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The Best Workplace Sitcoms

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“The Office” sauntered into TV history last night, leaving longtime viewers wondering when another great workplace sitcom will come along. Actually, one is already going strong (I’m talking to you, “Parks and Recreation”) on the same network. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit the very best workplace sitcoms of all time.

30 ROCK

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The halls of NBC aren’t your typical workplace, but who cares? The office antics of Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan are as hilarious as anything TV has ever seen. Blerg.

BUFFALO BILL

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In one of the all-time best bits of casting, Dabney Coleman played the vain, sexist, sarcastic, needy host of a daytime TV show in upstate New York. “Buffalo Bill” was filled with razor-sharp writing and excellent performances by Joanna Cassidy, Geena Davis, John Fiedler and others. Can you imagine a scene between Coleman’s Bill Bittinger and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy?

M*A*S*H

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I almost left M*A*S*H off the List, since the workplace here is an Army hospital. Still, the 4077th’s ever-changing personnel and aura of difficult, noble work is a good fit. Great banter by people thrown together in a confined, insane situation.

NEWSRADIO

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“NewsRadio” had a classic workplace structure, masterfully executed. You had the endearingly odd Everyman (Dave Foley), the eccentric executive (Stephen Root), the egotistical talent (Phil Hartman), the nutjob (Andy Dick) and the dumb guy (Joe Rogan). There were no wasted moments on this show.

FAWLTY TOWERS

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Rarely has the small screen seen as brilliant a bumbler as Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese. He presided over a wonderfully sketchy inn and restaurant in Britain, where pratfalls were common and visits by German tourists invariably led to inadvertent comments about Adolph Hitler.

THE OFFICE

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So many excellent characters populate the American version of “The Office,” including plucky Pam, dorky Dwight, ice queen Angela and always-joking Jim. But by far the most amazing thing about the show was Steve Carell’s carefully modulated performance as man-child boss Michael Scott. It didn’t happen all at once – the audience got to see Carell find exactly the right combination of stupidity and humanity during the first season. It remains a marvel.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW

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My fear is that with each passing year, this show becomes more of a museum piece. The pace, the look, the social themes, all seem antiquated now. Take my word for it, though, the crew at WJM pioneered the TV idea of an office being like a family.

THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW

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Where Mary Tyler Moore’s comedy flowed from sincerity, “Larry Sanders” emerged from a sublime sense of insincerity. Garry Shandling took his own observations about show business, mixed them with memories of Johnny Carson, and created one of the best shows ever. Plus, how could you go wrong with stellar support from Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor? Hey now!

BARNEY MILLER

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Each character in “Barney Miller” was a tiny gem of comedy craft. What a great ensemble, from Hal Linden and Ron Glass, to Jack Soo and Abe Vigoda. There was real affection in the writing and the acting, plus a healthy dose of absurdity.

MURPHY BROWN

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One thing tends to be forgotten when people recall the success of “Murphy Brown.” It was very funny. True, it had a progressive edge to it, with a galvanizing main performance by Candice Bergen. But it wouldn’t have lasted a full season without its sharp wit and genuine character development.

WKRP IN CINCINNATI

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Here’s a great example of a sitcom that started as a collection of stereotypes and gradually gelled into something special. The cast, playing employees at an Ohio radio station, beautifully blended and contrasted their many quirks. I particularly loved Howard Hesseman as Dr. Johnny Fever.

PARKS AND RECREATION

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Amy Poehler had a similar challenge in “Parks and Recreation” to what Steve Carell faced in “The Office.” How do you play a sitcom’s central character as an eccentric, rather than an Everywoman? But she’s done it, and done it very well. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is the best workplace comedy ever set in an Indiana municipal government building.

CHEERS

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“Cheers” is another great sitcom that you don’t automatically think of as a workplace sitcom. My argument would be that the best interplay on the show stemmed from Sam Malone’s intermingling of business, pleasure and friendship.

WINGS

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“Wings” was treated almost like a second-tier sitcom, but I defy anyone to watch a few episodes and not laugh. It was about a collection of odd characters working at a tiny airport on Cape Cod. Dynamite cast, too, including Tim Daly, Steven Weber, Crystal Bernard, Thomas Hayden Church and Tony Shalhoub.

TAXI

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There was an incredible creative spirit at work within the confines of the Sunshine Cab Co. Here were truly original characters (Louie DePalma, Latka Gravas, Rev. Jim Ignatowski, etc.) brought to life by expert actors, terrific writers and gifted director James Burrows. Beyond that, “Taxi” was soulful. It followed Alex Reiger and his fellow cabbies as they sorted out the territory that exists in-between our dreams and our actual daily lives. When you can laugh at that, you’re golden.

