Are Comedies on Television Becoming…Nicer?
A Trend in the Most Recent Exceptional Comedies That Peak TV — And The World — Need
I will now interrupt my series on serial killers (briefly) to deal with a more recent — and agreeable — trend in comedy that I think that both television — and the world — needs overall. First, a brief history of comedy during the era of Peak TV, which has paralleled the path of so many dramas.
When the 21st century began, HBO would lead the way when it came to comedy in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The overriding trend of this often hysterical comedy is about how odd behavior overall brings out the worst in people. Ever since then, while comedy was not necessarily centered on unpleasant people, it would be increasingly focused on people doing very bad things even the most extraordinary of comedies.
Arrested Development is one of the funniest shows in history, but it’s also a series where every member of the Bluth family — even the ‘good son’ — is engaged in very questionable, nasty, or unlikable behavior. This trend began to accelerate in nearly every Showtime comedy that debuted in the next twenty years, from all of the female led comedies that showed ladies behaving badly because they were either criminals (Weeds, Nurse Jackie) or suffering from mental or physical illnesses (United States of Tara, The Big C). In the 2010s, bad behavior was a universal trend whether you were a poor Southside family (Shameless), working out of Hollywood (Episodes, Californication) or Don Cheadle (House of Lies, Black Monday) The quality in all these series was erratic; the horrible treatment of everybody in the cast to everybody else was not.
HBO was willing to go just as far as Showtime in that respect, starting with Entourage, then moving into the 2010s with Silicon Valley and basically reaching peak nastiness with Veep, a series where even Julia-Louis Dreyfus acknowledged seemed to be mirroring political behavior rather than satirizing it. While unpleasantness was not nearly as scatological or sexual on broadcast television, series like Two and A Half Men, 30 Rock and Two Broke Girls could often celebrate offensiveness no matter what part of society they were satirizing. Being offensive and mean brought big laughs. Shows like Modern Family might win the Emmys for the first five years of the 2010s, but there has always been a fair amount of just mean behavior and bullying in even the most pleasant of comedies. (The Big Bang Theory is ultimately a celebration of the meek getting their rewards after growing up being the subject of bullying for their childhoods; you get the feeling for the first half of the series that Sheldon is reflecting similar behavior in how he treats he companions.) Toxic behavior was rewarded in the comedies as much as the dramas.
Then a few years ago, a funny thing happened. Comedies began to try a little harder to be pleasant and reward good behavior more than bad behavior. They began to suggest — far more than so many of their contemporary dramas were doing — that evolution from being bad to good was possible, and that relationships between races, gender and generations could be overcome.
The clear starting point for this was The Good Place, a series that was as much about philosophy and ethical behavior and it was about being hysterical. It argued that no one was beyond redemption, no matter how long or how horrible they had been in the past. This could be no clearer than with the character of Michael, extraordinary played by Ted Danson. Starting out as a mastermind determined to utterly destroy four souls in Season 1, he slowly and remarkably begins a pattern of evolution. First it is to redeem himself (if he fails at his work in Season 2 he will be destroyed) but over the passage of time, he recognizes the structural flaw in the system he has spent countless eternities and is willing to break the rules to help humans that he has now begun to consider friends. By the end of the series, he has evolved to the point that not only has he managed to make eternity a better place for everyone, but he is rewarded by becoming the very thing he spent eternities tormenting — a human being. Michael Schur has made series that are optimistic before, but none that dare to think — especially in the era it ran — that no one is beyond redemption. That’s revolutionary, considering that it ran counter to the message of almost every Peak TV series we saw in the decades before and since.
There have been many series since then that have begun to acknowledge that good behavior has a place in comedy again — Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has implied it at times and Ted Lasso has shattered the comedy world based solely on that precept — but in a way, I think the series that best represents the potential for growth in humanity is Hacks.
I mention this mainly because, as you might remember in one of my earliest reviews of the series, I didn’t like the show that much after two episodes. While I was in utter awe of Jean Smart’s brilliant work as Deb Vance, I thought that Hannah Einbinder’s performance as Ava, the whiny millennial who thinks that Deb is a privileged Boomer as much as Deb thinks Ava is an entitled interloper. If it weren’t likely that the series was going to be an Emmy contender I would have given up on it fairly early. But I felt an obligation so I kept going. And by the halfway point, something astonishing happened. Ava began to become more of a human being and Deb and Ava began to form a rocky, but genuine friendship. Both, of course, would rapidly deny to anybody else — and it’s not like it hasn’t had its low points over two seasons — but I think by this point in the series, Deb and Ava actually love each other in the way that friend s should be able to but that is now practically gospel that people so far apart in age cannot.
