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Buy, Sell, or Hold: TV Comedies

Which sitcoms to add to your DVR portfolio — and which ones to dump … quickly

It hasn’t been a particularly funny month in the TV comedy business. In the past few weeks alone, cancellation notices have rained down on more than a dozen sitcoms, ranging from the culty and adored (Community, Legit) to the crass and loathed (Dads, Mixology). The grim reaper didn’t discriminate between reliable favorites like Suburgatory and promising newcomers like Enlisted. One high-profile show fell apart before even making it onto the air.

Of course, getting a comedy onto the schedule in the first place has never been a laughing matter. It’s arguably harder than constructing a drama — at least those can coast for a few bumpy months on the strength of their plots and/or premises. To make a sitcom feel loose, a thousand unpredictable things have to be in perfect alignment: Ensembles need time to click, writers need room to find their voices, and audiences need consistency in order to commit. In today’s hyperactive TV industry, those are all luxuries that few can afford. That’s why it’s hard not to be pessimistic about almost all the new sitcoms announced during upfronts last week. By the time even the best of them find their legs, it’s likely their networks will already have cut them off.

Rather than spending another week focusing on possibility, let’s consider some known quantities instead. I’ve taken a look at eight established comedies, all of which have been renewed for another season, and ranked them like stocks: Should you buy, sell, or hold? Remember, a diverse portfolio is paramount. Past glories aren’t enough to maintain a season pass on your overloaded DVR. With even more competition about to arrive, it’s more important than ever to invest your increasingly precious TV time correctly. Should you double down or cut your losses on these old favorites? My carefully considered, potentially reversible verdicts are below.

Mindy-Mindy-HP

The Mindy Project

Fox

Everything I just said about impatient network executives? Toss it out the window when it comes to Fox’s Kevin Reilly and The Mindy Project. For nearly a year and a half, the only consistent thing about this wildly erratic show was the devotion of the man with the power to cancel it. (Reilly admitted as much in our recent podcast.) As Mindy Kaling swiped through costars and love interests like unappealing Tinder profiles, Reilly didn’t blink. Even when plummeting ratings forced him to bench Mindy for much of the spring, he never wavered in his belief that the Project could eventually be reshaped on the fly into something worthy of its creator’s talents. I was dubious. Who can perform surgery on a sprinter in the middle of a race? It seemed that the more rope Reilly gave to Kaling, the more likely she’d be to trip over it.

Happily, I was wrong. The last few episodes of the second season were sitcom double Dutch, with a clicking cast, a strong comedic point of view, and, best of all, an effective expression of Kaling’s spiky-sweet offscreen appeal. The finale, in which Chris Messina’s dopey Danny Castellano reverse–Sleepless in Seattles his coworker, was flat-out wonderful. There are plenty of red flags still waving for Season 3 — successful rom-coms usually don’t dwell on the elevator ride down the Empire State Building — but if Mindy managed to make it this far, who’s going to stop her now?

Verdict: BUY

Saturday Night Live

NBC

In its 39th year, the battleship known as Saturday Night Live was far too sturdy to sink. Despite an exodus of talent not seen since the purge of ’86, the show managed to piece together a perfectly workmanlike season. It wasn’t a disaster, but neither was it particularly good. The largest cast in SNL history proved deep enough to weather the loss of Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and, in February, Seth Meyers. What should be of no small concern to Lorne Michaels is that the show wasn’t quite able to make us forget them. In fact, none of the new noodles he threw at the wall managed to stick this year, though Kyle Mooney has his partisans, Sasheer Zamata had her moments, and I’ll always be grateful to Mike O’Brien for this. Of the non-noobs, Kate MacKinnon remains spectacular and Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, and Taran Killam are all strong. But it was telling that the Andy Samberg–hosted season finale was buoyed — and bombarded — by old friends and favorites. It makes for a good show when Paul Rudd gets more screen time than Brooks Wheelan, but not necessarily a bright future.

Having learned from his mistakes many times over, Michaels knows it’s glue guys (and gals) like Killam, Cecily Strong, and Noël Wells who hold SNL together, even when there’s little around them to make it bounce. And his consolidation of power at 30 Rock — where alums Meyers and Jimmy Fallon ply their trade every weeknight — means there’ll never be a shortage of star power on hand. It helps that live TV has never been more valuable — did you see the ratings of the Billboard Music Awards? (Related: Had you ever heard of the Billboard Music Awards?) It helps even more that the upcoming 40th season promises to be an unprecedented victory lap for a show that never stops running. It just remains to be seen who or what is going to lead the charge into the 41st.

