TV Power Rankings! Tim Goodman’s Best Comedies (May Edition)

7:00 AM 5/8/2019

by Tim Goodman

THR’s chief TV critic refreshes his rankings of the best small-screen comedies right now.

From left: 'Veep,' 'What We Do in the Shadows,' 'Catastrophe'
From left: 'Veep,' 'What We Do in the Shadows,' 'Catastrophe'
Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of FX; Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

It has been a long, long, long — wait for it — oh so very long time since the last comedy version of The Power Rankings! Sure, some of these series popped up when there was some mixing of genres, a dramedies-heavy Power Rankings!, etc. But a straight-up comedy version has been a nagging necessity. So, here it is.

A couple of things to note, just as a refresher: A series can make this list so long as its last episode aired within a year, because Peak TV is real and viewership habits have changed no matter what anyone says. Plus, I make the rules, so there.

As usual, it's important to remember that these are series that I've actually seen. Time is precious and often some returning series are left out because, well, life comes at you fast and playing catch-up is difficult, which is one reason Broad City and Corporate are not here and probably one or two others that might be your favorite. But that particular series you're looking for that's missing here isn't actually "missing," per se. It was just terrible, so I left it off. It's good to be confused about what's what. Keeps you wondering.

OK, let's do this. Remember, there are two sets of numbers below: The one on the left is its current ranking, the one on the right was its previous ranking (a zero indicates it was unranked previously or the relative list upon where it last appeared is now too ancient, which means you'll see a lot of that as we start fresh again).

 

  • 1/0. Veep (HBO)

    Colleen Hayes/HBO

    Seriously, this is the funniest show on television and maybe the most subversive as well, because it tells us to our face just how awful we are as Americans. And trust me, it's some kind of awful. A searing, fearless look at politics and corrupted morals (and not just among politicians, but voters as well), it keeps true to creator Armando Iannucci's sublime ability to be scathing and hilarious while continuing the brilliance that David Mandel has shepherded in the recent vintage. What an unbelievably great cast, top to bottom, and a writing staff that knows how to stick it in and make it funny.

  • 2/0. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

    John P Johnson/FX

    I've already sung the praises of this particular show both in review and in reflection about what we need as a country (and yes that kind of ties into the whole Veep target), but what's so redemptive about What We Do in the Shadows is that it's absurd and relentlessly ridiculous and after you stop laughing at that, the show just circles back around and gives it to you again. Which is welcome. What shouldn't get lost here is that sustaining this kind of comedy is very difficult. If you haven't discovered this series yet, make it a priority.

  • 3/0. Catastrophe (Amazon)

    Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

    A comedy from creators who probably hate goodbyes, Catastrophe nonetheless ended its run with a surprisingly dark and yet spot-on continuation of the real-life humor that made it so relatable (marriage, family, sex, work, friends, wondering what's good about life, etc.). The only thing I could ever conjure up that was even slightly negative about this gem was that it needed more episodes each season, and really that's just me being sad and whiny in public for things that are great and necessary. I'm not ashamed of that.

  • 4/0. Better Things (FX)

    Beth Dubber/FX

    The whole "it's better now without Louis C.K." thing is both boring and wrong at this point because it was a great show when he was involved and it's a great show now that he's not involved, and the throughline to all of that is Pamela Adlon, creator, writer, star, director and guiding force from Day 1. Proudly feminist, always funny, real even when tracing a kind of unreal life (acting), Better Things excels at what's troubling about the day-to-day life of most people: confronting the hard parts, surviving the chaos, learning and loving when both of those things are obscured by red-hot emotion. This series will always be remembered for a wonderfully difficult achievement — showing, in its slice-of-life-ness, what it means to forge that life one day at a time.  

  • 5/6. Sex Education (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    I would argue that Sex Education made its push for greatness when it let the more serious and dramatic storylines bubble up around the third episode, but it resides here because it's one of the funniest comedies you'll ever see about teenage sexuality and what it means to experiment with that, be afraid of that, enjoy that and also suffer from it. Beyond those fine elements, Sex Education has a wonderfully keen sense of humor about friendships and can be lacerating about, well, everything, which is a nice additional ingredient. I love that Sex Education is clearly a comedy while also forcefully arguing that its dramatic parts are its best parts, and while that internal debate is going on, the whole thing is just massively entertaining.

  • 6/0. The Good Place (NBC)

    Colleen Hayes/NBC

    This list contains what are arguably three legacy comedies, which are so consistently excellent from season to season we take them for granted, and The Good Place is the youngest of the three, but probably the best if you want to waste your life arguing about a trio of brilliant things we're all lucky to have access to in our lives. (I mean, people do that, particularly critics, but maybe it's just easier to be happy they all exist.) The Good Place is a fantastic idea executed exceptionally and surprisingly well over the course of three seasons, which is the least of its achievements, really. First, it's never not funny. Second, it's really, really, trickily smart. I love both of those traits evenly. Even after so many critics have gone hoarse from yelling about how impressive The Good Place is, people still respond with, "Yes, I've heard that!" I don't know, maybe act on that now?

  • 7/13. Barry (HBO)

    Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

    Barry joins Sex Education as the only other series here to have made the previous Power Rankings!, which were more focused on dramas (and yes, dramedies), and in its second season I've already made the argument that Barry is leaning more in the direction of its own darkness. But I put it here because I laughed so much during the not-bleak parts and, since it's still unfolding on HBO, maybe you should find out what I mean. I even laughed at the easy, sillier jokes. Sure, sometimes that was because I needed to when things got tense. But Barry, from Bill Hader and Alec Berg, is not going to abandon humor anytime soon. And now that my favorite episode (so far) from the second season, titled "ronny/lily," has aired, I think it's safe to say that Barry is capable of doing anything, including absurdism.

