Zack Handlen at the A.V. Club raised a good point last week when he wrote about what he calls “the art of cynical sincerity.” He focused specifically on Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, two of the most wildly lauded modern sitcoms. Both are animated treatises on the inherent disappointment of life, starring self-destructive alcoholics with questionable morals and only occasionally glimpsed humanity (horseman-ity?). Both, Handlen points out, use animation to “[show] the dark reality under the smiling-happy-people surface of familiar concepts.” The format, Handlen argues, helps underscore that fact, because viewers expect happier fare from their animated shows.
While I agree with his point, it can be taken a step further. This isn’t just a new trend in animation (in fact, I’d argue, subversiveness and animation have gone hand in hand since the early days of Looney Tunes) — it’s defining an entire new crop of TV shows.
Since Seinfeld, and especially since Americans became familiar with Ricky Gervais, American sitcoms have split into factions: the sincere and the cynical (the U.S. adaptation of The Office being the bridge between them). In this corner, New Girl, in the other, Always Sunny; here, we have Modern Family, and here, Arrested Development; Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock are on opposite sides of this split. The key difference between these two types of shows lies in the different ways their main characters interact with the world around them. Consider the Always Sunny gang versus New Girl's loftmates: Both are shows about mostly male friend groups in similar demographics getting up to shenanigans in pursuit of money and love. But the characters on Always Sunny see the world around them as a bad place whose only value lies in its resources they can exploit, whereas the characters on New Girl see the world as an ultimately good place worth trying to help. At the end of each Always Sunny episode, things are either back to status quo or worse than when they began; at the end of each New Girl episode, things are usually marginally improved, the characters inching toward a better future. One operates with a 21st-century "nothing ever changes" cynicism, the other with a wide-eyed sincerity that says, Things are always getting better.
But the emerging American comedy, whether it be animated or live-action, carries with it neither sincere escapism nor cynical nihilism. Consider them sadcoms — the raw, honest, surprisingly hopeful, long-gestating progeny of M*A*S*H. Louie was perhaps the genre's modern groundbreaker, showing a person with often-reprehensible morals trying and failing to work against them, for the sake of the many good people around him and a next generation he clearly cares a great deal about. It was shocking, difficult, and heartbreaking, and its honesty resounded deeply with its audience.
BoJack Horseman is, in itself, a study of the shift from the purely cynical black comedy to the ultimately optimistic sadcom. The story of a hateful drunk horse in a world populated half by humans and half by anthropomorphic animals, BoJack started off rocky. But when the show finally gets around to revealing what’s really on its mind, it becomes something astonishing. That particular moment of reveal occurs when BoJack asks a simple question of his friend Diane: “Am I a good person?”
Diane doesn’t answer.
It is a thoroughly earnest scene. In that moment, we see BoJack for who he is: a sad person trying. That, according to Rick and Morty’s Morty, is what we all are. “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” Morty pleads to his fed-up sister at the end of “Rixty Minutes,”the show’s half-improvised first-season masterpiece. The world is messy, it tells us, and terrifying, but damned if we aren’t going to try to do right by it.
Rick is the more outwardly cynical of Rick and Morty’s titular duo. In the pilot, he offers to drop a neutrino bomb on Earth, saving only his grandson, Morty, and Morty’s crush, Jessica, to give him a chance with her. It’s played purely for laughs, but Rick is serious. He doesn’t care about the world, but he does cares about Morty. Their relationship isn’t perfect — more often than not, he’s somewhere in the process of causing Morty significant trauma — but the show communicates often enough that he cares. He’s trying, in his way, to be a good grandfather.
Consider Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a show so candy-colored, it might as well be animated, but at its core, it’s about a person working to find goodness in a world that turned her abduction into a media circus. Nathan for You, unscripted and oft-cringey as it is, showcases real people trusting Nathan’s ideas, and the show seems to admire their openness rather than laugh at their naïveté. Community metamorphosed from snarky sitcom to heartfelt sadcom moment to moment and episode to episode, as though Dan Harmon were tentatively testing the framework he’d later solidify with co-creator Justin Roiland on Rick and Morty. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana have optimistic goals, even though the world of the show is clearly not interested in helping them come to fruition.
Even Review, Andy Daly and Charlie Siskel’s plunge into the heart of darkness, displays compassion for Forrest MacNeil. Forrest is equal parts David Brent and Walter White, if we're being generous, but the people close to him try again and again to believe the best of him.
The takeaway on all these sadcoms goes something like this: The world can be terrible, and so can we. However, unlike shows like Always Sunny and Seinfeld, our bad decisions don’t stem from an inherent moral bankruptcy at our cores but from an inherent limit to our knowledge and capability. Sometimes we act out of hurt. Sometimes we act out of fear. At our worst we act out of both. But we are trying our best. And there is something deeply optimistic in that.