An oppressive regime that enslaves women as servants and baby factories. A racially charged world in which members of law enforcement have to wear masks to keep themselves safe. A television production reeling from the firing of its beloved star after accusations of sexual misconduct surface against him.
These subject matters all seem to be what great dramas are made of — and yet, drama is no longer enough. Between the ever-expanding glut of content vying for a viewer’s time and the real world being full of political and societal upheaval, television — even when tackling tough subject matter — still needs to have an element of entertainment and escapism.
“We would get into rhythms in the writers’ room and we would be talking about all of this stuff that made us feel physically ill and nauseated, and we were like, ‘All right, it means we’re going someplace,’ but there also needs to be the ‘Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar here,” says “Watchmen” showrunner Damon Lindelof.
The key, he continues, is still “tonally aligning” the material. His drama is a continuation of the world first introduced in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 graphic novel of the same name. In Lindelof’s version of the story, Robert Redford has been president for 30 years and is beloved by some for passing a reparations act for victims and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, while a group of white supremacists who miss the days of Richard Nixon’s rule plan a new attack.
Moore and Gibbons’ original story was written with a certain amount of “gallows humor,” Lindelof says. “It revered and celebrated the superhero genre, but it was also trolling it constantly.”
That, coupled with his own life experiences, guided the tonal shifts of his HBO series.
“I’ve been to wakes and funerals where people laugh and literally five minutes later you go into the bathroom and you close the door and you weep uncontrollably. Both things can coexist, but you have to dig to find the humor,” he says.
For many shows, the easiest way to incorporate such moments of lightness in otherwise extremely tense and even uncomfortable situations is to rely on characters who have twisted senses of humor. Rather than having to reach for literal jokes to incorporate into scripts, characters can react to situations with disdain or snark, still offering the audience a moment to breathe and to relate.
This comes into play in “Watchmen” through characters including Angela Abar aka Sister Night (Regina King) and her pointed looks, as well as the quick-witted FBI Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart).
But it’s also a factor for big personalities in Netflix’s royal family drama “The Crown,” the affluent women of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” those who work at the titular news show on Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show,” and the narrator of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“The thoughts that you have at certain times are not always the ones you choose to have, and sometimes they’re a lot funnier or a lot creepier or a lot weirder than you think,” says Bruce Miller, showrunner for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” For his show, the severity of the storytelling is often what makes it easier for laughs to come out in certain moments. “It’s about how funny the joke is compared to how awful the [events of the] story are. It’s distance, not just quality.”
On his dystopian drama, the titular character, June (played by Elisabeth Moss), is in the impossible situation of being trapped in an environment where women are no longer allowed to read, let alone have autonomy over their own lives and bodies. Dark humor is built into her narration; the world around her is as bleak as can be, but she has not lost her strength of personality.
Although “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now embarking upon its fourth season, Miller doesn’t approach tone any differently than in the first season. “It’s always been about the audience’s relationship with June,” he says of the titular character. “She’s under such extremis in the show that you can forgive a lot, but you can’t forgive her if she doesn’t act like a real person. So I think the humor has to come from the absurdity of the situation, filtered through June.”
The show counters the dystopian Gilead setting with the refuge of Canada, to which quite a number of characters managed to escape in the third season, offering different degrees and perspectives on what pieces of the story are considered “light.”
“We use humor both as an expression of really deep, almost frozen terror, where it just pops out, but also where that terror is lessened to a degree,” Miller says. “It’s a lot easier to feel that level of terror in Gilead because it’s always about to strike. But when you get out of Gilead and you still feel that terror and it’s not about to strike, you feel mentally ill. And that’s what they’re dealing with: all of a sudden their internal level of panic doesn’t match their surroundings anymore. And everybody has a different reaction to that.”
Timing must be carefully considered when balancing tough topics with lighter reactions to the situations at hand.
“The Morning Show” begins with the staff of the show-within-the-show receiving the news that their anchor Mitch (played by Steve Carell) has been fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct. That incident is certainly one that needs to be handled with care, especially for a show set in present day, coming two years after the #MeToo movement rocked the real world.
“News is a dark universe; it’s like working in a hospital. I think you do develop a toughness and you have to do that to survive it,” says “The Morning Show” showrunner Kerry Ehrin. “All of the characters have a good sense of humor in different ways, and I think a lot of it is [having] to live in a really dark universe.”
But, “while they were hardened from living in this world, they all still have this marshmallow vulnerability inside. That longing for normalcy and basic love and decency exists in all of them, so I didn’t want them to be too far gone.”
When “The Morning Show” characters first learn of the bombshell about their beloved co-worker, they don’t immediately reach for comic relief as a coping mechanism. The sensitive subject matter needed to be felt its way through, Ehrin says.
“Part of the story is how everything changed systematically. The rules changed and the world changed, and we all looked at each other differently, and that all played into it,” she says. “Humor just makes things human. We make jokes in the direst of times. So I always think feeling a humorous side of somebody makes them real. And that was really the intention on all sides of this — to really ground this in real human beings.”
As all of these series go on, there are lessons to be learned from the early reactions of the audience. While a show’s tone is set from the start, the flexibility of leaning into or away from comic relief in traumatic or otherwise triggering moments is essential to provide a true collaboration between those working on the show, as well as those watching.
“If everybody thought a moment was angry and I was intending it to be funny, it does matter for the next season,” Miller admits. “You’re looking for something that is a little bit off. Some people will find it humorous, some people will find it awful, but what you want to do is look for those moments and responses. It’s a show that could end up living in a single lane that ends up being despair, but you want to cover the whole road from anger to humor to despair, even to romance.”