Have holiday vacation coming up? Sometimes, there’s absolutely nothing better than curling up on the couch and powering through your Netflix queue with a marathon of TV shows.
But, sadly, you probably don’t have time to catch up on everything. So in the spirit of making the most of your vacation time, I’ve pulled together a list of some of the best-loved sitcoms, old and new, along with recommendations on when to start (and stop) watching. For example, do you really need to watch all 23 seasons of The Simpsons? No. (In fact, for your own sanity, please don’t.)
Consider this your cheat sheet for skipping the sub-par seasons and spending your precious down time on the best of the best.
1. South Park
Essential: Seasons 1, 5-11
Any South Park fan will tell you that Season 1 is almost like watching a different show. But she will also tell you that it’s essential—the cursing, the inappropriate humor, and the fact that the entire cast was in fourth grade made the show absolutely groundbreaking for its time. The next few seasons are less important, but by Season 5, South Park is in its prime. Unfortunately, though, things start to slow after the brilliant “Imaginationland” trilogy in Season 11. There are standout episodes through Seasons 12 and 13 (“The China Problem” and “Fish Sticks,” among others), and the 200th episode in two parts (“200” and “201”) in Season 14 is worth checking out—but forego the rest. Trust me.
2. The Simpsons
Essential: The second half of Season 3, Seasons 4-9
In its good years, The Simpsons is TV comedy at its finest. It takes a while to come into its own, but finally reaches its stride in the second half of Season 3 and continues for six glorious seasons. The series doesn’t have a definite “jump the shark” moment, but it starts to decline around Seasons 10 and 11. Reasons are debatable—the writing staff began changing, there were too many celebrity guest voices, the show lost its heart. Whatever the reason, there’s a clear difference between the prime seasons and the ones that start to drag.
3. How I Met Your Mother
Essential: Seasons 1- 4
Viewers will (hopefully!) discover the identity of Mrs. Ted Mosby in Season 8, but that’s pretty much the only thing worth watching for post-Season 4. In the early seasons, Ted dates his way through New York City, Barney administers comic relief, and Lily and Marshall provide a couple’s perspective. But, of course, Ted can’t meet and break up with a new girl every few episodes, so parts of Season 4 feel like they’re just stalling. And then all of Season 5 feels like stalling. Actor Jason Segel even admitted in a July 2010 GQ interview, “I don’t really feel like I have that much more to offer with this character. Maybe if we got divorced or something—but that’s not gonna happen.” Truthfully, the show could have been done in five seasons.
4. The Office
Essential: Seasons 1-4
The awkward goofiness of Michael Scott, the eccentric Dwight, and the budding romance between Jim and Pam make the early years of this show absolutely brilliant. And the series continues strong once Jim and Pam start dating—some of its best episodes come in Season 4 (“Dinner Party,” anyone?). Unfortunately, once the pair become engaged at the beginning of Season 5, the series starts to lose steam. There are still standout episodes, but the show starts to shift its focus to side characters and their colorful lives rather than what it does best: the doldrums of a bland work environment.
5. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Essential: Seasons 1 – 4
As most Always Sunny fans will tell you, the show’s recent seasons have missed the mark. In Season 6, Dee’s pregnancy changes the group’s dynamic and the introduction of outside writers gives the show a different feel. So stick with the classics: Seasons 1–4. The antics of the gang become increasingly hilarious, but the characters remain immensely likable despite their terrible behavior. You can take or leave Season 5—it has a few misses ( “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis,” “The Gang Wrestles for the Troops,” and “The World Series Defense”) but also has its hits (“The Gang Hits the Road” and “Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens”).
Essential: Seasons 1 – 4, “My Lunch” from Season 5
Scrubs, sadly, is fading. Seasons 1–4 are great, with the exception of the episodes where other characters replace JD’s narration. In Season 5, however, the writers introduce a crop of new interns, moving the focus away from the original cast of characters and changing the dynamic of the show. But Season 5 does have one of the best episodes of the series—“My Lunch,” which is based on a devastating true story about patients infected with rabies from an organ transplant. But after that, the show begins preparing viewers for JD’s departure by emphasizing the storylines of the new interns. There are a few good episodes in the later seasons—“My Musical” (Season 6) and “My Finale” (Season 8)—but that’s about it.
Essential: Seasons 1 – 7
Seinfeld is one of the few shows that went off the air on top. Start at Season 1 (the beginning is slow—but it’s necessary if you’re going to understand the show’s setup and characters, and it’s only five episodes long). Everything from then through Season 7 is pure gold and showcases some of the best comedy writing TV has ever known. That being said, the final two seasons became a bit sporadic when head writer Larry David left, but there are a few classic episodes—“The Yada Yada,” “The Strike,” and “The Voice,” to name a few.
Go ahead, indulge in some quality television classics as winter sets in. But take it from me: Don’t waste your precious free time on sub-par seasons—there’s too much good TV out there.