The 2015-2016 season was an incredible one for comedy. As my colleague Maureen Ryan wrote in March, the Golden Age of television started with extraordinary dramas, but it’s been succeeded by groundbreaking half-hour shows. Single-camera or multi-camera, family sitcom or friend ensemble, intense dramedy or absurdist sketch, sympathetic to its leads or laughing at them; whatever the case, there’s a show on television this season that has done it, and done it well.
Indeed, the brilliance in comedy has led to joke-telling becoming one of the most politically charged platforms in pop culture. This past season, the shows with the best takes on transgender civil rights, diversity in media, police brutality, the vagaries of capitalism, and the 2016 election have been comedies, not dramas; punch lines have become more profound than grit.
Partly, this is because dramas are in a bit of a slump — bloated episodes, self-serious leads, and plodding storytelling. Comedies, at just about a half-hour, have to be nimbler— and because they’re supposed to be funny, they also have a mandate to be (at least occasionally) funny. But partly, this is because the current business model of television — Peak TV — favors comedy success, not drama. The expansion of television onto streaming models and further into basic cable has created a platform for alternative and cutting-edge voices, and as interested comedians have pursued their own shows or specials, the demand for even more comedy writers to serve on those writing staffs has skyrocketed. And comedy — an inherently playful medium — is better served from a cacophony of young voices than drama, which often struggles to knit its parts into a narrative whole.
|“Humor is an essential narrative tool, one that crosses conventional boundaries and turns up its nose at tradition.”|
The mushrooming success of current comedies is a reminder of what makes them so potent and valuable. Humor is a challenging, destabilizing force that can distill a conflict to a line, or a fundamental injustice to a simply play on words. And it’s inherently subversive. It’s worth remembering, after all, that television’s best dramas were also some of its funniest — from the droll remove of “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” to the verbal sparring of “The Wire” and “The West Wing.” Humor is an essential narrative tool, one that crosses conventional boundaries and turns up its nose at tradition; it’s a fundamentally anarchic force that can prick our worst impulses and our best intentions. It both defies reason and tickles it, too; to explain a joke is to kill it, because the joke itself is the explanation of some difficult-to-grasp truth.
This year’s nominees reflect its facility and power. Take, for example, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which continues to tell the story of a kidnapping and rape survivor with optimistic, whimsical humor; or new nominee “Master Of None,” which draws laughs out of the deep cultural scars of the immigrant experience. “Transparent”’s first season anticipated the coming-out of Caitlyn Jenner; its second used storytelling in two timelines to bring the force of history to bear on the present. “Silicon Valley” produced one of the most damning critiques of our convoluted for-profit enterprises in its focused, emotional third season; “Veep”’s biting resentment with the American political system is especially poignant in this election cycle. And “Black-ish,” also newly nominated to the category, walks that fine line between lighthearted broadcast comedy and incisive political commentary by finding a fresh way to bring in America’s race relations into the structures of a classic family sitcom.
“Modern Family” is the only comedy in the category that feels like a throwback —even though, in terms of on-screen representation, it’s not without its revolutionary bent. It’s a testament to the rapid evolution of comedy that the seventh season of a previously groundbreaking comedy now feels like a dated relic. Perhaps, seven or eight years from now, we will feel just as comfortable with the worlds created by this season’s comedies, and looking ahead to a bigger and broader world with ever more daring humor.