Comedy in the Age of Political Chaos

May 2, 2019

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The real world isn’t all that hilarious these days, but at least we still have comedy. Comedy is the TV genre I’m most scattershot about reviewing — I tend to watch it less methodically — but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been consuming it as voraciously as I do, well, everything else. I have to say it’s been interesting — in a “may-you-live-in-interesting-times” kinda way — to observe how my reactions to comedy have been influenced by the political chaos and deadly seriousness of post-2016 reality. Anyway, with that ominous lead-in, here are several months’ worth of comedy reflections.

Cheers (Seasons 1-6ish)

A while back, Jenn and I attempted an innocent throwback marathon of Cheers, the perennial critical darling of the Reagan years. Somehow I missed it during my youth, but it must have burned its way into my subconscious because it felt pretty damn familiar. Set in a modest, basement bar in Boston, Cheers is a superbly performed and often cleverly written show about a gang of goofy employees and regulars who become something of a created family. Originally, the show was centered on — and got the most mileage out of — a sensational will-they, won’t-they chemistry between dim-witted lothario bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and plucky, intellectual waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). Alas, after an extremely promising first season, Cheers devolves, relying more and more on pigeon-holing its characters, cruelty-based humor, and classic, 1980s-style toxic masculinity. By the time we ditched this one in season six, it became increasingly apparent that the only thing sustaining us had been Long’s master-class comic performance as Diane — the only character who generates any hope for the future we’re living in now. In retrospect, I get why this one felt so familiar: its messaging is emblematic of the sickening, sexist atmosphere that poisoned my teenaged psyche. Considering the pedigree and its admittedly superb performers, I found this one dated and deeply disappointing.

Arrested Development (Season 5)

The first three seasons of Arrested Development were brilliantly funny, and way ahead of their time. The show’s unexpected, much-delayed fourth season was like a deeply weird, Lynchian hallucination, more intriguing than truly successful, but still worth the visit. Alas, season five of this show about the preposterously horrible Bluth family vacillates between merely amusing and nearly unwatchable. Separated into two halves — and can I just say, half-seasons are bullshit? — this chapter of Arrested Development is uncharacterstically forgettable, playing out like a poorly dubbed cover version of itself. I kept asking myself why it wasn’t working for me, and landed on the notion that my tolerance for abhorrent people has profoundly decreased now that the most abhorrent people in history are running the country over a cliff. I will say, Jason Bateman and Michael Cera remain brilliant in these roles. But overall, for a show that was so far ahead of its time, Arrested Development concludes well behind it.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Seasons 2-4)

Another odd Netflix comedy, the quirky, Tina Fey-developed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ended recently on a note every bit as muddled as its uneven journey. This one’s about a young woman (Ellie Kemper, commendably game for anything) who, after years of captivity in a bunker with a doomsday cult, emerges to try and make a new life for herself in New York City. The first season made a decent impression thanks to zippy pacing, unpredictable humor, Kemper’s go-for-it energy, and Titus Burgess’ flamboyant talent as Kimmy’s ne’er-do-well roomate. But in subsequent seasons my interest flagged, and ultimately I came away underwhelmed. The writers, who punch down at every opportunity, just don’t seem to have much sympathy for the show’s deeply flawed characters, which might have made their mildly redeemable qualities easier to get behind. I don’t seem to have much patience for mean-spirited humor these days, and while Kimmy Schmidt’s characters were more clueless than mean, there’s a nasty tone fueling this one’s upbeat veneer that left me cold.

PEN15 (Season 1)

 Now this is a strange one: PEN15, a coming-of-age period piece set in the early 2000s, and that’s not the even the strange part. (I mean, it is kinda, because how the hell can the early 2000s be a period piece already?) No, the weird thing about PEN15 is that its lead characters are middle-school girls played — convincingly! — by actresses in their early thirties. It’s the tale of a friendship between two less-than-popular besties, Maya and Anna (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who also created the show), whose friendship is tested by peer pressure, family problems, growing pains, and good old schoolyard cruelty. If you’re not one of the six people who enjoyed middle school, PEN15 can be a difficult-to-watch, cringy affair. But really, middle school is the perfect venue for this form of cringe comedy, which is also earnest, unexpected, and strikingly unusual. Unlike some shows that focus on people being horrible to each other, this one cares about its characters, whose tantrums and naivety and bad judgment are all too relatable to anyone who lived through the psychological warfare of America’s public schools. Erskine, who made a great impression in the later seasons of Casual, is particularly noteworthy for her incredibly persuasive pose as a little kid. In the end, there’s considerably more to this one than the casting gimmick of pitting adult actors against age-appropriate co-stars (who are, by the way, also pretty great). I could see this one being a tough sell for some viewers, but I quite liked it.

