Call it adversarial evolution: this year’s slate of comedy series Emmy nominees tell stories of characters in states of conflict. But the friction in these rocky relationships isn’t just funny — it’s transformative. Ultimately, these sparring partners are making each other into better versions of themselves.
The pairings encompass everything from loving spouses to sworn enemies. There are the generational divisions between “Hacks’ ” ill-matched comedy collaborators Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder); the enduring enmity of “Cobra Kai’s” high school-turned-middle-age karate rivals Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (William Zabka); the long-standing bitterness held by “The Kominsky Method’s” ex-spouses Sandy (Michael Douglas) and Roz (Kathleen Turner); the lively marital wrangling between “Black-ish’s” Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross); the semi-toxic, surface-deep friendship of “The Flight Attendant’s” Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) and Annie (Zosia Mamet); and the gradual defense-lowering rapport between “Ted Lasso’s” titular soccer coach (Jason Sudeikis) and team owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham).
“When you butt two people up against each other, they’re going to have differences that are often compelling just naturally,” says “Ted Lasso” co-creator Brendan Hunt. “If you can get those differences to come out organically, that often will lead to comedy — that’s been going on since at least Ralph Kramden [of ‘The Honeymooners’]. But if there are people who listen and are open to receiving what the other person is putting out there, then you can’t help but be changed by it, at least a little bit.”
HBO Max’s “Hacks” is built upon “this ‘dark mentorship’ between this legendary comedian in the twilight of her career and an emerging writer,” says co-creator Paul W. Downs. “They are really reflections of each other, and the way in which they’re most alike is that they are two women who have been cast aside. They’ve both become a little bit hardened, maybe even more flawed than they originally were. But we always wanted to bring them together, and in being together, they set each other on a path to redemption.”
“Hacks” co-creator Jen Statsky notes that the leads’ head-butting was designed to gradually crack each other’s facades and help them evolve, but never entirely be in sync. “That’s not great for dramatic tension and storytelling, and also it’s not reflective of real life,” she says. “In your relationships, you do right by each other, but then you also mess up. People do the wrong thing, and then the work is in rebuilding that relationship. And that’s where real intimacy comes in — not in getting closer, but when there’s a fracture.”
Netflix’s “Cobra Kai’ delights in putting its longstanding adversaries in situations where it appears “maybe they’ve moved past the whole episode and you feel like that they are coming closer together and they’re on that good path,” says co-creator Jon Hurwitz. Of course, that is short lived and eventually “everything [will] fall apart again.”
“Johnny and Daniel just embody two totally different philosophies: one is aggressive and offensive and the other is passive, defensive, internal,” says co-creator Hayden Schlossberg. “Throw them into any situation, and there’ll be a natural clash. At the same time, we built up all the similarities that they have, and common interests, so they could be on the same side while simultaneously disagreeing. Those disagreements can just be an argument, but on our show, they could also flare up into karate brawls.”
Because ABC’s “Black-ish” draws stories from relatable domestic clashes, showrunner Courtney Lilly says the writers work — in concert with its leads’ distinct personal chemistry and viewpoints — to develop strong, divergent perspectives. “They challenge each other,” says Lilly. “We don’t want Bow to be just the shrill nag about whatever Dre’s doing. We don’t want Dre to just be a buffoonish, cartoon sitcom dad. He can be wrong. She can be wrong.”
Resolving their partnership and parenting conflicts benefits both, as well as their family. “They’re able to use each other to sharpen each other’s blades, in a lot of ways,” he says.
Meanwhile, HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” was designed as a “very, very dark comedy about people facing themselves,” says executive producer Steve Yockey. Cassie and Annie’s friendship fractures when they finally start telling each other the truth. “Neither of them wants to talk about it, but they keep getting put in these situations where they have to talk about it with each other. That’s hard and painful, but ultimately healing.”
“Because the humor balances it out, you can go to some very deep psychological places, but in the end, you want people to be striving to be better,” Yockey continues. “We take Cassie and Annie really down a big hill, and when we get to the bottom of it, they’re both just starting to climb back out towards a better life.”
Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method” had the “ever-present” history of on-screen sparring between Douglas and Turner to spice up its final season, but creator Chuck Lorre wanted to do something less predictable, and considerably more redemptive, with it.
“What interested me more was reconciliation and forgiveness and restoring the original love and respect [their characters] had for one another,” he says. “After a bitter divorce and many years of acrimony, they’re able to see past that — [to] more pressing issues, like taking care of their daughter, like Roz’s health issues. The love that they have for each other is still present. It might be in a different form. It might not be a romantic love, but it’s very much there.
“Cynicism is a rich thing for comedy. Cynicism is an endless source of jokes and comic situations. But there’s always hope,” he continues. “And doing a show that is about hope, that people can change, that they can grow, they can become better versions of themselves — that seemed to be something worth writing about.”