Yet Again, the Year’s Most Acclaimed TV Comedies Aren’t Very Funny

In what seems to be the series finale of Apple’s smash-hit football show, Ted Lasso, there are perhaps three mushy, heartstring-yanking scenes for every one mild joke. HBO’s Barry definitively concluded its run with a bleak and mordant assessment of Hollywood’s processing of real-world violence. FX’s The Bear recently debuted its second season, a busy, serious, and introspective run of episodes full of everyday epiphanies and setbacks. These shows are all competing for outstanding comedy series at the Emmys this year.

It’s not a new complaint that much of what counts as comedy on TV is a lot less funny than it is, well, doled out in half-hour segments. (Though episodes of The Bear range from 26 minutes to over an hour, and Ted Lasso episodes swelled to a similar size in what is believed to be its last season.) Saturday Night Live spoofed the trend—with Tom Hanks no less—a whopping six years ago. But the problem has only gotten worse and has led to less satisfying television.

When it first premiered, Ted Lasso was an amiable and only slightly cloying portrait of a fish out of water: a good ol’ boy from Kansas City, played affably by co-creator Jason Sudeikis, is brought to the United Kingdom to coach an ailing football club, with the intention that he will fail. It was a clever workplace comedy setup, one that offered American audiences a behind-the-curtain look at the world’s most popular sport and reinvented its star as a fount of folksy wisdom meant to uplift in difficult times. (The show premiered during the first few months of the pandemic, and many months into a grinding presidential election year.)

The show was never hilarious. But it still mostly functioned, at its beginning, as a quirky joke machine. The more acclaim and awards Ted Lasso received, though, the more it mutated into something different. By its third season, the series seemed hell-bent on creating nothing but viral emotional moments, something more akin to This Is Us than The Office.

Although The Office is partly to blame for this. That series remained true enough to its comedy roots until the end, but its final few seasons were also overly reliant on the human drama of Jim and Pam and other romantic entanglements. The more the series bought into its fans’ maudlin obsessions, the worse it got. And yet, or perhaps because of that, it was a massive success, both during its original run and in its streaming years, when two whole generations seemed to embrace the show’s warmhearted whimsy as the new house style for comedy. Parks and Recreation had a similar fate; by its finale, most of the series’s original peppery comedy had been replaced by smarmy coziness.

That same sensibility would inform Ted Lasso and ABC’s Abbott Elementary. (Some have deemed this genre “nicecore.”) Abbott has more traditional sitcom rhythms than does Ted Lasso, but its humor is typically soft and sweet, sometimes so gentle it barely registers as comedy at all. CBS’s Ghosts, an unexpected hit in the last couple of years, is a bit sillier, more antic, but that show too is guided by an undaunted pleasantness—even in the face of, well, death.

So that’s all on The Office, I suppose. But that NBC juggernaut shares little to no DNA with series like The Bear and Barry, graver and artier shows that find their influences elsewhere. In those cases, patient zero may be FX’s Louie, a revolutionary kind of experimental comedy that constantly changed shape and tone. That show’s legacy has obviously been diminished by controversies surrounding its star and chief creative force, Louis CK—but its impact is easily apparent across the television landscape today.

Louie begat Transparent, which begat Atlanta, which perhaps led us to The Bear’s narrative tangents and Barry’s auteur-y ambitions. Barry, created by Bill Hader, often hummed with an eerie brilliance, a daring and exciting trip into the dark that featured whizbang direction and sharply articulated performances. It wasn’t very funny, though it’s classified as a comedy by the Emmys, where it’s won piles of awards.

The Bear, to its credit, never really advertised itself as a raucous comedy—yet it’s also being slotted into that category, despite its first season’s shaggy moodiness and its second season’s attempts at quiet profundity. Ted Lasso’s third season took the characters on a trip to Amsterdam, where some lightly amusing things happened but mostly everyone learned little heartwarming lessons and things ended nicely. The Bear’s second season takes one character to Copenhagen, far from the grimy Chicago kitchens where the show lays its scene. What happened on that monumental trip? Nothing much, really. That portion of the episode is really just a hushed rumination on learning one’s craft: interesting, but not terribly vital.

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