Film comedy has gone stagnant in recent years, as the only comedy films that manage to secure wide release tend to be artless comedy star showcases featuring lackluster scripts that manage to weigh down even the most capable of comedic performers, whether we’re looking at Kevin Hart in the Ride Along films or Will Ferrell in Daddy’s Home. Meanwhile, television — especially cable television — is churning out dozens of consistently strong comedies that are allowed to find their own weird, hilarious voices rather than being forcibly broadened to appeal to more audiences.
And with the freedom allowed some of these comedies within the medium, many creators are choosing to take their comedies into dark places, using their continuity and inherently flawed characters necessary for any strong comedy to explore darker themes than, say, network sitcoms like Friends ever dared to. In particular, depression has become a common theme among television comedies today, as writers find unique and often still quite funny ways to touch upon the most pervasive mental illness of all. It’s an exciting time to see so many shows blending comedy with everyday tragedy so nimbly and capably, but let’s take a look at how their approaches differ.
If there’s a version of auteur theory — that is, the belief that a director functions as the “author” of a film” — that applies to television, surely Louis CK is one of the greatest, or at least purest, of the medium’s auteurs. Interspersed with bits of CK performing standup, the episodes follow the fictionalized, sad-sack version of himself through various misadventures that seem to perpetually end in some kind of surreal misfortune or heartbreak. Functioning more like a weekly series of short films from the mind of one of our greatest living comedians, Louie‘s episodic installments are tied to together by its bleak outlook of the world seen through the eyes of a middle-aged single man who sees pain and mistreatment all around him.
2. BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s first attempt at adult animated comedy, seemed like a pun-filled exercise in Hollywood satire at first, before the show’s first season slowly revealed itself to be a continuity-obsessed characters study about one aging former Hollywood star, who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse, and his inability to be happy or successful without sabotaging himself. Using the sitcom BoJack used to star in, the series draws a line in the sand between the sitcom world of easy solutions and its own version of Hollywood (sorry, “Hollywoo”), where problems endure beyond a single episode. The second season followed the same suit as the first, showing that BoJack’s self-loathing couldn’t be quelled by a brief stint at being successful again and instead suggesting that his depression, which sunk to a memorable low point in the penultimate episode of the season, is something that needs to be worked on steadily.
This adaptation of an Australian television show follows the exploits of Forrest MacNeil (series creator Andy Daly), the host of a reality-show-within-a-show that devotes himself to reviewing life, one experience at a time. But the reviews are never easy on Forrest, whose unwavering commitment to a job he believes to be a noble service leads him to accept reviews for concepts as foul as murder, starting a cult, being buried alive, and eating 30 pancakes at once (it’s worst than it sounds). It’s the show that Forrest puts so much value into, and the producer that keeps him committed to the “cause” behind it all, that drive him to slowly destroy his life one piece at a time, alienating his now ex-wife and estranged son by putting his reviews before them and even before himself. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking to see just how wrong things can go for Daly’s desperately sunny Forrest, partially because he sows his own destruction by placing the show — an addiction in many ways — above himself and the people he loves.
Along with possibly FX, Netflix has really cornered the market for comedies that touch on depression. Beyond the brief look at a housewife’s unfulfilled breakdown in F is for Family, the streaming service’s latest live-action comedy uses the set of a romantic comedy to instead devote ten episodes to looking at the lives of two severely messed-up people who get too invested in one another on their way to beginning a relationship. There’s Paul Rust’s Gus, a midwestern nice guy whose politeness hides an undercurrent of passive-aggressive resentment, and then there’s Gillian Jacobs’ Mickey, a burnout who dulls her own emotional pain and uncertainty by hopping between committed relationships, substituting physical for emotional intimacy. While both go through tough times, it’s Mickey whose story provides the unlikely heart to the whole thing, as her increasingly erratic attempts to start a relationship with Gus eventually lead her to confront what’s referred to as a “sex and love addiction” that prevents her from confronting her own issues. The series is undeniably a slow burn, however, meaning viewers will have to wait until the next season before it becomes clear how Mickey will cope with yet another relationship she’s probably nowhere near ready for.
5. You’re The Worst
The romantic comedy genre may be dire when it comes to the movies, but You’re The Worst proves there’s plenty funny and interesting to be said about modern relationships by giving its characters a hard edge. The romantic leads of You’re the Worst, fussy narcissist Jimmy and world-weary party girl Gretchen, had agreed to turn their tentative relationship into a full-blown one by moving in together at the end of the first season. The second season, however, kept the conflict alive by revealing that Gretchen is actually clinically depressed. Despite his best efforts to understand or comfort her, or simply make her interested in his own life, Gretchen’s despondency leaves Jimmy out in the cold and nearly derails their entire relationship. As its name suggests, You’re the Worst isn’t the sort of show to soften the hard edges of its emotionally-stunted characters, and the second season goes for broke while still suggesting an actual committed relationship can be a step in the right direction.