Brow Beat

Old-Fashioned Sitcoms Are Taking on 21st-Century Concerns

They’re throwbacks that feel fresh.

Stills from One Day at a Time, Black-ish, plus some combo of The Bold Type, Big Mouth, Speechless, Atypical, and Lady Dynamite.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ABC, Netflix, and Hulu.

Each new season of One Day at a Time, the Netflix series about three generations of a Cuban American family under one roof, requires a brief adjustment period that feels not unlike getting re-accustomed to the distinct cadences of a friend you haven’t seen in a while. A multicamera sitcom with occasionally primitive-looking sets but always forward-looking politics, One Day at a Time confidently follows a rhythm all its own—one that pauses after every joke to accommodate studio-audience laughter and decelerates whenever the mood turns serious, which is often. Like its predecessors, the recently released third season tackles a smorgasbord of topics, including sexual harassment, mental health disclosure, addiction, gentrification, and generational clashes about parenting styles. The show’s smart current debates, and its ever-increasing skillfulness at welding such discussions to larger character arcs, make it a standard-bearer for one of TV’s most welcome trends: the issues-driven sitcom that proves comedy can exist alongside conscientiousness.

The current revival of Norman Lear–type living-room deliberations probably originated with Black-ish’s debut in 2014. Five years later, it seems clear that the ABC show heralded a new era of identity-based sitcoms, in which comedies not only increased the representation of many different kinds of groups but also took on the role of explaining various identities and their attendant concerns. Implied in that self-imposed task is a shift in how we think about identity: not as a mere difference to be tolerated, but a constellation of interests, histories, and intersectional variations that make up a particular subculture. Perhaps no show does this better than Black-ish itself, which centers on a black family man named Andre struggling to figure out what blackness means to him as its former signifiers fade from his largely white, upper-middle-class milieu. Grown-ish, the college-set, coming-of-age Freeform series about Andre’s daughter Zoey, is in some ways even better at discussing issues through the lens of identity, since its campus setting is a natural showcase for how disparate backgrounds and life experiences lead different individuals to contrasting opinions.

But Black-ish’s influence extends far beyond its spinoff. In addition to One Day at a Time, shows as dissimilar as The Bold Type, about a trio of young women’s magazine employees; Big Mouth, the unbelievably filthy sex-ed cartoon; Speechless, the sitcom about a family with a teenager with cerebral palsy; Atypical, the perpetually underrated dramedy featuring a protagonist on the spectrum; the equally overlooked campus dramedy Dear White People; Lady Dynamite, comedian Maria Bamford’s semi-autobiographical chronicle of dealing with depression; and the now-canceled The Carmichael Show, perhaps the closest heir to the Lear series of old, all owe a debt to the success of Black-ish and a new generation of sitcom writers striving to demonstrate that comedy and progressive politics can coexist, despite protests otherwise that mere transgression is the soul of humor and truth.

It’s no surprise that many of these shows are either about or aimed at younger audiences. They reflect a more politically engaged, rigorously inclusive demand that comedians and writers consider more carefully whom they target as well as the variety of the viewers they entertain. And the shows’ certainties provide comfort in these times of ideological and epistemological chaos, when we haven’t figured out how to keep pace with the speed at which facts and rants about ways to be woke flood our feeds every day.

The stink of “a very special episode” sometimes still lingers over many of these shows, but that shouldn’t be the case. They’re earnest, yes—the opposite of the “no learning, no hugging” nihilism that was a genuine innovation in the ’90s, when seriousness in sitcoms was still largely deployed for conservative messaging (step away from those caffeine pills, Jessie!) but whose standoffishness often feels like an expression of privilege in these more complicated times. The new earnestness of Black-ish, One Day at a Time, et al., is one born of the best of situations: the excitement of taking part in and helping create a new paradigm for comedy that’s struggling to be recognized as such. That makes these shows a rare accomplishment for these nostalgia-saturated times: the throwback that feels fresh.