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This Year’s Best Comedies Prove TV’s Flexibility in the Streaming Era (Column)

The comedian Tim Robinson’s new Netflix series, “I Think You Should Leave,” was an instant standout when it debuted last week. In bizarre and outlandish sketches — set on a thrown-together game show, in a focus group overtaken by petty social competition, or in a house entirely decorated with “Garfield”-themed furniture — Robinson follows his particular fixation with socially thwarted characters, often men whose free-floating anger makes them ultimately pathetic, to terminuses far from where each sketch began.

In today’s TV landscape, “I Think You Should Leave” is one-of-a-kind. And, in another sense, it’s part of a growing trend. The best shows of the year so far have tended to be comedies that feel like the culmination of a vision that came to air with little network interference, shows that are so flamboyantly themselves that they go farther than alienating some portion of the audience: They’re proudly niche.

Consider, for instance, Comedy Central’s “The Other Two,” a show so granular in its understanding of how fame is manufactured and so obsessive in its references that its potential fan base is limited to people with a working knowledge of Justin Bieber’s music and Justin Theroux’s persona. Or Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” whose experimentation with format, philosophical musings, and voraciously performed lead character inhibit casual viewing while glancing at Facebook; it’s a comedy that coexists with “Friends” and “The Office” reruns on the streamer but that seems like their diametrical opposite as regards ease of consumption. Or Hulu’s “Pen15,” the best show of the year so far, whose oddball central choice — casting its two adult creators as young teens, and then surrounding them with child performers playing their contemporaries — opens up strange and painful insights about the middle-school experience to those willing to stay with the show.

All of these programs don’t just thrive on oddity (that alone, on the medium that gave us “Mr. Show” and “Arrested Development,” and, more recently, “Atlanta” and “Barry,” is hardly new). Their shared trait is an outright refusal to compromise, a seeming headlong sprint away from what would make them a potentially broad consensus hit. While some notes were likely given throughout these shows’ development processes, the key to their artistic success is that it never feels like there were. It’s easy to imagine the “Russian Doll” with a tidier explication of its universe’s rules, or a “Pen15” in which charismatic child stars rather than loose-limbed and loopy adults play the leads, or the “Other Two” with one fewer Debra Messing in-joke. Those are less thrilling shows, even if they’d seem to fit into the TV landscape more comfortably.

So too would an “I Think You Should Leave” that feels less knotty and rageful and more like, well, “Saturday Night Live.” Notably, all of these shows have the NBC sketch show somewhere in their DNA; Robinson has written and appeared on the program, “The Other Two” was created by former head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, and “Russian Doll” and “Pen15” were produced by, among others, Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg, respectively. But given that these shows make the proudly quirky “SNL”-alum sitcom “30 Rock” feel fairly conventional by comparison, it’s hard to sort these shows within the Lorne Michaels diaspora. Indeed, they stand as evidence of the sort of comedy that’s possible when one doesn’t have to fulfill “SNL’s” mandate of broadly acceptable, widely understandable comedy.

Shows don’t need to be broad to thrive on streaming platforms — a fact that has in some ways sucked a bit of fun out of the TV-watching experience, as basically no streaming show is watched by its group of fans at the same pace or at the same time, making conversation hard but not impossible. But the conversation that still managed to spring up around streaming series “Pen15” (renewed today by Hulu), “Russian Doll,” and “I Think You Should Leave,” as well as around “The Other Two,” which airs on a linear network but feels infused with a streaming-era sensibility, proves what the changes in TV over the past half-decade or so have given us, too. All of these shows, unlike the equally odd “Atlanta” and “Barry,” notably don’t feel ambitious to diagnose the modern condition or to tell stories of operatic sweep; unlike shows including “BoJack Horseman,” they don’t feel studied in their strangeness. They’re small, with their specificities emerging out of character: Two girls dealing with social incidents at school, a pair of twins metabolizing family trauma and success, a woman fighting for life and figuring out who she is and what she needs, a whole set of lost and confused Robinson creations. When you’re tuned to their frequency, though, these little stories feel massive in their accumulation of specific, true detail.

All of these shows, anecdotally (as we’ll never know viewership numbers for the three streaming series), have found fans for whom their unwillingness to try to appeal to anyone not on their level matters. When you’re a person who likes “Pen15” or “I Think You Should Leave,” it feels as though it was made for you. It’s a lesson that TV-makers, at the writing and at the corporate levels, could take: The rewards for minting a broadly appealing hit, insofar as the TV infrastructure even supports such a thing still, are huge. But hewing to a vision, even one that threatens to cut off some segment of the audience, will keep at least a petite fan army loyal. And in an especially fickle time for the TV audience, even a small fan base matters.

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