“Peak TV” and “Prestige Television” are lazy and lame labels for a number of reasons.
For one, they’re cavernous, catch-all constructs that display a total disregard for how television is made. They also conflate volume and variety with inherent quality. So the television landscape is actually less of an oasis and more of a desert drenched in the illusion of reputable choice.
But what really bums me out the most about “prestige television” is how often comedies are left out of the discussion. I feel like the comedy series this year have taken bigger creative leaps, waded into more experimental waters, and offered hilarious, profoundly original takes on the human condition with greater success than the overly-lauded Important™ dramas. And comedy doesn’t always have to explore the interiority or psychology of its characters (although many on this list do) to be considered noteworthy. Just being funny is an important art in itself. Like Harris Wittels once said, “I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh.”
So here are the comedy series that made us laugh the most in 2017.
The signature surrealism and outré campiness from Awesome Show is still intact, but Bedtime Stories finds Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim playing in a different creative sandbox. Slick with the polish that comes with a handsome production budget, Tim & Eric use the anthology-style format of Bedtime Stories to explore their more macabre sensibilities, threading their absurdist bent with gallows humor, horror, and fugue-state fantastical elements to tell a collection of short and disturbing tales that are both haunting and hilarious. It’s an alt-comedy The Twilight Zone, just with much more soiled diapers and baklava-inspired suicide.
Only Maria Bamford could take the manic rhythms of multiple overlapping alternate timelines, thematic elements such as meta-commentary on show business and its damage to mental health, and two talking pugs and make the proceedings feel grounded, sweet and sincere. The second season of Bamford’s Netflix show is all popping primary colors and dreamlike atmosphere, but Dynamite is still very much a slyly serious show about a woman trying to tether herself to wellness and normalcy in an industry that is openly hostile to both of those things. It’s silly, sure, but anything Bamford is involved with will always pack an emotional wallop, as well a razor-sharp bite (it is delightfully antagonistic towards the streaming ecosystem —especially Netflix, the platform on which it airs).
From the very jump Jerrod Carmichael’s sharp multi-cam sitcom struggled to find a large enough audience to satisfy NBC’s rapacious appetite for selling advertisement real estate. Which makes Carmichael’s cancellation right as it was finding its groove feel like the clipping of the wings of one of this generation’s finest comedic minds. But the third season also felt like a supremely confident, fully realized vision — Carmichael the creator taking his time lapping the bases after a walk-off homer. With the immediacy and palatability of a Norman Lear production, The Carmichael Show unpacked culturally combustible topics like racism, sexism, and gun violence with comedic compassion. And with a supporting cast that includes Tiffany Haddish, Lil Rel Howery, and David Alan Grier, The Carmichael Show introduced us to wonderfully performed, fully lived-in characters who made us laugh and challenged us in equal measure. It’s a shame we had to say goodbye to them so soon.
The Gang that keeps on giving. After 12 seasons (and being renewed for a 13th and 14th) it’s looking to surpass The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as the longest-running live-action comedy series, and with this feat of longevity, Always Sunny also solidifies its status as the inverse Simpsons: it miraculously manages to get better with time. This season found Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito at the top of their game, pushing the envelope of sitcom deconstruction by experimenting with structure, format, and the medium’s storytelling limits. The season starts off with a gorgeously choreographed and rapturously written musical-meets-body-swap (what should’ve been the most offensive thing ever created in execution ended up being a sensitive and enlightened take on white privilege and racial profiling), and hits a high-water mark with a Jinx-ian true crime recreation of a murdered Cat Lady. Mac, Charlie, Dennis, Dee, and Frank might still be as irredeemable as ever, but the heightened universe they inhabit is evolving in the best way possible.
One of the most satisfying surprises of the year, At Home with Amy Sedaris is the bizarre Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood we never knew we needed. A faux cooking and home improvement show, At Home’s bright and bubbly suburban set design — much like Sedaris’s character’s surface-level pie-in-the-sky optimism — masks a maelstrom of anarchic madness. Visitors drop in during her cooking tutorials and art lessons and typically derail the idyllic tone of each sketch, or take them to even further absurdist extremes. If Sedaris needs sharper knives for a dish she’s preparing, a Knife Man will appear and replace her supply but not before detailing what it’s like to stab a man. Or for a romantic beat, Michael Shannon might pop up as a sinister and sexual stranger. Or if a sketch is playing it unusually straight, the camera will inexplicably cut to a cartoonishly grotesque bald spot on both her and her guest’s head. Despite some of the gleeful acidity, nothing in At Home comes off as mean-spirited. It’s clearly Sedaris’s love letter to this genre of television, one that fits comfortably into the Strangers with Candy extended universe.
