It would be easy to think abstractly about the state of TV comedy in 2016 and visualize a clear divide between Cool and Uncool, between safe, saccharine broadcast comedies and knife-sharp cable projects that take no prisoners and feel no feelings. But as with so many things, in the move from generality to specificity, divides get more complex. And fortunately, both the more traditionally conceived comedies and the more daring ones have their strengths, and scratch their itches when they're good.
Superstore, which comes back to NBC for a second season on September 22, is an affable workplace sitcom about misfits (in this case the staff of a Wal-Mart-like big box store) who are functionally a family. It has that basic structure in common with not only recent broadcast shows like The Office and Parks And Recreation, but also older ones like Taxi and Night Court. It's ... sweet, for lack of a better word. Built around the dependably terrific America Ferrara (Ugly Betty), Superstore doesn't scream of innovation and isn't particularly edgy. It is, however, a good show. It's funny, it's well-paced, and it uses a large cast well (including Ben Feldman, Key & Peele writer-producer Colton Dunn, Lauren Ash, and Kids In The Hall vet Mark McKinney).
Superstore is a single-camera show without a laugh track or a studio audience, meaning it's adopted some of the habits common to lots of good comedies of the last decade or two. But its joke-telling is strikingly traditional: a mix of character bits, unexpected circumstances, and situations that stretch and stretch and get sillier and sillier before they break. It has a running joke in one episode, for instance, about Feldman's character, Jonah, being relentlessly teased about a mannequin that looks just like him. Mannequin jokes go back an awfully long way. To Mannequin, for instance. Superstore often ends on a note of warmth and almost always on a note of hope. Friendships grow frequently and contract rarely. What is broken will likely be fixed. In structure and in sense of humor, there's a lot to it that does declare its allegiance to the sitcom form as it's been practiced for decades.
But under its traditional style, Superstore signals some departures from the paths of its forebears. What could seem like the romcom pairing of Ferrara and Feldman at the center, for instance, is upended by the fact that her character is married, if married to a bit of a stiff, and it's not exactly clear what the end game is. Moreover, as some corners of TV finally seem to be showcasing a broader variety of people — at least a little, at least in front of the camera — Superstore tells stories about Amy, its Latina lead character, that can be pleasantly pointed. There's a first-season episode, for instance, in which Amy and a Latina co-worker debate whether it's okay to be roped into using a put-on accent to sell salsa to primarily white people. Is it offensive, or is it making money off of goofballs by exploiting their dumb expectations? It's played as a sitcom setup, but there's a welcome spark of provocation to it, too.
Meanwhile, consider a cable property like FXX's You're The Worst, now in its third season. It chronicles the relationship of Gretchen and Jimmy, both self-absorbed misanthropes given to self-destructive behavior and a certain bored abandon. On the one hand, it's about proudly unlikable people (that's in the title, after all), it allows them to do lots of terrible things, and it's explicit about sex, especially, in a way that broadcast shows never would be and never could be. It eschews sentimentality. It has a theme song that repeats "I'm gonna leave you anyway," and it seems to mean it. It's not only the sex that makes it a comedy no broadcast network would likely touch; it's candor about complicated matters like mental illness, the ambivalence about whether happiness is possible anyway, and the willingness to toss out traditional expectations about what kind of person engages in what kind of behavior.
But if you focus only on the language or the sex or the bite, you miss the fact that while You're The Worst is allergic to emotional neatness — messiness is its signature — it's not purposefully emotionally empty the way, for example, Seinfeld was. After mostly spending its energy on Gretchen and Jimmy's proudly unattached relationship in its first season, the show turned in its second to questions not only of love and commitment, but of depression and estrangement. It may be named after antipathy, but it built to a deeply felt moment of timid, hard-won connection. Seinfeld's famous "no hugging, no learning" credo is discarded just as enthusiastically as the Very Special Episode "awwwwwww" climaxes of so many of your '80s and '90s comedies. There is hugging. There is learning. The people on the show are cynical, but the show is not. It may not be confident in the ability of its characters in the short or the long term to act on their decency or to follow its more difficult paths, but it is fully confident of their humanity and would have no direction without it.
There's no question that You're The Worst feels substantially more ambitious and challenging than the pleasant and, yes, soothing notes of Superstore. But there's life and sharpness left in the workplace sitcom format, and there's room for — gasp! — unapologetic emotional engagement in the most modern and specific anti-romcom.
When a given broadcast comedy is saccharine and undeveloped and not funny, that's a function of that specific show; when a given cable comedy reflexively disdains character-driven stories in the interest of showing off how very very edgy it can be, that's also a specific creative choice. In other words: Style is not creative destiny.
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