Verdict: HOLD

Girls

HBO

For me, the beauty and the frustration of Girls are one and the same: The appeal of the show derives from the same creative chaos that has perpetually threatened to sink it. It’s a series about young people in search of identity that has itself been in search of identity. Occasionally getting it wrong is a necessary part of eventually getting it right.

As it heads toward its fourth season, Girls is caught in that nebulous Britney zone, neither the precocious kid it once was nor the triumphant adult it aspired to be. What it is, it pains me to say, is kind of a mess. The third season was wildly inconsistent in a way that could no longer be excused as artistic. It was nearly impossible to tell just what Girls would be from week to week, or how any of the characters would act. The tone zigged and zagged like the line on a lie detector test, with would-be protagonists reduced either to cartoons (Shoshanna) or caricatures (Jessa). The Hannah-Adam romance seemed fueled more by an interest in Adam Driver’s continued employment than his fictional motivations. And was it disappointing or just perverse that the guys — particularly Andrew Rannells and Alex Karpovsky — were often more compelling than their female counterparts?

Girls is still capable of jaw-dropping greatness: “Flo,” about the hospitalization and death of Hannah’s grandmother (played to perfection by June Squibb), was one of the best half hours I’ve seen this year, a self-contained mini movie of exceptional wit and grace. Like the previous season’s “One Man’s Trash,” in which Hannah spent a lost weekend in a brownstone with Patrick Wilson, “Flo” was proof that Lena Dunham’s abilities as a filmmaker allow her to transcend the limitations of episodic television. I only wish she had proven more adept at navigating them.

Verdict: SELL

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Fox

Potential makes a comedy easy to root for but tough to love. Brooklyn Nine-Nine struggled with this divide through much of its award-winning rookie season. All the pieces were there, from ace background players Stephanie Beatriz and Terry Crews to the knock-around vibe bummed straight from old DVDs of Barney Miller. Yet it took months to get them all lined up. As cop Jake Peralta,1 Andy Samberg had a hard enough time learning to play with others, and the show’s impressive writing staff struggled to identify the line between detective and doofus. And while Samberg vamped and Chelsea Peretti snarked, the magnificent Andre Braugher (as the stern, gay Captain Holt) floated above it all, elegant and out of place — an Eames chair in a student squat.

Still, I’m bullish about Brooklyn’s prospects in Season 2. Creators Michael Schur and Dan Goor proved with their time in Pawnee that they know how to steer a show into the strengths of its cast. And the ambitious season finale suggested unexpected room for growth for the series. With Samberg’s Peralta off the force and leading an undercover investigation of the mob, Brooklyn suddenly seems invested in its situation as more than just a font for its comedy. A better handle on the characters and a wider net for the plot? Parks and Investigations sounds pretty great to me.

Verdict: BUY

Sillicon-Valley-HP

Silicon Valley

HBO

Much of the advance praise heaped upon Silicon Valleymy own included — involved the myriad ways the show differed from another aspirational HBO show about bantering bros in California. With microscopic attention to bits and bytes and a decidedly un-macho bent, Silicon Valley appeared to have nothing at all in common with Entourage. It was about young men starting at the bottom, yes, but Silicon’s protagonists weren’t punchy strivers. They’re formerly bullied punching bags, a bunch of antisocial geniuses who, with their hoodies zipped tight like armor, are suddenly forced to navigate a bright and terrifying universe filled with million-dollar deals and the cagey billionaires who make them.

In the last two weeks, my initial enthusiasm for the series has curdled somewhat, as the vibe has shifted ever so slightly from geek to douche. It stands to reason that the more broadly drawn boorishness of T.J. Miller’s Erlich and Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle would occasionally drown out the more internalized struggle of Thomas Middleditch’s Richard. But the recent emphasis on Liberty-fucking murals, chick-based pranking, and a very bizarre car ride to the middle of the Pacific has corrupted the show’s delicate architecture, making it seem less like a sly satire of tech bros and more a celebration of them. Still, if any show deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s this one. The death of actor Christopher Evan Welch in December left a hole in the center of the show like a floppy disc. His sesame seed–counting savant, Peter Gregory, was Silicon Valley’s most indelible character and its most fascinating. Though cocreator Mike Judge and his team worked mightily to rewrite the second half of the season around his absence, it’s impossible to know how well they did or what more they could have done. Restarting in Season 2 is in everyone’s best interest.

