Television has a long history of delivering comedy through escapism, injecting laughter while tackling relevant social issues, pressing play on laugh tracks during outlandish moments and capturing periods in history through live audiences.
This Emmy season though, it seems the type of escapism that’s truly resonating comes in the form of heightened reality. From over-the-top politics and absurd portrayals of wealth, to lollipop-inspired period pieces, new ways of breaking down the fourth wall and magical realism, comedy series nominees are all pushing complex boundaries.
“The category really reflects the new era of TV,” says Dan Palladino, whose “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime Video is nominated once again following its 2018 win. “None of these shows would have been on the air 10-15 years ago. In this new era of television there’s more room for different concepts. It felt like comedy was so limited for so long. There hadn’t been many advances since ‘I Love Lucy’ and, really, that all changed when there were just more outlets for us all to work on. Now it’s started to explode with some really cool stuff.”
That doesn’t mean these shows don’t come with their own unique complications, though.
“We have the double challenge of not only trying to make the show enjoyable and relatable to an audience, but also trying to make Midge, who is a woman of her time and her era, feel fresh and modern and interesting to people that didn’t grow up in 1955,” says “Maisel” co-creator and co-showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Other nominated series including Netflix’s “Russian Doll” and NBC’s “The Good Place” aren’t quite so grounded in reality, choosing instead to lean in on magical realism as part of the plot. That requires the shows to not only dole out laughs but also educate viewers on the complex rules of their worlds. On the one hand, those worlds allow them to play with timelines and unconventional settings; on the other, it creates unbreakable canon and gambles on viewers suspending disbelief.
“I remember [co-creator and executive producer] Amy Poehler said towards the beginning of the process and being at the bottom of show mountain that the great thing is you can do anything — and the terrifying thing is you can do anything,” says “Russian Doll” co-creator and showrunner Leslye Headland. “You have to rely on your collaborators. Is this too much? Is this too weird?”
Headland adds that within the first three episodes of the series she wanted to set the stage for the audience in such a way that they were learning the rules of the show without realizing they were doing so. That way, by the fourth episode, titled “Alan’s Routine,” they were able to introduce another character and world, essentially “restarting the show” and moving among vantage points to help solve the overarching mystery.
“The Good Place” boss Mike Schur agrees that canon is everything in creating genre comedy, and that remaining consistent with that world-building matters with an audience. His team spends ample time in the writers’ room discussing those rules, debating everything from portals to doors and how each of those should be serviced.
“Those things matter, and they should matter. You should be consistent,” he says. “Audiences should always feel like they’re in good hands in terms of the people who are creating a show and thinking up the rules. If you’re lazy about it, the show starts to fray at the edges. The whole system breaks down and it stops seeming like it’s a consistent universe.”
Other nominated series, such as HBO’s “Veep” and Pop TV’s Canadian import “Schitt’s Creek” don’t rely as heavily on plot devices to heighten their realities, choosing instead to ground larger-than-life characters among a more general population. In the case of “Veep,” that proved to be increasingly hard to do as the series went on and the real political landscape in America kept evolving. Yet at the same time, the surreal headlines allowed them to elevate storylines to new heights.
“We had a really interesting challenge this past year, which is we were trying to invent a heightened reality, and then reality itself kept heightening,” says showrunner David Mandel. “We finished ‘Veep’ at just the right time. I think we got away with it for a season, but I don’t think we’d want to be doing four more seasons in this current climate. You can’t maintain that in the same way.”
Dan Levy, who has been adamant about keeping the current political climate out of the world he built with “Schitt’s Creek,” is one of several showrunners to note that viewers seem to be latching on to such series in response to what’s going on in the world. Despite following the problems of what he refers to as characters with “extreme wealth” who are among the “0.5%,” Levy’s strategy is to deliver characters with heart.
“My biggest philosophy is that a story has to bring out character and that characters shouldn’t bring out story. The town itself lives a little more outside of reality than even the characters do in that sense, and we have chosen to illustrate a projected reality or a world that’s slightly more kind and accepting and open to everybody,” Levy says.
Following Donald Trump’s election as president, Levy began receiving more emotional feedback from viewers who felt, now more than ever, they needed something like “Schitt’s Creek.”
“That’s how I feel about a lot of the shows that are nominated: It’s joyful programming; programming that makes you feel safe and loved and inspired,” he says.
“That has to correlate in some way with the fact that when we walk outside, it’s not the most ideal scenario for a lot of us. For a long time comedy existed in a very sort of acidic, almost sociopathic realm, where in order to contain an edge, you had to be mean-spirited and dark. We’re a show that hopefully still has its edge, while at the same time living in a joyful and hopeful place. It just goes to show you that you can be funny and not lose your edge.”