How Comedy Usurped Drama As the TV Genre of Our Time

As “serious” TV has become plot-obsessed, it’s comedy that’s now plumbing the depths of human character — and owning the era. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Netflix, FX, HBO and CW

“Where is the telethon for the noble writer?” Gretchen shouts. “Bravely drinking coffee, spilling his blood to get his feelings out, filling two, maybe three whole pages before his heroic effort is cut short by his desire to watch internet porn or get a snack!” This outburst is the nerve-jangling high point of “There Is Not Currently a Problem,” an episode of the FXX sitcom You’re the Worst; it happens after the heroine, Gretchen (Aya Cash), insults her dunderheaded novelist boyfriend, Jimmy (Chris Geere), amid a group of friends who can’t leave a gathering because the Los Angeles Marathon has blocked off local streets. She blasts the other guests for “sucking the air out of the room with their self-pity-riddled nonproblems” and caps her tirade by slamming one of Jimmy’s hardbacks down on a mouse that Jimmy has been chasing; one scene after that, Gretchen is sprawled on a bed, telling a friend that she can’t tell her boyfriend that she’s been clinically depressed since childhood. The guests euthanize the mouse with carbon monoxide by stuffing it in a shoe box affixed to a car’s tailpipe; two episodes later, a doom-spiraling Gretchen stalks a more privileged happy couple and briefly abducts their infant daughter and their dog. 

You’re the Worst is billed as a comedy. But it’s more accurate to call it a CIT — comedy in theory. It runs 30 minutes (minus ads) and boasts eccentric, energetic characters. But it’s not consistently light, and it shows no interest in being lovable or comforting. Sometimes it’s ha-ha funny. Sometimes it’s funny-strange. Other times it’s defiantly not funny. When the characters are at their, well, worst, you want to avert your eyes, because what they’re going through seems so mortifyingly personal and because creator Stephen Falk and his writers show their travails in the most unexpected, even alienating manner. If you came into “There Is Not Currently a Problem” right after Gretchen’s collapse, you might mistake You’re the Worst for a dark drama with seriocomic overtones. And if you decided to start watching during the episode with the yuppies and their child, you’d assume the show was about them, because it starts with their lovemaking and then follows them around L.A. for several minutes before revealing Gretchen as a supporting character, peeping through the couple’s window.

We’ve left the age of Difficult Men — to borrow the title of Brett Martin’s 2013 book about SopranosMad MenBreaking Bad–style drama — and entered an age of Difficult Shows. You’re the Worst, Orange Is the New Black, Lady Dynamite, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, The Carmichael Show, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Baskets, Veep, Silicon Valley, Archer, Catastrophe, Mom, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat — there’s infinitely more tonal and aesthetic variety in these mostly-funny-but-not-always comedies than in any comparable list of dramas you could put together. Even a short list gives you a sense of the extraordinary variety and vitality. HBO’s controversy-magnet Girls, about North Brooklyn hipsters blundering their way toward maturity, features tearful arguments, awkward-explicit sex, and explosions of rage that teeter on the edge of physical violence (see season five’s finale, in which Jemima Kirke’s Jessa and Adam Driver’s Adam destroy an apartment during a fight). Louis C.K.’s self-distributed, limited-run barroom-ensemble piece Horace and Pete — the follow-up to his formally innovative FX program, Louie, itself a consummate example of a CIT — looked like a 1970s-era three-camera sitcom, but it turned out to be a heart-ripping kitchen-sink theater production, with subplots about mental illness, domestic violence, and infidelity playing out in monologues (including an eight-minute showstopper delivered in close-up by guest star Laurie Metcalf).

You’re the Worst and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman tackle depression head-on, more brutally than most dramas; the latter is outwardly an animated showbiz satire set in a world where anthropomorphized creatures jostle against humans, but with each passing season, its fascination with narcissism and delusion makes it feel like the continuation of Mad Men by other means. Silicon Valley and Veep are more stinging in their critiques of power centers (respectively, the Northern California tech scene and Washington, D.C.) than their dramatic analogues Halt and Catch Fire and House of Cards. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, starring Ellie Kemper as a woman raised in a religious cult, is as joke-filled as a show can be, but it’s also about somebody recovering from something so horrific that if the show were a drama, it might be too bleak to watch (Hulu’s The Path, about members of a present-day religious cult, essentially lives within the past that Kimmy left behind — and it’s a tough sit, to put it mildly). Amazon’s Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as a Southern California patriarch transitioning from male to female, is a half-hour show that superficially suggests a single-camera, movie-styled sitcom. But after one or two episodes, it too becomes as hard to fix with a reductive label as its main character. It jumps around in time and alternates sensitive but droll comedy with painful scenes where characters confront their delusions, prejudices, and untreated emotional wounds.