It’s a very weird friendship, no one would deny — you get the first sense that Deb cares for Ava when she tells her she’s going to sue her, something that becomes a running gag throughout the second season. But Ava genuinely cares for Deb in a way that she really has trouble showing for almost anyone else including her own mother. And it’s clear that Deb is willing to go above and beyond the call. When the ashes of Ava’s father end up being thrown in a dumpster when they’re touring the country (it does make sense in context trust me) Deb goes over her roadies head to order to bus to stop. Deb has spent the entire episode treating Ava with her usual subtle and not so subtle disdain, so this is important. It’s an even bigger deal when after Ava, on the verge of tears when she can’t find them in the last possible place, Deb leaps into a dumpster and begins hauling garbage around until she find them. This is as much a declaration of devotion that we have yet to see Deb show to anyone, even her own daughter.
And throughout the rest of the season Deb and Avs do everything in their power to help each other. Ava tries her hardest to reach out in ways designed to make anybody uncomfortable but that Deb needs. When on a lesbian cruise, Ava gently asks Deb if she’s ever considered her own sexuality. Deb makes it clear that it was a binary choice growing up, and once she chose men she never went back. What’s pretty clear is that this is a question that no one would have ever dared asked her. Similarly, encountering a former comic at a state fair who she thinks she might have torpedoed her career, Deb expresses doubt about the entire tour and the idea of changing her image. Again, Ava goes out of her way to pep her, saying that there are new mountains to climb and she can do it.
And this bond of trying to get along towards a common goal against overwhelming struggles is a common link through the supporting cast as well. Marcus (Carl Clemon-Hopkins) a gay black man who has put every aspect of his life on hold so that he can manage Deb’s empire is one of her most trusted confidants, knowing her flaws and still trying to manage them. For the first season and a bit of the second, he goes out of his way to work against Ava saying her change will hurt ‘Deb’s brand.’ It is only when it becomes clear the sacrifices this has been to his personal life (he breaks up with a man who is angry he puts his career over everyone else) that he managed to lower his guard to Ava and confide in her about what this job has cost him. Ava is more than willing to grant him his flaws. Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) is in the horrible position of trying to manage the strictly conflicting interests of Deb and Ava, and we keep seeing over and over how much of his dignity it has cost him — and he doesn’t have much to begin with. But when the firm he works for decides that Deb should take a clearly inferior offer because its better for them than for her, he finally blows his stack and quits. Even his deeply misguided assistant (Megan Stalter) the ultimately entitled hire (her father runs the company) is shown to have more depth than you would suspect. She knows at her core that everyone considers a joke, and in one meeting she actually comes in for a weekend she has off because she thought Jimmy might need her help. In her own incompetent way, she wants to find a path for herself.
There’s an argument that after decades of dealing with cruel comedy where we are laughing at the stars because they deserve to be humiliated that critics and fans are starting to lean towards series where kindness and camaraderie is becoming key. Last year, the comedy nominations and awards were dominated not only by Ted Lasso and Hacks, but also Abbott Elementary and Only Murders in the Building. The former is a workplace comedy that demonstrates that the worst of circumstances at your job does not have to turn you into a monster: even the incompetent principal has depths and is willing to occasionally do more than she has too. The latter shows a similar bond between two seventy-ish men and a twenty-ish woman, initially based more on a job that out of trust or respect but eventually becoming characters who recognize (if not entirely accept) their flaws and each other’s. All four of these comedies are hysterical in their own way, and some do have a tendency towards violence and nastiness, but even Only Murders is more inclined to look at its characters flaws with sympathy, seeking out the loneliness that drives so many of us even in the most unfriendly city in the country.
Are mean-spirited comedies still out there? Of course they are. The Righteous Gemstones, like all of Danny McBride’s comedies, are all about people behaving in the worse way possible and Barry is an incredible comedy that goes out of its way to show the darkness in people’s souls. But even the latter will show its characters trying — usually in bad ways, often futilely — to try and connect and improve in a way. And even HBO, which helped created the cruel comedy may be edging slightly away from it with its new series Somebody, Somewhere a series set in the Heartland about a lesbian (Bridget Everett) renewing a friendship with her gay best friends and trying to find a part of her past as she begins singing again. There are no truly mean characters in the series, only those who are misguided in their intentions and who can not see past some of their old biases. For the cable network that helped weaponize the comedy where we were supposed to laugh at other people’s suffering and horrid natures, it’s practically revolutionary.
The world is unpleasant, mean and the future continues to look bleak. Perhaps it is unrealistic for our TV comedies to lean towards hope and optimism. But I think in a sense we need series like Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary to lead us towards optimism and hope. Pessimism and unpleasantness about the world and humanity is what Euphoria and Succession are for.