Enough with the so-called comedies
At the risk of sounding like your grandfather lamenting the loss of a simpler time - he had to walk to school in the snow you know, uphill both ways - TV used to be much, much simpler.
Shows were meant to be escapist entertainment for the end of a long day, never challenging or envelope-pushing. They were either a comedy or drama, or the ever-popular variety show. And they knew their boundaries. Cut to today and we have shows that aren’t quite so easy to categorize. Shows that get called comedies simply because they have an ironic or relatable laugh or two. But they’re largely made up of other elements that aren’t quite as easy to place.
And it’s not just TV. Take The Martian for example, which won “best comedy” at the Golden Globes last year, though it’s not really a comedy at all. CSI and its countless incarnations had laughs but it was hardly categorized as a comedy. Though by today’s standards, who knows?
Perhaps we need to update the vocab bequeathed to us by 1950’s television and come up with a new word for these shows that are in some ways comedies, but are also something else. Comedy Plus? Post Comedy? Post-post comedy? There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. And while there are many examples of “comedies” that don’t fit the typical single or multi-cam sitcom genre, a la Modern Family or Seinfeld, here are five most topical genre-defying shows that prove we need a new category - stat.
This show follows the story of a lost 20-something who, in search of purpose, begins looking for a missing girl from her college. With a brilliant supporting cast and consistently hilarious dynamic between said lost 20-something and her boyfriend (Alia Shawkat and John Reynolds), this show is solidly funny. But, it is simultaneously a mystery in the truest sense of the word, with all the suspense and intrigue that comes with that territory.
The presence of Transparent on this list is probably no surprise, as it has yielded a lot of discussion on what is and isn’t a comedy as it’s garnered praise, press and awards. Following the story of a transwoman and her family, this show is tough to categorize. Perhaps the best way to do so is to say that it is a reflection of real life, never neatly dramatic or funny, but sometimes funny even as it’s punching you in the face. But, comedy is not what this serio-comedy leads with, which begs for a new genre for Transparent to call home.
Centered around two very different cousins in the Atlanta rap scene, this show’s strong comedic element is no surprise, as it was created by Donald Glover, who is probably best known for his work in comedy - 30 Rock and Community, two genuine comedies. But to call Atlanta only a comedy would do it a disservice, as it is something much more interesting. Not only does the show touch on some very real, tough human moments, but it plays with reality in a way that borders on surreal, perhaps most evident in the Black Justin Bieber episode. Nothing feels off limits in Atlanta, so let’s not hold this surreal-com back with a single genre.
Relentlessly funny and animated, it’s easy to put Bojack in with shows like South Park and the Simpsons, but that’s not really where it belongs. The story of a former sitcom actor navigating life in “Hollywoo”, Bojack deftly explores big themes like identity, depression, heartbreak, purpose, and joy. The animation - and use of animals - informs and adds to the complexity of the world and characters in this human-condition-comedy, resulting in a true comedy with true depth. And if you’ve seen the underwater episode, that pun is intended.
Spawned from the web series of the same name, High Maintenance follows an unconventional structure with the only through-line being a bike-riding weed salesman who meets various NYC characters as he goes about his business. While rooted in comedy, High Maintenance episodes feel more like short films than television, with a poignancy and whimsy that earn the show its spot on this list. Not afraid to take big swings at death and love - or have an episode from the POV of a dog - this eclectic-comedy is more than you’d expect from a comedy centered around the sale of pot.