I have a baseline respect for shows like Facebook Watch’s Sorry for Your Loss, which just premiered its second season, and CBS’s new The Unicorn, now headed into its third week. Both series deal with the aftermath of personal catastrophe, which is a tricky subject for serialized TV: Extreme emotion slowly fades to something that feels ordinary (provided the grieving don’t fall so deep into the abyss that they’re unable to crawl out), so any show that takes the subject seriously has to embrace a version of planned obsolescence. You can’t keep showing survivors sobbing and howling and flailing about in anguish continuously for years. It’s not just monotonous, it’s unrealistic.
Sorry for Your Loss, Kit Steinkellner’s comedy-drama about the effect of one man’s death on his wife (Elizabeth Olsen), brother (Jovan Adepo), and extended family, seems to realize this, devoting its second season to showing how the impact of one death can shake up up two families, rather than giving us another batch of episodes about the walking wounded. Some of its key characters try to recover by embarking on new relationships or questioning the received wisdom that has been governing their lives since birth. Others double down on the same old routines, numb or distract themselves by acting out, or explore their psyches by taking trips abroad or taking drugs. The Unicorn, a more traditional sitcom airing on a broadcast network, begins its story a year after the title character, Walton Goggins’s Wade Felton, lost his wife, and it follows him into the world of dating, which he never experienced because he and his wife met when they were still in college. (The title refers to Wade’s status as a self-sufficient, good-looking 40-something single man who is single through no fault or decision of his own.)
Loss, one of my favorite series of last year, is the superior of the two shows and is still compelling even after losing the downed-power-line buzz it had in season one. Now that the characters are starting to grapple with the irrevocability of losing the comic-book auteur Matt Greer (Mamoudou Athie), the depressed and possibly suicidal husband to Olsen’s journalist Leigh Shaw, we’re seeing a splintering effect as the show zeroes in on the struggles of its supporting players. These include Leigh’s adopted sister, Jules (Kelly Marie Tran), a recovering alcoholic who is spurred to search out her cultural roots, and Leigh’s mother, Amy (Janet McTeer), who tries to heal her increasingly fractious family by drawing her two daughters into family therapy. As on Six Feet Under, an obvious touchstone for any subsequent series about grief and mourning, the episodes find ingenious ways to keep Matt in the present tense, often through flashbacks that flesh out his history and elaborate on his relationships with others; these tend to be triggered by a reminiscence of another major character, as when Amy goes through old clothes, finds a pack of cigarettes from the days when she still smoked, lights one up in the backyard of her house, and remembers dancing the rumba with Matt the night before his marriage to Leigh.
The characters on Loss are hypersensitive and eloquent and seem to be restlessly curious about themselves, which could be called unrealistic (surely one of these characters is a dullard or has no experience with the language of self-help?) if the show weren’t set in upper-middle-class Southern California in a world of yoga studios, new media organizations, and minor pockets of the entertainment industry. And there are times when you might wish the characters could enter a scene without declaring their needs or psychoanalyzing each other in the baldest way possible. (The saving grace here is that they don’t always understand themselves or others as thoroughly as their language might suggest.) But the actors are so strong and unafraid of seeming unlikable at times — particularly Tran, who radiates hurt and rage; Olsen, whose character seems as if she was always a bit of a hardcase even before Matt’s death; and Adepo and Athie, who have been given the rare opportunity to play black men with rich inner lives and rarely depicted problems (including depression) on a show that is, Tran aside, very Caucasian. And just when it seems to be settling into a kind of Alan Ball–on–Prozac groove, it’ll throw a delightful curveball, such as a sequence in the middle of an episode that briefly allows Loss to flirt with the possibility that not only is there a world beyond the one we can detect with our senses but it’s possible to access it from our regrettably earthbound plane.
Watching The Unicorn after Sorry for Your Loss is like following up a shot of locally distilled bourbon with a can of orange Fanta. As overseen by creators Bill Martin, Mike Schiff, and Grady Cooper, it’s the most neutered possible version of a story that’s otherwise ripe with potential to challenge, move, and confound the audience. The fault doesn’t lie with Goggins, who has been given the rare chance to play a nice-guy character — so radiant in decency he makes the title character of NBC’s cult favorite Ed seem like a dangerous fellow — and treats it as an acting challenge. He succeeds in making his impish eyes and Joker-like grin seem harmless and does about as credible a job playing a doofus Everyman here as his onetime Justified co-star Timothy Olyphant did on Netflix’s late zombie sitcom The Santa Clarita Diet. Don’t blame the supporting cast, either, doing its utmost to find authenticity in the script’s relentless, often insufferable spoon-feeding of exposition, in which people are constantly describing other people to themselves even when they’ve known them for years.
No, the blame lies squarely with the writing and direction, which all but shriek, “This is adorable, all these people are wonderful, everything is fine!,” even though the show focuses on a central family (including Ruby Jay and Makenzie Moss) and their married friends (Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Omar Benson Miller, and Princess K. Mapp), who have presumably been through pain as deep as the characters on Sorry for Your Loss but seem about as scarred by it as the characters on such edgeless, widely syndicated 1960s network comedies about grief as The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Family Affair. Every situation on The Unicorn brushes up against real melancholy or misery but always shies away from it, and the score — kumbaya guitar plus chiming bells — keeps repeating in the viewer’s ear, “This is all so nice, none of this is troubling, everyone’s going to be fine, we swear to you.” Many of the situations, however mundane, still manage to stretch credulity, such as the scenes in episode two in which Wade becomes the only man in a widows and widowers group but his presence doesn’t dissuade the women from telling explicit sexual anecdotes as if he were already an honorary girlfriend. (Maybe on the fifth or sixth visit, but the first?) Only Breaking Bad co-star Betsy Brandt, as a truth-telling, cage-rattling member of the widows group who catches Wade’s attention, finds authenticity in this pile of network notes masquerading as something fresh and honest. She’s a bottle of CaJohns Magma hot sauce smuggled into a crate of Heinz ketchup.
Ironically, both Loss and The Unicorn (should it survive its first season) will face the same challenge in time. Even shows that stand out because they deal with the rawest of universal subjects will invariably begin to lose their edges because that’s what happens in life. The two shows I’ve seen on the subject that mostly figured out how to navigate this were Six Feet Under, about a family-owned funeral home whose founder and patriarch dies in the first scene of the pilot, and The Leftovers, a science-fiction parable in which 2 percent of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes. Both showed how the grieving process continues to repeat itself in microcosm as time rolls forward (I’m thinking of the episode in which one of the Six Feet Under characters got kidnapped and terrorized and had to deal with the fallout from the experience) and how the world adjusts, reordering and reinventing itself as it accepts the permanence of trauma. The Leftovers dealt with this process by starting its story three years after the event and wrapping things up after seven. From its first hour it’s about how nobody on the planet is ever truly going to “get over it”; the best anyone can hope for is to keep moving forward, which is the same process individuals experience whether they’ve lost a partner, a child, a parent, a pet, a job, or a way of life. I’m not convinced that either Loss or The Unicorn is that ingenious, but while it’s clear that Loss has enough smarts and sincerity to potentially rise to that level, I wouldn’t trust The Unicorn as far as I could throw a tiny plastic horse with a horn growing out of its forehead.