  • 8/0. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC)

    Ron Batzdorff/NBC

    The second of the three legacy comedies (and yes, if you're counting, I know that Veep is also technically a legacy comedy given how long it's been around, but I didn't want to take the focus away from the notion that it lives in a special stratosphere), Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of those shows where you can miss a batch of episodes, return and think, "Yep, funny as ever." Also, "I need to catch up on what I missed; it was stupid to miss those episodes." Not a lot of shows can boast that (spoiler alert: The third legacy series below can). I have probably mentioned before that I've run out of things to say about Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and, ahem, that series below), but I always come back to being thankful it exists and that there's a whole library of episodes to revisit. That's probably the highest praise.

  • 9/0. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

    Courtesy of Fox

    Ta-da! Yes, that's your cue that Bob's Burgers is the third legacy series (and if you're counting at home and need an anvil to your head, the list is The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Bob's Burgers). Speaking of a series with a ton of episodes that repeat beautifully, here you go. There's value beyond just laughing out loud to a series like this and it's all about the warm embrace it gives you. I don't really know how to say that any better, but if you're ever depressed and feeling the darkness creep in, I suggest a marathon of Bob's Burgers. A good mixture of lunacy and love, I'd say. And oh, hey, here's a thing that sets it apart from its fellow legacy comedies (it's not a hugely important element, but should be noted): It has the best episode titles.

  • 10/0. PEN15 (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    One of the difficulties of giving something a mixed review, or let's say loving parts of it but not all of it, is that when people who are over the moon about that show read what you say, their knee-jerk reaction is that you didn't like it. I didn't love PEN15 as a whole, but I'm enthusiastically looking forward to more of it and what it can become. Here's what I loved about it: two all-in, totally committed performances from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle and the freshness of its concept (they play 7th grade girls, acting it all out in super granular fashion through their adult selves, which is impressive). Comedy is subjective and your results may vary on any number of series on this list, but what makes all of them stand out is an original idea or concept at their core, and PEN15 definitely came on to the scene and announced itself as different.

  • 11/0. After Life (Netflix)

    Rich Hardcastle/Netflix

    At some point I became an unreliable arbiter of Ricky Gervais material because I like him in pretty much everything he does, even though he's not everybody's proverbial cup of tea. That's why fellow critic Dan Fienberg reviewed this (and positively) and why I then was able to follow up and really enjoy the latest idea Gervais has set out to tackle. I would argue that he's reached a point in his life where he gets an idea and does it without overthinking it. Because Gervais is so tied to a persona that for some people it's hard to see the different aspects of him while in those separate roles, though I've never had that issue (in fact, Gervais's farthest-from-norm performance, Derek, was my least favorite because I didn't need him to stretch that far). In After Life, there's that really great mix of the dour and sarcastic that he does so well with the thinking person's existentialism he's under-appreciated for — all wrapped up in a small-village environment that sometimes makes me think of Detectorists (which is always a good thing).

  • 12/0. Ramy (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    I haven't finished the entire season yet, but I like how Ramy Youssef is taking his story and making it his own without apparent limitations (following this burgeoning TV trend with comic talent like Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, Issa Rae, Tig Notaro, etc.), as his tale of a hip Muslim American son of devout Egyptian immigrants veers into all sorts of unexpected territory (not least of which is the notion that his religion is very important to him — not a generational thing that only his parents care about). There are a ton of creative and surprising parts on Ramy, which sometimes go hand-in-hand with its rarity as a look at modern Muslim life (in New Jersey) and other times spring from the fact that Youssef, like the others mentioned here, isn't following some old-school TV book. The series has its growing pains and shortcomings, like PEN15 (and Shrill, below), but that's to be expected from any freshman comedy. What's so encouraging here is that Youssef's voice isn’t only worth listening to because it falls under the mostly ignored/unseen category, like that's the only thing the series offers. No, Youssef has a unique, creative voice, and I want to see it sharpen and evolve.

  • 13/0. Shrill (Hulu)

    Allyson Riggs/Hulu

    Aidy Bryant's solo series that explores, as fellow THR critic Robyn Bahr put it in her review, "fat feminism," is fresh in most of the right places and is a comedy where I immediately wanted to see more of that (and less of some of the ridiculous side characters). It's charming and funny and slips insight in when you're not looking, in the process making Bryant another comic talent now given a chance to tell unique stories. The main trouble with Shrill is actually a pretty easy fix — it needs to lean on Bryant more often, needs to linger on her stories and rely less on those in her orbit, to fully start making good on its potential. That said, there's a delightfulness to it that is also welcome on top of the "story you don't see enough of" angle. And if you haven't noticed the trend here — with PEN15, Ramy and Shrill — wow, has Hulu kicked some ass in the comedy development side.

  • 14/0. The Tick (Amazon)

    Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon

    I mentioned The Tick recently along with What We Do In the Shadows and how absurdity is such a welcome thing these days, and there's nothing more that really needs to be added to this endorsement. From season one, I've said the same thing — what a simple, ridiculous pleasure this show is. I don't want that to sound like it's super easy to pull off and there are countless other shows like it, because there are not. What I love about The Tick is that it asks you to come inside its world and be silly and once you do, the best superhero part of it is that it destroys your stress. Not a lot of shows can say that, nor be as fun.