TV Club

Television deftly tackled mental illness this year.

Television deftly tackled mental illness this year.

mental illness in 2016.
Chris Geere in You’re the Worst, Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite, and the titular horseman in BoJack Horseman.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Netflix and FX Networks.

  1. BoJack Horseman
  2. O.J.: Made In America
  3. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
  4. Black-ish
  5. Atlanta
  6. Degrassi: Next Class
  7. The Carmichael Show
  8. Casual
  9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  10. Silicon Valley

Every January, I decide that this is the year I will watch more of the dramas that I’ve been putting off. And then every year, I throw myself into more and more comedies. Despite my aforementioned true-crime fixation this year, I still consumed more sitcoms than ever—or really just more sitcom episodes than ever: Over the summer, I (re-)watched 27 seasons of The Simpsons (596 episodes!); I’m currently in Season 10 of Cheers. I’ve always been a sitcom person, but I also do feel like the comedies that debuted in 2016 are the series that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten about Westworld or The Americans. We needed laughs so much this year that even the darker comedies made me laugh out loud in an almost desperate way, as if my body had been frantically searching for comedy of any kind, in any form.

Plus, there are still so many comedies that don’t adhere to the traumedy genre, that stick close to the basic setup-and-punchline, barely-anything-changes, let’s-just-forget-about-shit-for-22-minutes format—they are just often not deemed as important as a comedy that always has Something To Say. It doesn’t mean they are better or worse but mostly that they are harder to talk about. You can dissect an episode of Transparent in a million different ways, but it’s harder to take a real deep dive into Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And then there’s the worry that maybe reading too much into a television show will make you forget why you loved in the first place—I made a conscious decision to stop recapping Bob’s Burgers because I wanted to love it so purely without spending two hours after each episode hashing things out.

Because of my comedy-loving heart, I’ve been so stoked about all of the comedic subgenres that have emerged over the last few years. There has never been just one type of comedy, but lately it seems like we have so many different sorts to choose from: hourlong comedies like Orange Is the New Black and Shameless, three-minute stories like pre-HBO High Maintenance, autobiographical standup sitcoms (Louie, Maron), “prestige” fare like Togetherness or Girls, and the always-prominent multicam shows that populate CBS. Not all of them are good, but most of them are interesting in some way or another. A show like The Great Indoors annoys me, but I’ve still been secretly watching it, fascinated by the sort of cultural divide that is driving the series’ hackneyed “olds are like this/millennials are like that” jokes. But there is also a large American contingent that absolutely loves those jokes, and they need to laugh, too.

What I’ve really enjoyed this year is the rise in what I’ve come to think of as “intimate comedy,” something I wrote a little about in September. There a bunch of new sitcoms created by and starring actors who have their hands in multiple aspects of the creative process, whether as writers, directors, executive producers, music supervisors, and so on. With this much creative control, they’re able to craft work that feels wholly unique, wholly theirs, and it often provides an intimate look into their specific outlooks on life. And with the personal comes the laughs—my favorite comedy bits aren’t the bigger hijinks-filled set pieces (though yes, I will always laugh at a pratfall) but instead, the smaller funny moments born out of intimate details of someone’s life. Think of one of the best standup sets in recent years: Tig Notaro announcing her cancer diagnosis to an unsuspecting audience. I fell in love with Amazon’s One Mississippi immediately, and I fell in love with Notaro’s brand of comedy. Better Things, Atlanta, Insecure, and Take My Wife all have a similar feel, and there’s something about shared laughter at a hyperspecific joke that makes me feel completely welcome in a stranger’s world.

But I’m always aware that this hyperspecificity can be alienating because, as Todd pointed out, it’s incredibly hard to recommend comedies when everyone has different tastes. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever even chuckled during a Friends or Seinfeld episode, but if you want to see me sob from laughter, just put on “Celery Man” from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! What’s always weird to me is watching sitcom screeners alone and then watching the episodes with friends, witnessing which jokes I laughed at that my friends didn’t or which jokes I involuntarily laugh at the second time around because of how infectious other people’s laughter is. Maybe that’s also why I gravitate more toward comedy than dramas and doubly so during this rough year: I think comedy is better at drawing out the personal and making people feel comfortable with the parts of themselves that they feel are too weird to share otherwise.

You’re The Worst, BoJack Horseman, and Lady Dynamite were three of the most important television shows to me this year, all strange little comedies that went full speed ahead when it came to exploring mental illness and depression. They all fit the overall feel of the year: 2016 was manic, depressive, and downright traumatizing. You’re The Worst’s “Twenty-Two,” a beautiful and nearly perfect episode about Edgar’s post-traumatic stress disorder, socked me in the gut, as did the overall narrative about Gretchen and Jimmy trying to figure out how to navigate a relationship that consists of two broken people. In Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford put her brain on display, bravely showcasing the frustrating parts of her mental illness while also normalizing bipolar disorder—which most television shows get offensively wrong. And BoJack Horseman, well, as much as I loved that season of television, I’m still not ready to talk about the final two episodes of last season.

But good news: It’s not only fucked-up brains that I think made up the best comedy of 2016! Black-ish has been on fire this season, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee should be required viewing in classrooms (and the White House), and Atlanta’s “the price is on the can, tho” is the most perfectly written line of dialogue this year. Also in 2016, The Carmichael Show proved it can become the most important network comedy if it can stick around, The Good Place had fun destroying the idea of soulmates with hilarious flourish, and Degrassi: Next Class rediscovered its comedic routes while simultaneously getting more serious. Oh, and of course, David Blaine vomited up frogs into a glass while Drake, Dave Chappelle, and Steph Curry watched in horror, so really, what else do you need from comedy?

I’ll watch Game of Thrones eventually,