This revolution is just as important as the one that reshaped TV drama after The Sopranos, but it has happened mostly under the media’s radar, maybe because so much attention was focused on whether there would ever be a proper successor to the adventures of Don Draper or Walter White. That so many of the most fascinating half-hour shows feature racially mixed and gender-balanced casts — in contrast to male-driven, often violence-filled dramas —is a big reason why. Horace and Pete, Netflix’s Master of None, Black-ish, The Mindy Project, Fresh Off the Boat, Transparent, and The Carmichael Show explore contemporary social issues in ways that most dramas just aren’t built to do (especially the period ones). Ten years ago, you never would have anything like the recent Mindy Project episode where Mindy Kaling’s heroine, an Indian-American doctor, defends herself against another Indian-American’s accusation that she’s a “coconut” — brown on the outside, white on the inside — or the episode of Master of None in which Aziz Ansari’s hero confronts the same harsh reality of racially insensitive casting that once made shows like Ansari’s unbankable. Nor would you have seen anything like Horace and Pete’s “rapid response” jokes about Donald Trump’s candidacy and the Hulk Hogan–Gawker case, which were possible only because the show was a low-budget labor of love, each episode written and shot in the span of a week. Showrunners have availed themselves of every tool in an overstuffed creative kit, unleashing a rainbow spectrum of comedic approaches and focusing the spotlight on women, people of color, gay, bisexual, and transgendered characters, and beleaguered white men who are more anxious than glamorous. And they’ve given writers and directors the freedom to confound loyal viewers who know to expect the unexpected.

To what do we owe this great flowering of possibility? One factor is distribution. There’s a precedent for creative restlessness in TV comedy, but it never had much of a legacy because until fairly recently shows had to be across-the-board mainstream hits to get renewed. That meant for every truly original sitcom like Seinfeld or The Simpsons that ran for years on a network, or The Larry Sanders Show, which enjoyed six seasons under the protection of ad-free HBO, you had many critically acclaimed flameouts, like NBC’s Buffalo Bill (1983–84), a Dabney Coleman vehicle about a hateful daytime-talk-show host; ABC’s Hooperman (1987–89), a single-camera John Ritter cop show for which the term dramedy was coined; and CBS’s Frank’s Place (1987–1988), a single-camera, laugh-track-free sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast that looked like a high-quality Hollywood feature and had a bluesy, lived-in feeling that mainstream ’80s audiences couldn’t process. Even the more tonally adventurous comedies, including Norman Lear’s socially aware sitcoms and MTM’s WKRP in Cincinnati, were more regimented in their approach, rarely throwing audiences curveballs so intimidating that they wondered what they were looking at. The fragmenting of TV audiences in the age of cable and streaming has been a boon for artists and rebels. It means that it takes fewer eyeballs to make a show a “hit.”

Another factor is emphasis: Most dramas are plot-driven, stringing audiences from revelation to revelation, whereas comedies are character-driven. Game of Thrones, Empire, The Americans, Mr. Robot, Homeland, House of Cards, and the Shondaland shows (How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy) are all about their twists, and they’re strategic about giving characters pretty basic motivations, such as a thirst for power, money, or validation. But comedies like Girls, Transparent, BoJack Horseman, and Catastrophe focus on unpacking their characters’ demented psychology, and they often detour into narrative cul-de-sacs (see the Girls episode about Shoshanna in Japan).

Distinctions that once delineated the comedy-drama divide — hero versus anti-hero; classical structure versus experimental or improvised storytelling; 60 versus 30 minutes — mean little, and this applies to hour-long shows as well as half-hours. Just as Girls, You’re the Worst, and short-lived but acclaimed half-hour shows like Togetherness were billed as comedies but often played like dramas, the Breaking Bad follow-up Better Call Saul runs in an hour time slot, features many of Bad’s characters, and boasts periodic eruptions of violence, but it’s at least five-sixths a patient, introspective character comedy. Another hour-long series, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is a weekly musical comedy that’s as discomfiting as You’re the Worst or BoJack Horseman. It stars Rachel Bloom as a lawyer who left a lucrative job in New York City to chase an ex-boyfriend in West Covina, California, and must now confront the possibility that she’s not the plucky, lovelorn heroine in one of the rom-coms she loves so much but a villain: “the bitch in the corner of the poster.”

I’ve often urged people to watch series along the lines of You’re the Worst only to have them grouse later that it upset them: “You call that a comedy?” one asked. CIT is admittedly not an inviting acronym — it sounds like you’re describing a failure rather than a show that achieves precisely what it sets out to do — but what else can we call such odd ducks? All this innovating has been hell for the Emmys, where shows like Orange have actually switched categories; Louis C.K. has reportedly submitted Horace and Pete as a drama. We may be headed toward a future where the labels “comedy” and “drama” and “hour” and “half-hour” no longer tell us anything useful about a show, and we’ll have to think about them, live with them, in order to figure out what they are. No joke.

*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.