The traditional sitcom has been going out of fashion for years. Once the dominant genre on broadcast TV, the sitcom’s heyday ended when the last of the big ‘90s comedies left the air in the early ‘00s. Sure, there was a creative renaissance of network sitcoms right afterward, with shows like The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation setting new standards of quality throughout the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, but their ratings were a fraction of what the big sitcoms of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s pulled in. The TV landscape was split between two poles, the endless paint-by-number procedurals of the broadcast networks, and the prestige anti-hero dramas of cable. And with the old-school multi-cam and laugh track format roundly rejected by younger viewers, and the fake documentary talking head style getting exhausted before The Office even wrapped its run, the sitcom has also drifted into a structural limbo, with both the classic form and the contemporary updates alienating different parts of the audience. It’s never been less clear what actually constitutes a situation comedy than today; I had MacGruber on an early draft of this list, but it felt too laser focused of a parody to really fit the broader sitcom term (and also doesn’t feel new, even though it is the first time the character has appeared in an episodic series), so it didn’t make the final cut. Should it? Maybe!
There were at least six new sitcoms in 2021 that feel close enough to a traditional definition of the word while also being legitimately funny enough to recommend, and those are the shows that made this list. They include an old-school family sitcom that’s just a laugh track away from fully embracing tradition, a short-season rom-com in the British style from a top young stand-up, a spiritual successor to the live-action cartoons of 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a prestige cable-and-streamer series that gets serious but remains consistently funny enough to fall under the sitcom heading. There’s also a crop of promising new network sitcoms launching in early 2022 that aired one-off previews in December; perhaps Abbott Elementary, American Auto, and Grand Crew will make this list next year? We’ll see. For now, though, let’s look at the funniest new sitcoms that debuted in 2021, starting with a traditional family sitcom that gets by almost entirely on the charisma of its ensemble.
Creators: Jackie Clarke, David Caspe
Stars: Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd, Kimrie Lewis, Don Johnson, Dani Lane, Dannah Lane
Watch on Peacock
Kenan comes down to chemistry. Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd and Don Johnson are fantastic together, with Thompson and Redd playing brothers and Johnson playing the father of Thompson’s departed wife. Together the three raise Thompson’s two daughters (who, as played by Dani and Dannah Lane, are by far the least annoying young child actors since at least Modern Family) while also balancing Thompson’s stressful career as the host of Atlanta’s second most popular morning show. (Yes, Kenan’s playing a version of himself, but one who starred on a popular family sitcom instead of appearing on SNL for like 20 seasons and counting.) The workplace scenes aren’t as strong as the ones at home, although Kimrie Lewis is great as Kenan’s boss and love interest. It’s not just the chops of Kenan, Redd and Johnson that make the show fly, though—there’s some genuinely hilarious writing on display here, from a staff full of great sitcoms and comedy writers.
Creators: Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden
Stars: Rose Matafeo, Nikesh Patel, Minnie Driver, Emma Sidi, Sindhu Vee
Watch on HBO Max
“He’s a famous actor, and you’re a little rat nobody.” It’s a tried-and-true fanfiction scenario, the inverse plot of Notting Hill, and now, the premise of HBO Max’s truly delightful Starstruck. Premiering first on BBC Three in April, the London-based romantic comedy follows Jessie (New Zealander comedian Rose Matafeo) after she has a drunken New Year’s Eve one-night stand with Tom (Nikesh Patel), only to learn the next day that he is a famous actor. Anyone who’s seen a rom-com can probably guess what happens next: a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation, a disastrous fight, an eventual reconciliation. But while Starstruck riffs off a familiar fantasy, it stays grounded in its approach, playing with genre tropes with great aplomb.
Starstruck is clearly the product of people who unabashedly love rom-coms. Inspired by the genre’s classics, the short six-episode series provides a light-hearted modern update with a protagonist who toys with expectations. I’ll keep it vague, but the season’s final moments are so lovely and understated that the tenderness took my breath away. (And it has been renewed for Season 2). Clocking in right over two hours, Starstruck makes for a quick summer watch that leaves you wanting to linger in the escapist joy for a little longer. Just like a good rom-com should. —Annie Lyons
Developed by: Joe Port and Joe Wiseman
Stars: Rose McIver, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Brandon Scott Jones, Richie Moriarty, Danielle Pinnock, Asher Grodman, Roman Zaragoza, Sheila Carrasco, Rebecca Wisocky, Devan Chandler Long
Watch on Paramount+
Based on the UK series of the same name (which itself is streaming on HBO Max), the delightful Ghosts has become a bona fide hit for CBS. Ghosts follows a young couple, Samantha and Jay (Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar), who inherit a large country estate that is, turns out, filled with ghosts only Sam (after she goes through a near-death experience) can see and hear. These ghosts aren’t scary though, they’re mostly friendly and occasionally annoying in their demands to smell bacon or have Sam turn on the TV. They also make for a fantastic comedy ensemble. Comprised of a small percentage of those who have died on the estate’s property from the beginning of time, the ghosts rule the roost: Bossy Revolutionary War soldier Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), kind Boy Scout leader Pete (Richie Moriarty), pants-less Wall Street bro Trevor (Asher Grodman), uptight lady of the manor Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), certified hippie Flower (Sheila Carrasco), flamboyant jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), deadpan Lenape tribesman Sasappis (Roman Zaragoza), and the oldest of all the ghosts, Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long), a Viking.
