The Rise of the Millennial Sitcom

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by CW, Netflix, HBO and Comedy Central

The sitcom world is rife with tropes: Love Interests of the Week, the Secret Relationship, the Yo-yo Plot Point (any story the writers just can’t stop going back to). These tropes have been defined and redefined for new generations of viewers. Characters striving to maintain the perfect nuclear family on Leave It to Beaver became characters looking to achieve a work-life balance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, became characters inept at both work and life on 30 Rock. That New Girl’s Jess Day and Nick Miller are subject to the same "will they, won’t they" mishegas as Cheers’s Sam Malone and Diane Chambers is a nice reminder of how little human behavior ever really changes.

But in the last few years, a new kind of sitcom has emerged on cable and streaming networks, complete with its own tropes. We now have "the cell-phone emergency" (Crazy Ex-GirlfriendBroad City, You’re the Worst), "the mid-afternoon brunch" (Girls, Broad City, You’re the Worst), the “dating-app disaster” (New Girl, Man Seeking Woman), the “wander-the-city walk-and-talk" (You’re the Worst, Girls, Love, Master of None, Broad City). Classic network sitcoms traded in the “will they, won’t they” sitcom staple; shows like Broad City and Girls have embraced the “are they or aren’t they” — that messy gray area between friends with benefits and friends with benefits who act like a couple without ever labeling it. Broad City’s Ilana and Lincoln, You’re the Worst’s Gretchen and Jimmy, Girls’s Hannah and Adam, and now Jessa and Adam, are all couples we’ve encountered (or been a part of), but I’m unaware of this kind of relationship having been addressed on TV more than five years ago, beyond the question of whether or not a certain couple were, indeed, “on a break.”

Sitcoms of the '90s like Will & Grace, Friends, Caroline in the City, The Nanny, etc., were largely aspirational — even if their characters didn’t have the things they wanted, they seemed certain about the directions in which they were headed. They looked for love, marriage, and family; they climbed clear corporate ladders; they made firm decisions, even if they were difficult. This classic-style sitcom still exists, in high quality and quantity: The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, are also made for (and, to some extent, by) millennials, but their major goals are not attempting to reflect the specific concerns of a generation. By contrast, sitcoms like Broad City, Girls, Master of None, and, most recently, Love, seem destined to become time capsules of a highly specific moment in a generation’s development. While each of these shows is distinct in tone and humor, they share similar concerns: They star 20- or early-30-somethings in major cities and feature characters who are educated, have relative financial stability, the dubious luxury of being able to date around instead of settling down, the choice between passion and money, infinite time to wander the streets talking about life, and a more complicated relationship with sex.

Once upon a time, sex was an affair that happened only beneath L-shaped sheets and reflected the fears of what having, or not having, sex with someone meant or didn’t mean (Will & Grace, Friends, Frasier — pick a show from NBC’s 1999 Thursday night lineup, and there’s an episode built around this exact concern). In these millennial comedies, the comedy is mined from navigating real sexual experiences. Broad City’s portrayal of pegging, Love’s botched three-way scenes, and Master of None’s depiction of how sex evolves over the course of a relationship are all previously uncharted comedy territory. Partially, this has all been made possible by the freedom of producing a sitcom without the pressures of a Big Network — the older-skewing audience, the rigid Standards & Practices, the fear of losing “traditional” advertisers — but it’s also a reflection of a new generation of creators and viewers, for whom “alternative sex” is not something to ridicule, but something to embrace and, eventually, cultivate an Ilana-esque blasé attitude about.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the “classic sitcom” and the "millennial sitcom" is a willingness to embrace paradoxes: Optimism disguised by cynicism; “sexy” experiences that are anything but; a desire for stability foiled by an inability to make concrete life choices. It’s reflective of the target audience: millennials who have had the world’s information at their fingertips for most of their adult lives, and learned to take in conflicting information from different sources at once.

It's telling that the shows most emblematic of this trend are not workplace comedies. The characters bounce between jobs or have no jobs at all (aside from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch, for whom work is the only thing she has figured out). They freelance and move, as typified by the women of Broad City and their New York Nomad lifestyle. Like Love’s Gus and Girls’s Hannah, they’re constantly on the verge of getting fired. If a character is unemployed, they rest on their privilege, torn between wanting to make something of themselves and the knowledge that they might never have to. On Master of None, Dev and Alan grapple with the fact that their immigrant parents struggled so that they could chase their dreams — and yet they’re too existentially confused to even fully figure out what those dreams are. All of these shows feature characters with the ability to spend large swaths of time “walk and talk”-ing. This externalization of their self-involvement is used not necessarily to convey the immediacy and importance of what’s being said, but the fact that these ideas are being meandered and muddled through, just like the characters through their respective cities.

To say these shows reflect millennial concerns as a whole would be inaccurate. In fact, they’ve been criticized for providing an all-too-small view of what it means to be a young person today, the prime example being the backlash to Lena Dunham’s Hannah declaring herself the "voice of a generation” in the Girls pilot. And though Master of None resonated with a larger audience by featuring both content creators and actors of color, Love was also largely homogenous on both sides of the camera. Going forward, the question seems to be: How can shows meant to reflect hyper-specific experiences bring as many people into the conversation as possible? As the TV comedy continues to be the medium of choice to tell stories about the concerns of a generation, here's hoping the field grows wider.