Surveying the TV landscape every fall and hoping to find something genuinely worthwhile lands somewhere between adorable optimism and complete stupidity. A good rule of thumb is that you're only going to get at most one good new show per year: Last year it was Pushing Daisies, the year before that it was Friday Night Lights, etc. But given the networks' notorious track record with cancellations and their apparent wariness of anything resembling quality, as well as the fact that the TV landscape is still feeling a few aftershocks from last winter's writers' guild strike, there is not yet a new great or must-see or compelling series on the air for fall 2008. (In a world where Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles gets renewed, this is probably not a surprise.) But there is a decent comedy airing on HBO that, though not perfect, is still the most entertaining comedy of the new season. It's The Life & Times of Tim, and it's better than you think. What's more, it's representative of the kind of willfully offbeat programming that usually means death on a major network, and as such it stands in blessed contrast with the rest of the fall comedy lineup.

The series itself is presented in choppy animation reminiscent of a calmed-down version of Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. It centers on Tim—voiced by writer, creator and producer Steve Dildarian—a completely average guy who works a generic office job and finds himself getting into awkward and mildly ludicrous situations in his personal life. The animation alone is enough to set it apart from most of its peers, but the series also plays around with timing and delivery, choosing to let Tim's deadpan responses or straight-man fluster work at their own speed. The characters constantly talk over each other or suddenly stop speaking, lending the dialogue a realistic air that makes the comedy that much more believable: These don't sound like jokes, but actual conversations, and funny ones. It's a far cry from the other comedies being inflicted on viewers this fall, like Fox's already-cancelled show with Jerry O'Connell (I can't even make myself care enough to look up the name) or CBS's Gary Unmarried, which stars Jay Mohr and is determined to make me feel bad for ever liking the man. Those shows are lifeless tributes to the old set-'em-up, knock-'em-down school of sitcom, which makes them feel dated, and they're poorly written and predictable, which makes them bad. The Life & Times of Tim plays on the modern respect for single-camera comedies with no laugh track, yes. But it also recognizes that the key to successful comedy is unpredictability, which is why the punch lines never broadcast themselves as such and the situations always take weirder and more character-driven turns than, say, a sitcom about a fat guy with a hot wife. Even when some of the jokes skew into the absurd—Tim regularly needs favors from his local prostitute, like when he has her pose as his wife after his boss tells him to pretend to be Hispanic to boost the company's profile—there's a subtlety and dryness about the execution, an almost fierce refusal to play anything too broadly. It's just funny, and it works.

It makes sense, then, that the series is on HBO, which has long been the home of shows that wouldn't survive on broadcast networks, and which is probably more than willing to give anything a shot now that its flagship titles, from The Sopranos to The Wire, are all gone. But HBO functions on a combination of subscribers and zeitgeist, so it's possible to thrive there even when the numbers pale next to broadcast network reality shows. For that reason, The Life & Times of Tim is one of the more quintessentially HBO shows to air on the cable network in a while: Its style is highly specific, and it's designed to appeal not to a common denominator in comedy viewing but to people who are looking for the opposite. But network psychoanalysis aside, the show is just consistently funny. There are never that many bright spots in the fall lineup, but this is one of them.


The third episode of

The Life & Times of Tim

premieres at 11 pm Sunday, Oct. 12.