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God Bless You, IFC: Independent Film Channel to Piece Back Together Our Formative Youths

January 4, 2011

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross create an unholy alliance on Mr. Show.

The wide swath of time between the 1990s and early 2000s were, to be quite honest, a fairly decent time for quality television. This, for you younger whippersnappers, was a time before a television program needed to seem like a cinematic masterpiece to be taken seriously. The 90’s saw Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, The Simpsons, Chicago Hope, The X-Files and many more pretty solid series.  It also saw Family Matters, Baywatch and Dharma and Greg, but that’s neither here nor there.

Every era has its cult classics, however, and one of the most major distinctions of the 90’s/early 2000’s may be that it was a time when television executives largely had no clue of the gold mines on which they were sitting, as evidenced by some of the brilliant-yet-axed television programs of the time. We saw television programs from Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling and Mitchell Hurwitz fall by the wayside due to low ratings or executive neglect — programs which later would prove to be fundamental building blocks for some of today’s greatest talents and highest-paid celebrities.

Lucky for all of us, the wise minds behind the Independent Film Channel (these days only known as IFC) realize that an entire generation still hangs onto and rues the loss of its most beloved fringe classics, and has made the very smart decision to reclaim that demographic by snatching up the entire — and sometimes brief — runs of those programs to air once again. The network tested the waters with the recent Kids in the Hall miniseries Death Comes to Town, which reunited the Canadian sketch troupers for another go-round in a murder-mystery whodunnit. It must have worked, as IFC has of late decided to take another embrace of some of the greatest comedies of the last fifteen years, and by doing so has amassed a collection of reruns which, together, depict an entire history of early “alt-comedy” and the foundation an entire comic landscape of today. It’s a genius move, it comes with a built-in audience, and it’s about damn time. Let’s look at what IFC’s gathering up and bringing back, both to a generation who loved it the first time and a new generation who should know where its Sarah Silvermans and James Francos were born.

Arrested Development — What is there to be said about Arrested Development that hasn’t already been said, really? It’s almost become a clichè to even talk about how great this show was in its brief three seasons at Fox, where it took the single-camera sitcom to an entirely new level of absurdity and grandfathered boatloads of sitcoms on television today. Few of them match the glory of the Bluth family, however, and their anti-Dallas-esque trials and tribulations under the watchful eye of conscientious son Michael (Jason Bateman). Arrested Development was one of IFC’s first acquisitions, a clever move considering that news and hope for an AD movie still dot the entertainment landscape several times every month and audiences are still clamoring for more. (Mondays and Fridays, 10:00, 10:30 pm)

Freaks and GeeksEighteen episodes is all a young Judd Apatow got to tell his serialized story of outcasts at a Michigan high school at the dawn of the eighties. The cast featured James Franco (127 Hours), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Martin Starr (Party Down) and Joe Flaherty (SCTV) among others in the comings and goings of rebels and nerds striving for some sort of salvation in a go-nowhere town. It was canceled after one season, and why shouldn’t it have been? After all, TIME Magazine cited it as one of the best 100 television shows of all time and critics loved it so much that the last three episodes were actually premiered at the Museum of Television and Radio. Great job, NBC! (Showings across the IFC schedule, check for listings)

UndeclaredIn 2001, Fox realized that NBC must’ve been onto something, so they went out and got their own Apatow show to air for one season and cancel. Whereas Freaks and Geeks focused on the classic-rock era, Undeclared took place in the present day as freshman Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel, She’s Out of My League) navigated the college environment with his motley crew of roommates (one of whom was, again, played by Rogen). Any given half-hour of Undeclared — and there were only seventeen of these — glimpses young Jenna Fischer as a snooty sorority girl, Amy Poehler as a crazy RA, Jason Segel as a jilted recurring boyfriend and Loudon Wainwright as Steven’s father. Yeah, that’s right. Loudon Wainwright. As Dad. It was that cool.  It was broomed in 2002, presumably to make way for Keen Eddie after one of the Fox execs saw Snatch and really liked it. (Wednesdays, 10:00 pm)

The Larry Sanders Show Garry Shandling has remained one of our most respected comics for upward of thirty years, and nowhere was this reverence more earned than on Showtime’s half-hour sitcom set on the fictional set of a late night talk show. Flanked on either side by Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) as the boorish Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley and Rip Torn in finest form as bulldog producer Artie, Shandling’s neurotic Sanders constantly worked to keep the entire operation afloat in the midst of network pressure and a gaggle of eccentric staff members (which included Jeremy Piven, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Wallace Langham and Scott Thompson). The show aired from 1992 to 1998 and retains a fervent following today, prompting numerous box sets over the past years.  (Wednesdays, 11:00 pm)

Mr. Show with Bob and DavidIf I even need to tell you how numbingly inventive HBO’s Mr. Show was, or how drastically it affected the wave of post-modern comedy over the years following its run, I might as well just hit you in the face with a hammer. Mr. Show is not only a particular favorite of the writing staff of this very site (and to this day quoted to an obnoxious degree), it brought New York’s underground comedy scene to the small screen with a series of gifted comics — among them Paul F. Tompkins, Brian Posehn, Jack Black, Tom Kenney and Mary Lynn Rajskub — and absurdist, intertwining sketches under the hostship of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Inheriting the sketch comedy mantle from the wrapping-up-at-the-time Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show was famously sloughed off by HBO brass who shifted it around from time slot to time slot and followed by a disappointment of a feature film in Run Ronnie Run. Its glorious four seasons, however, which ran from 1995 to 1998, should be considered absolutely mandatory viewing. (Fridays, 11:00 pm)

The Ben Stiller ShowOf all the programs on this list, The Ben Stiller Show probably comes off as the most dated in 2011, but the talented quartet a young Stiller put together remains one of the hippest crews in modern comedy to this day. The show ran first on MTV from 1990 to 1991, where a “cool” Stiller hosted the show through a series of MTV-style jumpcuts popular for the network at the time (you know exactly what I’m talking about) and then on Fox from 1992 to 1993, where the team found its footing and delivered some great television parody. Backed up by the peerless Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk (David Cross and Judd Apatow both won Emmys on the writing staff), some of The Ben Stiller Show’s setpieces are truly inspired, from Odenkirk’s Lassie-esque Charles Manson to teen-show sendup “Melrose Heights 902102402,” and guest stars ranged from Sarah Jessica Parker to Colin Quinn to Star Trek’s James Doohan. Fox cancelled it, of course, after one season — though I’m sure they’d give a lot to have this cast back under one banner in 2011. Sorry, Fox, you’re going to have to settle for Bones! (Wednesdays, 10:30pm)

You have to hand it to them — in an age where every cable channel is jockeying to come up with the next Rescue Me, The Closer or Breaking Bad, IFC has perhaps hit on the simplest form of success: tap into an audience that already exists and is more than willing to watch these shows — which they’ve missed for so long — in the wee hours of the evening once again. What the network has also succeeded in doing, however, is creating an entire back-catalogue and history for today’s comedy pantheon. Any of these shows on their own are gold; but together, a larger picture of young talent which would take over the world in the years to follow emerges, and it’s both amazing and a lot of fun to watch. Get those DVRS ready.

Check your local channel lineup for IFC.

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