THE OFFICE (U.K. VERSION)

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Even though it yielded a great American remake, the British version of “The Office,” to my mind, was the best workplace sitcom ever filmed. Not only did it have a singularly brilliant central character (Ricky Gervais’ David Brent), it also NEVER pulled its punches. “The Office” is riotously funny, excruciatingly painful and deeply touching.

There you go, workers of the world. Be sure to add a few favorites of your own.

On the Couch: Memorable TV & Movie Therapists

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Pop culture and therapy are an amazingly good match. First of all, most worthy comedies and dramas are populated with people facing sizable problems. Secondly, introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker cuts to the heart of the matter without special effects or car chases. It also makes for insightful writing and acting.

LORRAINE BRACCO IN “THE SOPRANOS”

Lorraine Bracco was as crucial to the success of “The Sopranos” as the sex and violence that punctuated the show. Dr. Melfi’s sessions with Tony brought clarity to the proceedings and had an electrifying intimacy separate from everything else.

BOB NEWHART IN “THE BOB NEWHART SHOW”

I have a feeling Newhart’s portrayal of psychologist Robert Hartley was more accurate than most TV and movie therapists. He used jargon, he rarely raised his voice and he kept incredibly regular office hours. Thank goodness he also treated the occasional clown.

ROBIN WILLIAMS IN “GOOD WILL HUNTING”

Not everyone is a fan of Williams as the feisty therapist helping Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” I liked his performance; I thought it had tons of heart and soul. How do you like them apples?

MARIAH CAREY IN “PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE”

It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Carey is as the social worker in “Precious.” She’s as tough as she needs to be in a film about hope in the face of brutal reality. Is there anything in this world more courageous than standing up for an abused kid? An amazing job.

JUDD HIRSCH IN “ORDINARY PEOPLE”

This fine performance is central to the effectiveness of 1980’s Oscar-winning “Ordinary People.” Hirsch’s scenes with a young Timothy Hutton have a real urgency to them, while noting the limitations and boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.

LISA KUDROW IN “WEB THERAPY”

Lisa Kudrow is a master at delivering the disarming remark. She did it to perfection on “Friends” and she continues it on “Web Therapy.” As highly-flawed Dr. Fiona Wallice, Kudrow levels her snark on everyone, including herself.

STEVE CARELL IN “HOPE SPRINGS”

For such a skilled comic actor, it’s surprising how good Carell is at playing a subdued character. This is a great quality for his therapist in “Hope Springs.” He’s patient, probing and decent, without being boring.

ALLAN ARBUS IN “M*A*S*H”

Allan Arbus was always a welcome sight on “M*A*S*H,” as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Funny and fatigued as that character was, his appearances never failed to remind viewers of the insanity of war.

JOANNE WOODWARD IN “SYBIL”

Joanne Woodward brought a wonderful sense of authority and humanity to her part in “Sybil.” Sally Field, as a woman with multiple personalities, had the showier role, but Woodward had to give the whole thing plausibility.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “FRASIER”

I doubt that any actual therapist has as soothing a voice as Kelsey Grammer. On “Frasier,” he offered a tour de force of comical compassion, without hiding the quirky side of the people giving the treatment.

HELEN HUNT IN “THE SESSIONS”

Helen Hunt is her usual, decent-but-intense self in “The Sessions.” She plays a sex therapist here, and much has been made of her willingness to bare everything onscreen. I thought her most revealing scene was in a car in a motel parking lot, fully clothed.

RICHARD BURTON IN “EQUUS”

In “Equus,” Burton is a doctor treating a very disturbed young man who has blinded several horses. What unfolds during their sessions is a deep well of guilt, trauma, religion and sex. As you’d expect, Burton brings heaps of dramatic heft to the part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

DYLAN McDERMOTT IN “AMERICAN HORROR STORY”

Worst. Therapist. Ever. I don’t know where this joker went to school, but I’m pretty sure they tell you on the very first day, “Don’t have sex with patients who are ghosts.”

JANE LYNCH IN “TWO AND A HALF MEN”

As Charlie Sheen’s therapist on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Lynch was able to talk tough, but also be sympathetic. It was a clever way to reveal Sheen’s – I mean the character’s – insecurities and motivations.

BILLY CRYSTAL IN “ANALYZE THIS”

Light fare, to be sure, but Crystal generated very solid laughs as a shrink forced to work with a mobster in “Analyze This.” He clearly loved being in a film with Robert DeNiro, who was in full self-parody mode.

J.K. SIMMONS IN “LAW AND ORDER”

What a superb job Simmons did with this small, occasional role as a psychiatrist who sometimes testifies in court cases on the various “Law and Order” shows. He was calm, yet razor-sharp in his scenes evaluating suspects and victims; he could seem jaded and cynical, yet also honest and hardworking.

