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So What's the Best Comedy on TV Right Now?

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One strong contender, Parks and Recreation, airs an excellent episode tonight.

That TV-critics’ Twitter debate I mentioned in my Modern Family post this morning was kicked off by a simple but tough question: what’s the best comedy on TV right now? I don’t want to misrepresent anyone by saying who picked what and why, but it’s something I’m wrestling with right now, as I start to work on my best-of lists for 2009. (2008 was much easier to narrow down to 10; the strike was a blessing.)

Seems like a good question to kick to you all. Here’s a rundown of the current contenders (to keep things simple, I’ll limit it to comedies currently on the air—thus leaving out Party Down, e.g.—but I suppose you don’t have to). Update: These are my personal contenders, not a comprehensive list—I can only type so much—but fans of other shows, make your case in the comments:

Modern Family: Discussed at length in that post and elsewhere. For all my nitpicks about its occasional speechiness, it’s sharp, layered and (most important to me) has a wide cast of characters who can carry an episode and a strong sense of who they are.

Community: Another strong new pilot, subsequent episodes haven’t lived up as well as Modern Family has; it has sharp writing and strong performances, but can swing from snarky to overly hugging-and-learning in the same episode. Still an entertaining half-hour with potential, though.

Glee: I suppose this isn’t a sitcom in the traditional sense, but it’s nothing if not a musical comedy. Glee is a test of how important consistency is to you: some characters (Terri, especially) are grating, and its off episodes (like the most recent, “Mashup”) are truly off. But when it’s on (wait for next week), it’s both funny and moving; Jane Lynch brings the comedy unfailingly; and it gets extra points for originality, being structurally and tonally unlike anything else on TV right now.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Also a test of consistency, but in a different way. This has been a strong season, with fewer episodes falling flat than last year, and when this deviously amoral show really works, its details and situations just cascade into an avalanche of comedy. (I can still crack myself up on command remembering Danny DeVito from the season premiere crashing through the fence of the house for sale, screaming “Abort! Abort!”)

30 Rock: As I wrote a while back, this is a very funny show with a built-in ceiling. At its best, it piles on jokes, references and throwaways like nothing since Arrested Development. But because only Liz and Jack have been developed as real people, it voluntarily gives up the kind of range and impact available to a show with a broader bench, like The Office. But it’s sharp, it’s got a point of view, and it can bring the funny by the truckload (though I wish it would do that more often lately).

Bored to Death: I hope you didn’t give up on this show after the lackluster pilot; it’s built and built, and by the time I got through the two-part season finale I realized I’d enjoyed this droll slacker comedy like little else on TV this season. The rapport between Ted Danson, Jason Schwarzman and Zach Galifianakis has been a thing of beauty.

Parks and Recreation: Comeback story or just coming into its own? Amy Poehler’s sitcom is getting a lot of praise in its second season, and rightfully: it’s very very good and very very funny. But I think the root of its success is that like The Office and King of the Hill (also from co-creator Greg Daniels), it started off with a strong voice, a wide cast of characters, and a distinct sense of place and setting. Now that it’s found its rhythm (and reined in Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope), it’s become an closely observed comedy of small-town government and people. Both aspects are on display in tonight’s excellent episode, in which supervisor Ron (Nick Offerman) tangles with ex-wife Tammy (played by Offerman’s wife, Megan Mullally), and Leslie tangles with bureaucratic rival the Library department, whom she likens to “a biker gang. But instead of shotguns and crystal meth, they use political savvy. And shushing.”

The Office: The veteran and—if I’m forced to pick right now—still current champion (but with more and closer competition than it’s had in a long time). Having overcome its earlier problems with Michael Scott’s tendency to overwhelm the show, it’s developed an expansive world of supporting players with well-imagined lives. It can do cringe humor as well as slapstick, raw irony as well as unabashed sentiment. Its voice, its breadth and its ambition mean that, when its at its best, it’s not just the best comedy on but one of the best dramas as well.

But that’s my call. I’ll be the first to say it’s a tough one, with a stronger competition than we’ve had in years, and that’s a high-class problem for all of us. Your turn: what’s your favorite?

[Update: Reader/critic Todd VanDerWerff pointed out that I omitted How I Met Your Mother, which I recap every week. Duh! More the result of rushing than anything, though I suppose it’s a good sign I wouldn’t place it #1. Still, the show deserves more respect—besides the great ensemble work and breakout Neil Patrick Harris performance, it’s quietly the most experimental comedy on a big network—all in the format of an old-fashioned laugh-track sitcom.]

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