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Why Today’s Strongest TV Comedies Come With a Side of Commentary (Column)

The formula for a television comedy used to be so simple: Take a couple of larger-than-life characters, put them in an uncomfortable situation, pepper in three jokes per page and/or a pratfall, and viola — instant laughs. But when you really step back to think about it, that formula was kind of mean.

When the audience was laughing because Lucy Ricardo had to stuff her shirt with chocolate since she couldn’t work fast enough, the audience was effectively laughing at Lucy. Early television comedies didn’t ask that the audience think that hard about them, though, so no one felt too badly then — and, hey, Lucille Ball herself was willing to put herself in those crazy situations anyway. Instead, such comedies could be easily written off as mindless programming for viewers who wanted to turn off their brains and let content wash over them.

But the format evolved — thanks in great part to Norman Lear, who became a mainstream pioneer for socially conscious storytelling in sitcoms in the 1970s. And the audience evolved, too (although which evolved first could probably be debated like the chicken and the egg). Nowadays, it isn’t enough for a television comedy to be merely entertaining; in order to capture the hearts and minds, not to mention attention, of audience members (and Emmy voters!), shows also must be emotional, relatable and thought-provoking.

This year, topical storytelling has popped up in shows including ABC’s “Black-ish” and its Freeform spinoff “Grown-ish,” as well as Netflix’s “Dear White People.” All three offer commentary on race relations historically and today — specifically when looking at how the next generation is being taught topics such as slavery.
These shows are digging deeper with their characters; the more personal stories get, the more they blur genre lines.

Black-ish,” for example, went cold (literally, as the scenes were colorized in muted blues and grays) with a four-episode arc about marital struggles, while “Dear White People” explored the sudden loss of one character’s parent and all of the grief and regret that comes with it.

After going on such a dark ride, the lighter comic notes that follow are not only more deeply felt but also more appreciated.

Over on the CW, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” took its titular character down a mental-health spiral this year that included a suicide attempt and hospitalization before diagnosing her with the underrepresented borderline personality disorder (BPD). Not exactly the stuff of the typical light, bright musical comedy, but certainly something that set the show apart.

Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” did an episode that had Det. Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) responding to an active shooter. The Netflix reboot of Lear’s “One Day at a Time” expertly wove tales of racism, immigration issues, sexual identity and one heartbreak of a health scare into its own second season. Even Fox’s “The Mick,” which is known for being a rare single-camera half-hour that embraces a broader kind of physical comedy, ended its second season with one of its core characters in a coma.

In many ways, the comedic bent of these shows is what allows for such openness in darker storytelling. Viewers can breathe a little bit easier knowing that though they may hold their breath watching Bridgette (Frankie Shaw) confront the man she thought molested her as a child on Showtime’s “SMILF,” in just a few moments they will exhale hard with a laugh over the awkward reveal that she is yelling — in public — at the wrong man.

Hard topics go down easier with a spoonful of sugar than rubbing salt in the wound. But when a show allows its audience to experience a wide spectrum of emotions, it is painting a fuller, more colorful picture that invites them back again and again. The show invests in itself, and the audience in it. Asking viewers to just sit through one note — even if that one note is comedic — is just redundant and dated in today’s crowded landscape. And nobody has time for that.

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