TV Club

Is the TV comedy dead?

Whither the TV comedy?

Whither the TV comedy.
Alia Shawkat in Search Party, Sarah Jessica Parker in Divorce, and Mark Duplass in Togetherness.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by TBS and HBO.

Couch potatoes,

In my need to talk Donald Trump, I did not supply my top 10 list, which includes a number of shows we’ve already started hashing out:

1.    The People v. O.J. Simpson
2.    The Americans
3.    Halt and Catch Fire
4.    Transparent
5.    Atlanta
6.    Better Call Saul
7.    High Maintenance
8.    Queen Sugar
9.    Catastrophe
10. The Girlfriend Experience

Shows that nearly made the list, but didn’t: Silicon Valley, The Night Of, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There were a dozen or so other shows I liked or admired this year, but—to put it in the scientific terminology of list-making—a little less. This may seem like a lot of shows, but in the age of peak TV, it’s not. Generally speaking, and perpetual ray of sunshine Jane the Virgin excepted, this was a pretty sober year for television and comedies in particular: My list and near-list are relatively short because there were so few shows I found flat-out enjoyable. Part of what distinguished The People v. O.J. is exactly as Pilot says: It wasn’t just timely, thought-provoking, and intelligent, it was inappropriately fun. There was no gilding the lily, or rather the opposite: no griming the garbage can. The show was allowed to speak for itself and not in a Batman growl.

Serious times may call for serious TV (heck, I just called for serious TV!), but when nearly every character on the air seems like he or she could use a Lexapro prescription, the vibe may have gotten overly bleak. It was a good year for comedies, but it was not a good year for laughing. I would love to dig into some escapist TV right now—I know that’s why I was so charmed by Netflix’s rom-com Scrotal Recall: I refuse to call it by its new and more appropriate name, Lovesick—but there are fewer new options on that front than one might suppose. (I would appreciate if you read that last line as a cry for help. Guys, what should I be escaping into? Younger and The Crown don’t quite work for me.)

What is the sad comedy thing about? Trump may provide an excuse, but he’s not the explanation (needless to say, the shows of 2016 were developed when a Trump win still seemed, to most TV writers, inconceivable), and neither, I don’t think, is the particularly bleak timbre of 2016 more largely. Yes, the zeitgeist leaks in, as it should, but I think the key explanations for the explosion of sad-coms are twofold. First culprit: all the really terrific sad-coms that have come before them. Everything great inspires copycats, and this is true whether we’re talking about Louie or cronuts. Just a few years ago, we were still digging out from underneath all the antihero Xeroxes, bleak and humorless shows about ethically challenged dudes bludgeoning us with their angst. Those days are, thankfully, mostly gone, and instead we are awash in deeply personal comedies about flawed everymen and women that are more often “funny” than funny. Comedies that don’t give a ha-ha about making the audience laugh are in. Second culprit: Making people laugh is insanely hard.

Don’t get me wrong, many of these comedies—or traumedies, to use Transparent’s term of art—are beyond excellent. Louie and its immediate descendant, Girls, were personal, particular, not always laugh-out-loud shows that inspired dozens of other series for good reason. They were subjective and powerful, and they made the world look different. Louie and Girls encouraged creators to let it all hang out, to be supremely themselves, and, thankfully, there are more ways to do that than there are ways to be a butch antihero. Shows as different as Transparent, Atlanta, Maria Bamford’s fractured Lady Dynamite, and Amazon’s gutting import Fleabag all immerse you deep within the perspective and world of a fascinating central character or characters. They make for great television. What they don’t do is make for reliably funny television.

Josh Pfefferman’s storyline on this season of Transparent was a study of extended grief, as was Fleabag, a cheeky and ultimately searing show about mourning that got more painful as it went on, healing held up to the titular Fleabag like a racetrack rabbit to a greyhound: always just out of reach. Lady Dynamite, which is closely based on Bamford’s own struggles with bipolarity, was wacky, experimental, and took Bamford’s mental health problems, and sadness, head on. Atlanta is deeply attuned to absurdism, like when Darius is kicked out of a gun range for shooting at the outline of a dog and not a person, and the Kafkaesque aspects of daily life under bureaucracies—see the episode in which Van spends the day trying to pass a drug test. But its overall vibe is one of melancholy.

