Bracketology: The Greatest Sitcom of All Time
The Purpose: To determine the greatest situation comedy ever as scientifically as possible.
Remember a few years back when Rolling Stone magazine issued its greatest songs of all time list? It was horrible. It contained songs by ‘N Sync and The Backstreet Boys… looks pretty sad and embarrassing now, and it’s a good demonstration of how subjective these lists are. When you get down to it – these lists are just the opinion of a couple folks who happen to have access to a highly circulated print media.
That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to discount all lists as worthless. There are ways to eliminate some of the subjectivity. In other words, my daughter thinks iCarly should be the greatest American sitcom of all time…. Her opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, right? Well, no. Not if you hold it up to scrutiny and various standards.
I’m in the scientific field and have a couple of degrees in genetics. I say this to highlight the fact that I’m a very logical person (Spockish, you could say), and like to analyze everything… to an almost compulsively absurd extent, as you’ve no doubt learned if you’ve been reading Retrospace for any length of time.
I tried to apply a somewhat scientific method to the selection, and maybe get an answer that’s at least more objective than just picking something out of the air and calling it “the best”.
80 situation comedies that could be contenders for the best sitcom ever title were selected. This ruled out shows like Punky Brewster and Family Matters which have no business even being in contention.
I employed a “bracketology” approach to the process; very similar to NCAA basketball tournaments. There are four initial brackets, with each bracket beginning with 16 sitcoms which are pitted against each other and evaluated (see the criteria below). In addition, the 16 are seeded with 4 top seeds - a preliminary rating system was used to determine the seeding. Example, Arrested Development received a preliminary score of 98 out of 100, that = a #1 seed. At the other end, Punky Brewster received a preliminary score of 14, which didn’t make the field of 64.
View pdf of preliminary round
It’s pretty complicated actually. Check out the spreadsheet below to see how it was done. Click the image to view the pdf.
I know your first thought: “Good God. This dude has a lot of time on his hands.” Let’s put it like this – after 15 years at this job, me and the guys are running out of ways to spend our lunch break. It was oddly enjoyable.
So, there you have it. Seinfeld is the greatest sitcom of all time. Big shocker. However, now it's scientifcally proven. Take a look at how it was done.
Each show was evaluated based on a series of standards. The two shows in competition were rated on these standards, with the victor being determined by who had the greatest number of W’s (wins). A tie was settled by the highest IMDb rating.
This criteria would not apply to movies (i.e. Schindler’s List was a phenomenal movie, but I don’t think I’d want to repeatedly watch it). However, I don’t see how you could say a sitcom is good if it’s not worth rewatching. Thus, shows like The Brady Bunch shine in this criteria (I don’t know if it’s ever been off the air – people can’t get enough of The Bradys).
Interesting and Unique Characters
What made shows like Cheers and Barney Miller so great were their parade of amazing characters. Without a novel personality on screen there’s not much reason to watch…. Exhibit A – Charles In Charge.
In the 1970s, a lot of sitcoms forgot that sitcom stands for “situation COMEDY”. In other words, shows like One Day at a Time could be brilliant, as could Good Times, but you only got a couple laughs an episode. They’d make great drama, but if you’re judging the best situation comedy, you’ve got to look at how funny it is.
A famous quote from a critic of The Beverly Hillbillies: “One joke, nine years.” Indeed, a lot of shows rode a single plot device week after week, year after year. It’s often funny as hell, but gets old quick.
When you’re judging the acting on a sitcom, I think it’s important to not focus on dramatic Emmy winning performances; you’ve got to look at comedic timing. How well do these actors and actresses deliver their lines? Michael Gross from Family Ties, for instance, may not be a household name with dozens of Emmys on his mantle, but the man could deliver a line like no other.
Jumping the Shark
A show needs to get credit for knowing when to quit, and for keeping the quality up for its duration. The show’s “brand image”, its reputation, can be permanently tarnished by a few crappy seasons. For instance, Sanford & Son was a great show…. but the last few seasons with Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies and his Sanford Arms hotel were unwatchable. It deserves a deduction for that lapse in judgement.
This criteria is probably the hardest to justify. And as it turns out, the top shows in the brackets actually had no sex appeal whatsoever. So, perhaps this basis of judgment was misguided; however, I don’t think it is. The reason: shows like Three’s Company and Married with Children used this to garner interest from viewers, specifically male viewers. And even shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Gilligan’s Island employed this device on a routine basis. These shows should get credit for that.
When football players are graded by scouts, one category looked at is always something called “intangibles”. It cannot be easily explained, yet you know it to be true. This player is simply someone you want to have on your team regardless of his numbers. In the case of sitcoms, the sitcom that is just intrinsically superior, with no explanation necessary, gets the win.
Note: In the event of a tie, the IMDb rating was used to determine the winner.
If you were to ask me, prior to this experiment, what my favorite sitcom was, I would have not said Seinfeld. It was a great show, but I might’ve said The Bob Newhart Show, Sanford & Son, Three’s Company or Arrested Development. However, when you scientifically determine the best ever – the result is hard to argue. Whenever a magazine conducts a “best of list” for sitcoms, Seinfeld always comes out on top. I guess you could say Retrospace simply backed it up with science.