ANNA KENDRICK IN “50/50”

Therapists have to start somewhere, right? It was brilliant to have Anna Kendrick as the inexperienced caregiver to cancer patient Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It flipped the normal power dynamic and felt much more real.

RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”

This movie about a therapist (Dreyfuss) who can’t get away from a patient (Bill Murray) has many devoted fans. Dreyfuss gamely gives in to the rising exasperation the part calls for, which is why it works so well.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE SIXTH SENSE”

What I often like about Bruce Willis is his ability to be very still. It comes in quite handy in “The Sixth Sense,” where he’s trying to help Haley Joel Osment deal with a … tricky situation. Willis listens with a thoughtful intensity.

GABRIEL BYRNE IN “IN TREATMENT”

“In Treatment” isn’t simply a great TV show about therapy; I think it’s one of the best shows ever. Byrne plays Dr. Paul Weston, whose patients range from a cancer patient and a troubled businessman to a little boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce. Each season, the show tracked the progress of several patients, session by session. Byrne is astonishing, as is the delicate-yet-powerful writing.

But I see our time is up. I didn’t even get to the therapists in “Annie Hall,” “Mad Men” or “The Prince of Tides.” Which are your favorites?

People You Forgot Were in Woody Allen Films

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When you stop and examine the films of Woody Allen, you realize that at least half of Hollywood has worked with this guy. Sometimes it’s a bit part that catches attention years later when the person is more famous, such as Jeff Goldblum in “Annie Hall,” or Zach Braff in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” Sometimes it’s a bigger role that got lost in the shuffle, like Gene Hackman in “Another Woman.” Either way, in honor of the new Woody Allen documentary on PBS Nov. 20 and 21, here are some Woody Allen actors you might have forgotten.

SETH GREEN

A very young Seth Green played Woody’s narrator character as a young boy growing up in 1930s Queens in “Radio Days.” Green is very good in the 1987 film; my favorite scene is when he uses his Masked Avenger Secret Decoder Ring.

MADONNA

The always interesting Madonna shows up in Woody’s “Shadows and Fog” in 1991 as a circus artist having an affair with a clown played by John Malkovich. Both her wardrobe and her screen time are scant.

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Williams had a small role in 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry.” I liked this movie quite a bit, but there were so many cameos that they got distracting. Even sportscaster Joe Buck found a way into this one.

TRUMAN CAPOTE

I love this. In a scene from 1977’s “Annie Hall,” Woody is joking with Diane Keaton about a guy on the street who looks like he won a “Truman Capote look-alike contest.” In fact, it IS Capote. Nice.

STEVE CARELL

What’s weird about Carell’s cameo in 2004’s “Melinda and Melinda” is that it doesn’t tap into either one of Mr. C’s tendencies: his absurd, outlandish comedy characters or his sweet, everyman characters.

BURT REYNOLDS

Reynolds was intensely understated in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” in 1972. He and Tony Randall were part of the team of people working in Woody’s brain to get him through a dinner date and sex.

LEWIS BLACK

How cool is it to watch “Hannah and Her Sisters” from 1986 and suddenly find comedian Lewis Black walking down the hall with Woody? This movie is filled with cameos by famous (or eventually famous) people: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Benno Schmidt.

EDIE FALCO

Despite the brevity of Falco’s role in “Bullets Over Broadway” from 1994, it proved to be a pivotal break in her acting career. You know who else has a bit part in this film? Tony Sirico, who would achieve fame with Falco in “The Sopranos.”

SAUL BELLOW

Literary lion Saul Bellow was a perfect choice to be among the famous commentators in “Zelig,” Woody’s 1983 film about a guy who spent a good deal of the 20th century assimilating too much.

JIMMY FALLON

Thank goodness Fallon was already famous before his small part in 2003’s “Anything Else.” Not many people went to see this one, which was something of a return to the relationship territory of “Annie Hall,” for a new generation.

PAUL GIAMATTI

The fantastic Paul Giamatti was in two of Woody’s movies:  1995’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” and 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry.” I preferred “Deconstructing Harry.”

SIGOURNEY WEAVER

You’ll just have to take my word for this one. At the end of the great “Annie Hall,” Woody meets up with his ex-girlfriend, Diane Keaton, outside a movie theater. Each is with a date – in Woody’s case, a young Sigourney Weaver.

MILTON BERLE

Berle played himself in 1984’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” which is one of my favorite movies. Woody is a low-rent talent agent who handles a club singer with a shot at being in a Berle TV special.

BRENT SPINER

I’ll end with a truly obscure one. Star Trek’s favorite android, Data, showed up as “fan in lobby” in “Stardust Memories” from 1980. Woody’s at a film festival of his character’s “older, funnier” films.

That’s all, folks, although there are many, many more examples: Liam Neeson in “Husbands and Wives,” Dan Aykroyd in “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Bella Abzug in “Manhattan” …