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Jake MartinMarch 14, 2011

Television has become a wasteland of crime labs, police stations and courtrooms. Every title is an initialism, followed by a colon and a major U.S. city name, apparently the only way viewers can discern which crime series they are watching. From “C.S.I.” to “N.C.I.S.,” each blends into the next, an hourlong blur of DNA samples and police interrogations.

Not long ago, the sitcom was the genre of choice for network programmers. The airwaves were flooded with one hilarious family after another, each show set primarily in a living room and kitchen, each with a sofa facing the camera and a child under 10 cracking wise. Laugh tracks were to television circa 1987 what forensic labs are today. Then, like the western before it, the sitcom fell out of favor with television executives and dominates no longer. A Darwinian component has come into play: with exceptions, a higher level of quality is required for sitcom survival.

Four current shows meet the gold standard for comedy and offer a welcome respite from television’s barrage of microscopic evidence and quirky-yet-passionate detectives.

With its seams a bit stretched in its fifth season, 30 Rock (NBC) is still the funniest, smartest show on television. Marrying sophisticated writing, high-quality performance and a heart as soft as a plush toy, the show owes its success to its mastermind, star and creative force, Tina Fey.

The show, however, struggles to introduce new characters that are as robust as its already established troupe of comedic virtuosos. The cast has not benefited from recent additions, like the usually reliable Elizabeth Banks as the love interest of the network bigwig Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Still, this is nitpicking. The show can rely on Fey’s Liz Lemon, one of the most likable television protagonists. Fey is supported by a talented ensemble that includes Baldwin (in the role of his career), Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan and the underrated Jack McBrayer as the lovably earnest page, Kenneth.

While the critical acclaim of “30 Rock” makes it immune to the threat of cancellation (despite mediocre ratings), “Rock’s” sister show, Parks and Recreation, could be in danger of not seeing another season. Already given the dubious task of being a mid-season replacement (its third season premiered in January), “Parks” will be fighting for its life over the next few months and hoping that the addition of Rob Lowe will improve its less-than-stellar ratings.

Though not of the same quality as Tina Fey’s show, “Parks,” which follows the ins and outs of a small-town bureaucracy in Nowhere, Ind., is still one of the best shows on television, thanks to the performance of Amy Poehler. Television has provided many memorable high-status buffoons, but few with as much nuance and depth as Poehler’s Leslie Knope.

It is an easy trap for a comedic actor to patronize his or her role, to step outside of the part and paint it with broad strokes so that there is little doubt about the contempt the actor feels for the part, as if to say, “This is not me.” But Poehler rises above such condescension and uses her acting ability (an area where she outpaces her “Saturday Night Live” chum Fey) to offer a consistently vulnerable yet hilarious performance.

“Parks” can be patchy at times. Poehler’s supporting cast is a bit uneven, and some characters are downright unlikable, like Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who hits all the wrong notes as Leslie’s poker-faced superior. The writing can also be hit-or-miss, sliding quickly from comedy feast to famine. Still, Poehler’s performance makes the show worth watching. One hopes that NBC lets the show find its footing.

The Big Bang Theory, on CBS, has never needed to find its footing. It has been secure since it first aired in 2007 and is hitting its peak as it moves toward the midway point of its fourth season. The show revolves around two genius misfits (Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons), their beautiful blonde waitress neighbor (Kaley Cuoco) and their socially incompetent colleagues (Simon Helburg and Kunal Nayyar).

In a rare move, “Bang” puts the lives of social misfits front and center. While it sometimes uses their idiosyncrasies for comic effect, it never stoops to meanspiritedness or cliché. The show’s appeal lies in the brokenness of each of the characters. Helburg, in particular, takes what could otherwise be a one-note role as a mama’s boy and self-perceived Casanova and devises a funny, loving portrait of uncertainty and repression.

Leaving structural innovation and technical dexterity to other shows, “Bang” focuses solely on the laughs. This is meat-and-potatoes comedy, like “Friends.” Indeed the show seems to be a direct descendant of that NBC classic in style and temperament. “Bang” is also kind; it exhibits little of the irreverent tone most sitcoms adopt in a desperate attempt to acquire the 18-to-24 age demographic coveted by networks and advertisers.

If your cable is more than basic, you might try Showtime’s Episodes, which illustrates the “Americanization” of a fictional British television series, an intriguing premise given that American television has been pilfering from its British cousins for decades. (The first “season finale” aired on Feb. 20, but the show is easy to find in reruns and on demand.) “All in the Family,” “The Office” and “Friends” all have roots across the pond. What is most intriguing are the numerous transitions a British show must undergo to become palatable to American audiences. This show illuminates the differences between British and American humor.

A joint U.K./U.S. production, “Episodes” is a perfect amalgamation. At its best, British humor is intelligent, fleet and nuanced; conversely, it too easily slides into the caustic, alienating and mean-spirited. American humor is traditionally much broader, more physical and gregarious; at its worst it can be sophomoric, abrasive and repulsive. “Episodes” is sharp-witted and droll, as the best British comedy can be, without losing the earnestness and warmth fundamental to American humor.

But “Episodes” is also an authentic account of the havoc that major transitions can play in our lives, particularly on those relationships that mean the most to us. In this instance the relationship is that of a down-to-earth and delightfully acerbic husband-and-wife writing team, Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tasmin Greig and Stephen Mangan), who as immigrants to Hollywood from Britain attempt to negotiate the lavish, lush and brutally dishonest world of American television while keeping their wits about them.

Greig’s Beverly is the show’s rudder. Her no-nonsense sensibility is wonderfully set in relief against a backdrop of excess and fantasy from which even her husband is not immune. Greig evokes Emma Thompson at her finest, and Beverly is the quintessential comedic “straight woman.” Mangan matches her as the similarly clear-headed Sean, whose occasional flights of whimsy provide fodder for Greig’s impeccable reactions and delivery. The two of them hit the right notes in one of TV’s great comedic couplings.

If the show falters, it would be in its “American” aspect. The stunt casting of Matt LeBlanc playing himself would seem to have potential for a meta-humor extravaganza. But, alas, most of the jokes fall short, primarily because Matt LeBlanc’s “Matt LeBlanc” is frighteningly similar to Matt LeBlanc’s character in the failed sitcom “Joey,” and audiences are too familiar with the long-played-out comedic possibilities that character has to offer. The other “American” components of the show work brilliantly, particularly Kathleen Rose Perkins’s hilariously poignant turn as the producer’s ever smiling, ever suffering assistant/mistress.

The television landscape these days is grim, with little to appeal to a thoughtful, reflective audience. Even cable networks, which usually produce one or two offerings of particular relevance, have hit a creative and intellectual dry spot. Yet these four shows, at least, offer a much-needed oasis in a desert of crime dramas.

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