And that’s just for starters. June’s description of the fascinating, ennui-ridden Search Party said it all: The whole show was undergirded by so much wasted potential and missed opportunity, a lost soul searching for a lost soul, that there was no amount of sleuthing or bitchy friends or puked-up wine that could make it primarily funny to me. The most talked-about episode of the third season of BoJack Horseman was nearly silent, gorgeous and poignant, but the penultimate episode puts a pit in my stomach, involving an endless, claustrophobic drug binge and an OD celebrity death as sordid and needless as anything from real life. In this context, Better Things, the charming Pamela Adlon show produced by Louie C.K., was a beacon of lightness: not overly fixated on jokes, at least it was about a woman who could basically stand her life. Ditto High Maintenance, which toggles between anthropology, satire, and sweetness, always good-natured.

These days even shows that really are funny—Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, Last Man on Earth—are all reliably heavy, taking on the specter of divorce, unchecked mental illness, and the apocalypse respectively. The trend stretches to laugh-track sitcoms like The Ranch and CBS’s Mom, which pepper in such grave subjects—foreclosure, addiction, wasted youth—that the canned laughter can go quiet for minutes at a time. Even Mike Schur, the man who brought us the most willfully upbeat comedy of all time—Parks and Recreation—set his new show, The Good Place, in a disintegrating not-quite-heaven populated by more than one bad seed.

And these are the good shows. Really vital creative things eventually beget bad things. This is what it means to be imitated and copied; you get imitated and copied in great ways, and in wan embarrassing ones. Traumedies’ good to bad ratio, all things considered, is pretty high. But there are some doozies in there. Flaked—a so-called comedy starring Will Arnett as a recovering alcoholic living in Santa Monica, California, lying his way through a charmed life—is neither funny nor insightful nor an entrée into a world we don’t already know. Cold brew–drinking Los Angeles is its own subgenre at this point, and though I think Love, Togetherness, and Casual are better than Flaked, I wouldn’t miss any of them. The reason these shows don’t try very hard to make us laugh isn’t because they have so much to say: It’s because making us laugh is difficult, while outfitting oneself as a prestige comedy is relatively easy and, yes, prestigious. If you’re looking for how onerous it is to be funny, consider Divorce, which wants to be darkly riotous but is anchored by Sarah Jessica Parker, suppressing every iota of her expansive charisma lest anyone mistake her for Carrie Bradshaw. (Also consider Fuller House.)

In this context, it can be hard to remember that straight-up funny sitcoms can be satisfying and enjoyable, to which I chant to myself Seinfeld, Cheers, 30 Rock, Arrested Development. I also murmur Broad City, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Billy on the Street, and Silicon Valley. And yes, Broad City did get emotionally raw in one episode from its third season and the entire second half of Kimmy Schmidt’s second season is a moving, bravura exploration of working through trauma, but that’s just proof that shows can be really funny and also substantive, it is just very difficult. I do sometimes wonder if the sheer mastery of Schmidt’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock has made everyone else give up: can’t do that as well as them, so might as well … not tell any jokes at all? I’m kidding—I think.

Given that there were more than 400 shows on this year, I am absolutely sure I have forgotten some comedies. I haven’t even touched on that whole other world of joke-telling: late night. And maybe the comedies I have name-checked just reveal how lost in the TV-critic bubble I am, obsessed with prestige comedies even as I denigrate them, unable to cite more than a few network sitcoms. So tell me about what I missed, tell me about what made you laugh, tell me why Togetherness is actually a good show, or just pick on dramas for a little, if you prefer.

Imagine Tina Fey wrote my sign off,