Yes, shocking but true: I’ve watched live-action TV series in the past. I almost never write about them, because what can I really add? But since I haven’t been able to make much of any progress at all with my running games or anime series lately, I thought it might be a good time to fill that gap by briefly looking at six of these series I like. And if this strengthens my normie credentials a little, that’s fine too, because God knows I could use more of those when I’m forced to socialize with people outside the dank, dark subcultures I inhabit.
This list is not exhaustive, but I haven’t enjoyed too many more live-action shows than these. Listed roughly in order of airing:
Here’s a true classic, one that stopped airing in its original run a while before I even came around. Even the kids today seem to know something about it, but if you need an introduction, Columbo is a police procedural drama/comedy centered on title character Lt. Columbo of the LAPD, a homicide detective. Columbo is notably not a mystery — a typical episode begins with the lead-up to the murder, the murder itself, and the immediate aftermath, all while following the killer’s POV. The entertainment in Columbo comes not from trying to figure out who committed the crime (in contrast with Agatha Christie’s Poirot for example) but in following Columbo as he pieces everything together.
This wouldn’t work so well if Columbo himself weren’t a good character, but he’s a great one. He’s naturally extremely sharp, catching small details that few if any others ever notice, the details that seal the perpetrators’ fates at the end of each episode. However, he’s also exceedingly humble, a natural character trait but also a major benefit to his work, since his disheveled appearance and his rambling stories about his wife and cousin and dog usually convince the perp that he’s harmless — until he has them cornered.
I highly recommend Columbo, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t generally like crime or cop shows (though I also like Poirot, sure.) There was a revival in the 90s following the original 70s run that I haven’t seen — it looks fine, but the original Columbo is the one I’ve watched and it’s the one that people seem to care far more about.
I first saw British comic actor Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean as a kid, but I only discovered his 80s “historical comedy” Blackadder much later, probably right around when I could appreciate it. Blackadder follows a series of four different and presumably related guys throughout British history named Blackadder. The first series was a little bit of a dud as even some of the people involved have said, the probable reason being that the first Blackadder is a sniveling, pathetic character who’s kind of hard to like. I still think that first series has plenty of good moments (see the great Brian Blessed as the fictional King Richard IV) but the following series definitely improved a lot on the formula, turning Blackadder into a much smarter and more cunning amoral asshole. As much of an asshole as he is, however, there’s plenty of satirical criticism dumped on incompetent and greedy rulers, and that’s always welcome when it’s done well as it is here.
Atkinson is always at the center, but he’s not the only prominent player here: if you’re an American like me who first saw Hugh Laurie in House, you should see his very different performances in Blackadder, and maybe it’s no surprise that Stephen Fry also shows up a lot. All the acting is great, however. If you like history or comedy at all, check this one out.
3) Yes Minister
Moving from historical to political comedy, Yes Minister is another British series from the 80s centered on new government minister Jim Hacker and his civil service counterpart Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Hacker is a well-meaning but somewhat cowardly politician — he wants to do the right thing, but he’s also obsessed with his poll numbers and his placement in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. He also has to deal with Sir Humphrey, a smooth, intelligent, and extremely cynical bureaucrat who runs the administration side of his ministry — though Sir Humphrey would say he’s the one who has to deal with Hacker. These guys spend most of Yes Minister sparring over policy matters and occasionally joining forces with Hacker’s personal private secretary (but also civil servant and therefore on the same payroll as Sir Humphrey) Bernard Woolley caught in the middle.
From what I can tell, Yes Minister doesn’t take a political stance — Hacker’s party is never named and just seems to be generic center-ish party. The real focus is horn-locking between the politician and the bureaucrat. Good stuff if you don’t mind watching mostly guys in suits talk in fancy rooms, but even if that puts you off, I promise Yes Minister is worth a shot.
4) Father Ted
I haven’t been to Ireland and haven’t had anything to do with Catholicism aside from the one side of my family who are about as lapsed as you can get without formally getting rid of that affiliation, but I still liked the Irish comedy Father Ted a lot. This series follows Father Ted Crilly in his virtual exile to a remote island off the western coast of Ireland for some financial mishap he was involved in, where he has to live with two other priests, the kind but slow-witted Father Dougal and the possibly senile and definitely alcoholic Father Jack. Ted spends most of his time taking care of all the actual church duties these two can’t handle while trying to put up with both them, their strangely obsessive housekeeper who gets irate when they refuse to drink the tea she’s constantly brewing, and his hardass boss.
I’m sure there’s stuff that’s still over my head (like what an ecumenical matter is) but I like the show’s comedy, which sometimes gets physical and sometimes absurd. Other fans of Nichijou, Asobi Asobase, and similar misfit absurdist anime comedies should check out Father Ted.
It’s hard to explain why Seinfeld is enjoyable. It’s the famous “show about nothing”, after all. Though I’d say it’s actually a show about etiquette starring four friends consisting of three jerks and one generally well-meaning but insane guy. Each episode follows these four and their other friends/relatives/enemies as they stumble through life in New York City and get themselves in totally avoidable and unnecessary trouble.