As Sam and Jay work to establish a B&B, the ghosts both help and hinder the process in earnestly funny ways. The charming CBS series is not quite as cozy as the UK’s version, and features a few unfortunate hallmarks of American sitcom formatting that can feel heavy-handed, but when it hits, it really hits. Best of all, Ghosts is family-friendly enough for everyone to enjoy. —Allison Keene
Creator: Meredith Scardino
Stars: Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell, Renée Elise Goldsberry
Watch on Peacock
Between Girls5Eva and A.P. Bio, Paula Pell is the comedy queen of Peacock. The longtime SNL writer stars alongside Busy Philipps, Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry, and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles as the members of a minor girl group from the ‘90s mounting an improbable reunion in this sitcom from former Letterman, Colbert Report, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writer Meredith Scardino. Adjacent to the world of Tina Fey’s sitcoms (she’s a producer and actually appears in the show as Dolly Parton), Girls5Eva has a similar feel to Schmidt or 30 Rock, but a slower pace, which works to its advantage. It’s a canny, clever look at pop culture in both the ‘90s and today, and a must-watch for comedy fans with Peacock subscriptions.—Garrett Martin
2. Rutherford Falls
Creator: Ed Helms, Michael Schur, Sierra Teller Ornelas
Stars: Ed Helms, Michael Greyeyes, Jana Schmieding, Jesse Leigh, Dustin Milligan
Watch on Peacock
The latest Michael Schur sitcom, which was co-created by Navajo showrunner and veteran sitcom writer Sierra Teller Ornelas, has all of the hallmarks of his shows—witty banter, believable characters who largely interact with each other like real people, and a diverse cast built around a well-known white lead (in this case, Ed Helms). Helms is the nominal star, but Jana Schmieding is its true center, serving as both his best friend and cultural foil in a battle over how to best depict colonial and Indigenous history. With a large Indigenous writing staff and cast, Rutherford Falls breaks ground quietly, exploring how European settlers’ Indigenous genocide still has cultural and economic ramifications centuries later—but in a way that’s rarely heavy-handed, and always surrounded by the kind of likable comedy you expect from a Schur-produced show.—Garrett Martin
1. Reservation Dogs
Creators: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
Stars: D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Jewel Alexis, Lane Factor, Elva Guerra, Zahn McClarnon
Watch on Hulu
FX has found its niche in telling close-up, intimate stories extremely well, and Reservation Dogs is no exception. It focuses on four friends—Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor)—who accidentally form an unofficial “gang” dubbed the “reservation bandits,” because of their penchant for light crime. Their hope is to get enough money to get to California, an ideal that’s always just out reach.
The lived-in, slightly surrealist comedy is a low-fi exploration of an Indigenous community in Oklahoma, whose leads shuffle around the “rez” among other misfits and sundries, and stumble into a variety of adventures that range from stealing a chip van to dealing with a snarky and overworked healthcare system. FX has touted Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, as revolutionary. In many ways it is; it features an all-Indigenous writers room, for one. But the show makes its boldest statement by not feeling like it’s making a statement at all. It’s an easy-going show, foul and funny, specific and accessible. It’s not about the kids being noble heroes or crime-loving villains; they’re just people. But they are also Indigenous people, which does mean something, and is all-too-rare to see on television—especially portrayed in such a wonderfully casual way.
But more than anything, Reservation Dogs is a languid series that moves at an unhurried pace. The kids make plans, scrounge for food, wander around, get into fights. They don’t talk or act like adults, and they’re not beaten down by cynicism. They have hopes and dreams, a love for family, an un-ironic embrace of community, and make a lot of silly mistakes. To say there is an innocence or even wholesomeness to Reservation Dogs would not be to quite hit the mark on how casually crass the show can be (it is ultimately a comedy for adults); but like its leads, it has a good heart. The friends are trying their best and hold each other close, even as they rib one another for their choices. It’s this balance that the show gets so right; not overly precious nor incredibly vulgar, just truth with an edge. Or as they would say, “Love ya, bitch.” —Allison Keene