 

Atlanta (Season 2)

It’s almost criminal to discuss Atlanta solely as a comedy, because it really is so much more than that. But I burned through it so quickly, and it’s so fucking funny, that I had to get some thoughts down about it here. Atlanta follows the hand-to-mouth efforts of Earn (Donald Glover) to make a living for himself, his on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), and his baby daughter. Earn makes his living managing the music career of his cousin, rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), whose career is starting to take off. But success brings new challenges to Earn’s life, continually throwing the economic and racial injustices of American life in his face. Atlanta is often ingenious and unpredictably funny, primarily thanks to Glover’s accessible reactions to the madness of modern life, plus some wonderfully trippy support from Lakeith Stanfield as Earn and Paper Boi’s cosmic wingman Darius. But the show is also a restless work of art: a vehicle for weekly mini-movies that take outrageous chances. The entire season is spectacular, but two episodes in particular are, I think, masterpieces: “Teddy Perkins,” a deeply weird and disturbing tale of comic horror that sends Darius to an eccentric musician’s home to collect a free piano, and “FUBU,” a flashback episode that takes us back to Earn’s childhood, when something as simple as buying a cool shirt can have life-and-death consequences in a brutally class-conscious society. I admire this show for punching our stupid status quos in the face, even as it helps to make them bearable by addressing them so smartly and entertainingly. Atlanta delivers genuine comedy, shrewd drama, and delightful weirdness. One of the best shows on TV, a bold, ever-evolving experiment.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 4)

Here’s another show that’s more than just a comedy: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which while definitely funny is also a musical, a romance of sorts, and an extended ode to the challenges of personal improvement. Rebecca Bunch (the sensational Rachel Bloom) starts this series as an irredeemable mess of a person, moving to West Covina, California in pursuit of an idealized ex-boyfriend named Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III). But as the show progresses, its exploration of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope, which plays out as a scathing critique of the toxic messaging of romantic comedies, becomes something of a celebration of personal struggle. This plays out not just in its inclusive, open-minded examination of mental illness in Rebecca’s case, but in subplots involving virtually every other character, each with self-defeating behavioral quirks that require transcending. Season four, alas, may be the weakest of the seasons — it’s a little too self-referential and twee, over-relying on recursive fan-service down the home stretch. But it also sticks the landing with a beautiful, well structured finale, ultimately realizing the promise of its concept. I will desperately miss this quirky, beautiful group of characters.

 

 

Superstore (Seasons 3 & 4)

Superstore, which documents the mundane humor of daily life for the workers of a midwestern big box retailer, is a solid sitcom that’s also subtly political. Like most ensemble comedies, Superstore scores points by leveraging an amusing roster of oddballs into new configurations and scenarios every week. In this case, that roster is massive, diverse, nicely defined, and bursting with comic skill. For a gradual, series-long throughline, there’s the core flirtation between a “straight-man” couple — disaffected floor supervisor Amy (America Ferrera) and unsuccessful intellectual Jonah (Ben Feldman) — which brings plenty of charm to the table. But Superstore is at its best during its breakroom scenes, wherein its characters’ misinformed perspectives lead to hilarious group discussions about issues that mirror, and gleefully skewer, the national sociopolitical dialogue. Superstore’s characters aren’t always sympathetic, but the writers are sympathetic to their plight, the miserable servitude of working a thankless, low-paying job. This empathy leads to well crafted, sketch-based stories that subversively critique our society for leaving so many people struggling. An underrated find.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Seasons 4-6)

It’s been a few years since I’ve talked about Brooklyn Nine-Nine here, but I’ve kept up with it pretty religiously despite what I felt was a quality dip in the third season. (Who knows, maybe I was just in a bad mood — it was 2016, after all.) This upbeat ensemble comedy about a kooky squad of detectives in New York City occasionally forces its humor, I think, but by and large it remains a consistent delight: funny, heart-warming, and comfortingly entertaining. My favorite character varies from one episode to the next based on the storyline, but one constant is the brilliance of Andre Braugher as Captain Raymond Holt. In my book, a reliable show about good people who genuinely like each other goes a long way these days, and on that score Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been a crucial aspect of my comedy intake.

Schitt’s Creek (Season 5)

 I adored marathoning the first four seasons of Schitt’s Creek. Its fifth, recently concluded, is every bit as delightful. This fish-out-of-water story forces the once-wealthy Rose clan (the delightful quartet of Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy, and Annie Murphy) to rebuild their lives in an impoverished backwoods town. Their journey from cluelessly awful rich people to increasingly self-aware citizens growing to love their community is such a refreshing message, and Schitt’s Creek does a terrific job layering in that gradual transformation in a way that feels true. The romance between Daniel Levy’s neurotic David and his local beau Patrick (Noah Reid) is an emotional highlight this season, as is the glorious way Stevie (Emily Hampshire) comes out of her shell. Even though it’s returning for one last season, I’m already starting to miss it.

The Good Place (Season 3)

I end with The Good Place because, really, how can you not? No other show has wrestled with ethics as interestingly or entertainingly in the history of television. It’s zany and fast-paced and structurally challenging. Its core cast — Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, and Ted Danson — is pitch perfect and effortlessly loveable. And boy is it ever restless, constantly asking the next question, blowing itself up, and immediately, brilliantly reinventing itself. Oh yeah, I forgot to describe the premise: several people die and go to heaven and ultimately start to unravel the very fabric of the afterlife. It’s hilarious comedy, smart genre fiction, and its positive messaging is a defiantly joyful middle finger to the cynicism and despair of our times. I absolutely adore it.