I grew up watching Seinfeld in syndication, but I was aware of it as a kid while it was airing and knew it was a big deal along with 90s NBC’s other massively popular sitcoms. Friends and Frasier were both pretty good as well from what I remember, but I think Seinfeld holds up just as well if not better for its great asshole characters. And while Kramer and Newman are especially entertaining, my favorite character has to be eternal loser George Costanza above.
6) The Office (US, but UK is good too)
There’s the disclaimer I’m obligated to give above. I’m not going to say the US Office is better or worse than the UK one — they’re essentially different series and both have their good points, but the US show is the one I know better. On the off chance you haven’t seen either, I’ll just say they’re both worth checking out. Their use of awkward comedy might be uncomfortable for some people (especially the UK version, featuring far more of an assholish boss in David Brent than his American counterpart in Michael Scott) but if you can get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy in both. Though as usual, the American series ran far longer than the British one, arguably overstaying its welcome for a couple of seasons after its central character left the show. (Also, I wouldn’t recommend starting with the first season of the American series — it wasn’t that good, and the show was overhauled and possibly saved from being canceled at the start of the second.)
Some statistics in case you care at all to judge my own tastes: looking over the above list of series, five of the six are comedies and the remaining one has strong comedic elements; three are American, two British, and one Irish. Five are “old” according to the youngest generation that’s currently shaping pop culture (and maybe they’d call The Office old too at this point. Lord, my aching bones.) And maybe not surprisingly for that reason, four feature the old outdated sitcom standard canned laughter, which I admit can be annoying. But look at it this way: when you’ve seen enough older sitcoms, you can tune that laugh track out and focus on the comedy. If the comedy sucks, however, the laugh track only emphasizes its badness. There’s a certain more recent extremely popular laugh-tracked comedy I consider bad that I could name, but it’s taken more than its share of fully deserved kicks by now.
So maybe those normie credentials I was looking for are a bit out of date. Not like Seinfeld makes for water cooler talk anymore, after all. I’m sure there are other more current live-action shows I’d like — for example, Office spiritual successor Parks and Rec and arguably Seinfeld spiritual successor It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But man, I don’t know. My anime backlog is way too large to add anything else unless I somehow get a thousand-year sentence in an age-slowing isolation tank with a TV so I can watch all this stuff. Blackadder being on this list might even give me negative points in that sense, considering its status as a cult nerd sort of show — I may well have put MST3K on the list too if calling that a typical live-action series didn’t feel off.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s impossible to dig myself out of that hole at this point, seeing how my current watch list consists of anime, VTuber clips, and “catgirl cleans your ears with her tongue” ASMR sound-only videos. Say what you want about that last category, but it works better than therapy and is a hell of a lot cheaper.
Blackadder seems hilarious from what my brother had told me, and yes – Father Ted is awesome! (And a little bit melancholic but that’s just my Traditionalist senses tingling lol) Interesting that you compared it to Nichijou but it makes sense considering the absurdities of it (multiplying rabbits, kicking bishops up the arse, Lenten madness and 10-second “Masses”) 🤭
It sounds like you would like Blackadder from what you’ve written about before. Definitely worth checking out. And yeah, I was thinking of all the absurdity in both Father Ted and Nichijou — they even both have main casts of three characters. I don’t know if Mio is a Ted analogue as the most normal type in the group, but Yuuko and Dougal might be a match in the brains department.
Makes sense that Mai would be Fr. Jack considering how troll they are of the three 🤣 Honestly I would feel that Mio would also make a great Bp. Brennan, considering how stern they usually are. Not to mention the zany cast of priests on the island match the zany cast of schoolteachers and classmates.
But then that begs the question… would Nano be Mrs. Doyle and who’d be Prof. Hakase?
Okay, I can see Mai being the Jack analogue, just on a very different wavelength and screwing with the others, yeah. And Mio is definitely a hard taskmaster, yeah. I can imagine her threatening to send Yuuko to an island off Suriname.
Nano — maybe she’d become Mrs. Doyle after a century of existence. No Hakase around for her to take care of, unfortunately, or not that I can think of.
Haha… Mai screaming “WHAT” and “YES” at Yuuko is just something that would make me spit my drink out in laughter! (And scare me too considering how quiet she is normally)
While you mention Blackadder and all things Rowan Atkinson, I think Mr. Bean would be the type of character that would fit in well with a Japanese TV series, even an anime, considering their love for bizarre reality shows and all. I mean, Scatman John and his music were widely received in Japan back in the 90s too, so Mr. Bean would be dope too…
You’ve awaken my old heart with reminiscing. I actually watched Columbo while airing (talk about creaking bones). It was a great show because of how Peter Falk played Columbo. I was about to post a blog about mindless TV shows too. But all are good recommendations *points at you* normie. 😀 haha
If you like Father Ted you might like one of my favorite shows, Vicar of Dibley. I don’t know why I love that show.
I’d happily take that “normie” label if only it were true! Would make things a bit easier. Then again, I might not be writing if that were the case.
I’ve seen a little bit of Vicar of Dibley, yeah — that’s a good one too, and there’s definitely some parallels there. One of my mom’s favorites; she used to watch that and some other British series on PBS. In fact, that’s where I first saw Yes Minister too.