I won’t spoil how the third and final season of Comedy Central’s brilliant and brutal Review ends — especially since it’s a swift three episodes — so I’ll just say this: the series, which follows TV host/critic Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) and his descent into self-destruction from his commitment to reviewing “life experiences” — deserved far more eyeballs and cultural acclaim than it received. What started out as a small-scale, self-contained satire of the self-cannibalizing nature of reality television, Review slowly but surely transformed into this sprawling tale of a Job-like character who can’t escape the punishing reality of his own design. There are real-life consequences to what he decides to review for his show-within-the-show’s audience; from the mundane (eating too many pancakes) to the morbid (becoming a cult leader; murder), and those consequences become his cross to bear as they follow him from episode to episode. Forrest’s suffering is of biblical proportions, and Daly’s performance — an uncanny mix of mirth and melancholy — anchors the comedic catastrophes at play. Review should, and will, be remembered as one of the most inventive and intelligent comedy series of the last decade.
A pitch-perfect parody of show business, John Early and Kate Berlant’s Vimeo miniseries 555 elevates the expectation of what sketch comedy can be. The chameleonic comedic duo takes full advantage of each standalone episode’s 12-minute runtime as they embody various archetypes who populate the dark pockets of Hollywood: cutthroat pop stars, on-set extras with delusions of grandeur, negligent stage parents, and self-obsessed agents, just to name a few. 555 is not only side-splittingly funny (Early’s pretentious actor in episode 3 delivers one of the best written lines of the year: “If you give all of yourself – your head, your heart, your mind, your soul, your spirit – you are indirectly addressing climate change”) but it also showcases the substantial range of both Berlant and Early’s physical prowess, character work, and dramatic chops. 555 succeeds on multiple fronts: as a cautionary tale of the corrosive nature of Hollywood, as a beautiful-looking sketch series (seriously, the sensuous production design and Andrew DeYoung’s direction are cinematic af), and just as a straight-up sublime way to spend an hour laughing.
While I absolutely loved 2015’s Wet Hot: First Day of Camp, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Netflix didn’t know how to properly handle – let alone serialize – David Wain and Michael Showalter’s brand of vaudevillian farce. The original Wet Hot film from 2001 was comedy lightning in a bottle to begin with, so to recapture that magic 14 years later with the original cast in episodic form was already a Herculean task. Ten Years Later proved to be a worthy successor, with Wain and Showalter finding the sweet spot of their absurdist rhythms. The original gang is back (save for Bradley Cooper, who’s been replaced by Adam Scott in one of the funniest sight gags in recent memory), gleefully going broader and sillier than ever. A perfect confluence of new bits (Showalter’s unhinged Ronald Reagan chanting “shit on my shit” is now canon) and long-running jokes (the same sound of glass shattering, regardless of what object might be breaking on screen, is still as hilarious as ever), Ten Years Later breathes freshly funny life back into the Wet Hot legacy.
American Vandal is somehow both the coup de grace and the cultural rebirth of the dick joke. Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda’s Netflix mockumentary not only lampoons the exploitive nature and self-seriousness of the true crime genre with hysterically fine-tuned precision, but it also offers a uniquely intriguing mystery — “Who spray painted dicks on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot?” — to center the shenanigans around. You’ll find yourself investing in the elaborate whodunit story beats and creating your own theories as to who the culprit might be, all while laughing your ass off at a high-concept four-hour dick joke. American Vandal also gets high school right, with its frighteningly accurate depictions of teacher and student tropes. But don’t be fooled by the lowbrow premise – Vandal’s finale has a sting of sincerity as it issues a surprisingly poignant indictment of pop culture’s obsession with clean narratives, consensus building, and how they betray the search for truth.
But most importantly, I hope American Vandal makes America realize what a national treasure Jimmy Tatro is.
Late capitalism as cringe comedy. Reality TV as reflexivity. Complex pranks as psychodrama. Human interaction as theater of the absurd. An absolute masterpiece.
I mean, what can I really say about Nathan for You that Errol Morris already hasn’t?
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.