me love the show was one simple fact: my laptop could play the DVD. For some reason, my computer refused to play anything but The Nanny. So I would watch it on repeat for days, when I was cleaning or writing assignments or generally avoiding contact with the outside world. Thus far only the first 3 seasons have been released on DVD (of which I only recognised one episode from my days of watching it on TV) and so I still sit and wait desperately for the last three to come out. The Nanny has earned its place on my list, for two simple reasons: it’s eminently rewatchable, and its DVD is Elizabeth’s-laptop compatible.
4. Blackadder: Before we discuss this show, I have a confession to make. Growing up…I hated Mr Bean. I found him frustrating and irritating and stupid and dumb (I was a child of high reasoning skills and low idiocy-tolerance). So you can imagine my surprise when I watched Blackadder and loved it. I was introduced to the second season first, and Mr Bean was in it…except he was smart and scathing and really rather funny! I enjoyed the show, but it wasn’t really a favourite until I saw the fourth season. It absolutely blew me away: I loved all of the characters and I loved watching them try to get out of having to go to war and I loved watching Baldrick cook gourmet meals using nothing more than a dead rat and some cat’s vomit. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the third season, but man did I love it. I don’t know if it’s the best season, but it’s probably my favourite. There’s just something about Hugh Laurie as an idiot regent king who never seems to have enough pairs of socks that does it for me. I’m not saying the show wouldn’t be on the list without it, but it definitely helps.
3. Red Dwarf: This is another show I watched completely out of order, a combination of only owning episodes recorded from TV and half-seasons on VHS. For many years there were always new episodes of Red Dwarf for me to discover, as I slowly acquired the DVDs over several birthdays and Christmases. On reflection, I’m not entirely sure how I fell in love with this show, given that for so long I had access to only bits and pieces, including several episodes that scared the life out of me – “Quarantine” and “Angels and Demons” spring to mind.
My favourite seasons are the first two. I adore the premise: a handful of people trapped on a spaceship, bored, constantly finding new and exciting ways to drive each other insane. My favourite character has always been the Cat, whose overblown ego and improbably large wardrobe have always made me laugh. I’m keen to rewatch Red Dwarf X again, because I remember it had the feel of classic Red Dwarf to it; impressive given how much later it was written, and how wildly the first eight seasons differed from each other. The show as a whole is a true favourite, which I revisit constantly (and dream of finding new, undiscovered seasons on the shelves of DVD stores).
2. Vicar of Dibley: There’s something terribly endearing about a cast of morons (well-meaning morons, but morons nonetheless) and an intelligent and capable woman who can’t help but care about them. From the moment she arrives, the titular vicar manages a beautiful blend of indulgent agreement, fond mocking and sincere advice in the face of her new mad little parish. I really adore the way this show manages to toe the line between being ‘preachy’ and making fun of religion. It’s earnest without being sickly sweet, and it’s respectful of the role spirituality and religion can play in people’s lives, without ever pushing beliefs onto its audience. Similarly, though the parish council and other residents of Dibley can at times be staggeringly stupid, the show is never mean about it. Through the vicar’s reactions the show acknowledges the humour in the situation, but it does it with love and careful attention paid to the other elements of these people that are worth cherishing. Even if it takes a bit of time, patience, a pile of chocolate and some careful searching to find. The show is very fun, and very lovely and I can’t help but adore it.
Plus Dawn French has a romance with Richard Armitage, which never hurts. Watching Vicar of Dibley always makes me want to move to the country. And become a vicar. And marry Richard Armitage.
1. MASH: MASHMASH was a fun, funny show that explored the humour that can be found when groups of intelligent, highly trained people are forced to live closely together in hellish conditions. It’s kept light enough to allow for some great, silly, and genuinely funny moments, but never got so light that it was jarring when you were reminded of the setting: an army hospital in an active war zone. The earlier seasons are written in classic sitcom-style, with strong characters providing set-ups for chaotic fun and ridiculous plots. There’s an episode in the first season called “Tuttle” that I watched three times in a couple of days because I had to show it to everyone, I adored it so much. So while I feel the show got better as it went along, please know that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great to begin with. It really was.
What impresses me about the later seasons, though, is how they managed to find new places to go with the show, new stories to tell and new lessons to be learned, without ever losing the magic that made everyone fall in love with it in the first place. One of the hardest things to do in a sitcom is to bring new characters into the fold…especially if they are replacing old and much-loved characters. MASH managed to accomplishing this, introducing characters who filled the roles of their predecessors (the best friend, the antagonistic colleague, the CO) well enough to avoid changing the status quo while also being wholly their own person, bringing different perspectives and values. This always slightly changed the dynamic of the show and kept it fresh, but the writing and, let’s face it, the acting chops of Alan Alda means you aren’t left feeling like you were watching a different sitcom.
11 seasons is a long show, particularly as it has full, American, 20+ episode-long seasons. One of my favourite things about this masterpiece of a sitcom is how it takes advantage of its 256 episodes to do interesting things which shorter shows just don’t have the room to do. It plays with plots and genres, framing episodes as letters to and from home, or through the lens of journalists recording their experiences. There’s an episode where Hawkeye is the only known character (and the only one speaking English), and there’s plenty of chances for different characters to have a shot as the main character, at least of an episode or two. It plays with the passage of time it depicts: one episode follows a tense 20 minutes of saving a person’s life, one episode showing the span of a whole year with the 4077.
MASH experiments with the form while simultaneously staying true to the genre. It has fantastic characters, some of the best and most interesting plots I’ve seen in sitcoms, and – most importantly – never fails to make you laugh. In case it isn’t clear, I adore MASH and will happily defend its place as my number one sitcom of all time.