Verdict: HOLD 

New Girl

Fox

Nothing on TV has made me laugh louder or longer during the past three years than New Girl; no ensemble radiated such electricity and appeal. So it pains me to report that a show that prided itself on going all out appears to have gone over a cliff.

When New Girl pushed Jess and Nick together midway through its second season, I thought it was premature but logical. No show is guaranteed a long run these days; there’s no bigger TV “don’t” than leaving a promising story on the to-do list. And, for a time, the loopy mania that fueled the pairing infected the show as well. (I’ll never hear the phrase “quick-hardening caulk” the same way again.) But just as Nick Miller’s lack of long-term planning sank his romance with the type-A — the a stands for adorkable! — Jess, so, too, did New Girl’s impetuousness quickly backfire. The intramural romance gobbled up all the oxygen and suffocated any potential for growth. Worse, it futzed with New Girl’s most valuable and fragile asset: its chemistry. At a time when it ought to be bubbling, New Girl was instead fizzling — the re-addition of Coach was another subtraction by addition. I love Damon Wayans Jr., but I’m not sure I love him here; his presence reduced screen time for the still-solid Schmidt and helped turn Winston, a character perpetually in search of a character, from fringe-lurking weirdo to full-on lunatic.

Season 4 appears headed for an unambiguous reboot, with Nick and Jess restored to flirty friends and Schmidt once again on the hunt for Cece. Despite the undimmed brightness of the cast, I fear for the future. The only thing harder than catching the spark that ignited the first season will be catching it for a second time.

Verdict: SELL

Veep

HBO

When people ask me what I’m enjoying on television these days, I could carry on about the beat poetry of Mad Men, the vicious imagination of Game of Thrones, or the laser-guided heart-missile that is The Americans. But mostly what I tell them is the truth: Veep. I love Veep.

It feels distinctly wrong to be so plainspoken about a show that routinely does things to language that are usually restricted to the bedrooms of consenting adults. But I can’t help it. In its third season, Veep has elevated itself from an elegantly choreographed dance to pure ballet. The peerless Julia Louis-Dreyfus is matched, swear for swear, by the best supporting cast on TV: Gary Cole and Kevin Dunn can do things with a single line most comedic actors can’t manage with a monologue; Tony Hale can do the same thing without saying anything at all. As Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer has aimed her stilettos at the Oval Office, the show has become the sort of farce that feels sculpted, not written, as if pitch-perfect plots about Detroit gun shows and freezer bags full of human sperm were preserved in blocks of marble, just waiting to be revealed. No matter how much I marvel at what creator Armando Iannucci and his team are accomplishing here, one central mystery remains — one more perplexing than the continued employment of Timothy Simons’s unctuous Sasquatch Jonah: How can a show that delights in pointing out the emptiness of our politics leave one feeling so satisfied and full?

Verdict: BUY

Parks and Recreation

NBC

The three constants during Parks and Recreation’s sparkling, six-year run have been relentless positivity, relentless waffles, and a relentless commitment to change. This past season the biggest change was in quality. Though bookended by a near-perfect premiere and an equally good finale, the sixth season was uncharacteristically disappointing. It wasn’t bad, exactly. It was just tired. Even in a town as looped as Pawnee, there are a limited number of stories to tell. You can only beat a dead horse for so long — even if that horse happens to be Li’l Sebastian.

But I’m not ready to cast a recall vote just yet. Last week NBC announced that the upcoming seventh season of Parks would be the last, a decision met with near-universal happiness and relief. I’ve never doubted that showrunner Mike Schur would be able to bring his high-flying series in for a graceful landing — just think of how many times he’s already done it, only to be granted a surprise reprieve or renewal at the last possible second. But I’m even more excited to see what he comes up with now that Parks has reshuffled its status quo yet again — only this time in the most dramatic way possible. The three-year time jump at the end of the season finale was thrilling and bold. Though it robbed us of the chance to spend more time with civil servant Jon Hamm (and, more happily, it yadda-yadda’d Leslie’s pregnancy), it pushed the coziest show on television fully into the unknown. Is Leslie Knope still the same woman now that she’s gone national? Is Jerry Gergich the same man now that he goes by Terry? These are just some of the many fun questions to be addressed when the show returns in early 2015. It’s a relief to know that Parks will sprint all the way to the finish line. As a certain tiny pony might tell you — if tiny ponies could talk — there’ll be plenty of time to rest soon enough.

Verdict: BUY 

Filed Under: TV, Comedy, Sitcoms, the mindy project, Saturday Night Live, Girls, Veep, HBO, brooklyn nine-nine, Silicon Valley, New Girl

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald