I Don’t Really Do Reviews… Miserable Sitcoms

I set this blog up so that I could have a rant, and express my angry self on a number of topics. I did not set it up to be a TV review site. That said, I have discussed my opinions on TV and film a fairly large mount over the last few years, and I have enjoyed doing so. This isn’t that; well, it mostly is.

What on earth is going on with TV Situation Comedy – henceforth known as sitcoms – these days?

Am I such a monumental fuddy-duddy that I am already out of step with the tastes and cultural mores of our time? Will it be a long slide down the greasy slopes of decrepitude from here on in?

When I was young I was a sitcom addict: from Blackadder to Red Dwarf in the UK; from Ellen to Cybil in the US. I was hooked on them, and I devoured them all. I waited for every new televisual season for a new gang to get hooked on, and for the most part I was duly hooked. Even on UK’s My Family.

Comedy actors, not rock stars, not footballers, not politicians, were my heroes and heroines. I could quote whole tracts of Dinnerladies, Black Books and Spaced; I could not name a single member of the Arsenal back row. Or even understand who or what a back row was. I knew where Arsenal was.

Have you ever watched Fleabag? I have: I watched the whole first series, laid low with a hangover of liver-destroying proportions. It really resonated with me, and I was glad to have watched it. It was cathartic, and it was dark, and it was packed with horrible characters, living their own horrible lives.

I think that my hangover was part of the reason I clicked with it. Every time I try to put on an episode of it now it just makes me unremittingly sad. Life is sad, so the comedy which reflects it best should be sad also. But that’s not what I am looking for. I can only watch Rick and Morty so many times.

On the other side of the hungover sitcom coin is It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Man, that’s a fine set of stories. Only it makes me drink like a fish, and lose all perception of time. Put on an episode at eight in the evening, and the next thing you know it is four in the morning, and you’ve drunk all of the whisky in the house, and you have a presentation to make to your director in three hours time.

I found myself stopping watching it – unconsciously – because of the negative connotations which started to get associated with it. TV is powerful, but it should never be life-ruiningly dangerous.

Sitting on our TV box at the moment are two sitcoms we are thoroughly enjoying, but which we may never ever get to the end of: Catastrophe and Back to Life. Both cracking British sitcoms dealing with the struggles and lives of real people; both monumentally fucking miserable slices of human decay.

They are both so well written and so well acted that the painful worlds which the characters inhabit becomes all the more real. When Rob sinks back in to his beautifully drawn alcoholism and causes a road traffic accident you can really feel the pain he now has to go face to face with in his ruined life.

We know that we want to watch these programmes, because they are some of the best television which has been made in many years; we just don’t have much time left, and we don’t want to spend it feeling brutally miserable at our own myriad failures, and those of all of the people around us.

The same thing came up in a series last year, There She Goes, which had at its heart a truly fucking terrible father, portrayed brilliantly by David Tennant. I knew I had to face this family’s struggles, but it made me feel like a truly terrible father, by pure association with that complete bastard.

It is causing us to ask whether the miserable nature of TV comedy at the moment is a reflection of the world we live in, or whether it is evidence of a cycle playing out across all cultural outputs: that is, is comedy responding to how miserable we all are, and holding up a (Black) Mirror to our pain?

Or, is it more that this kind of comedy is always on our collective to-do list, and that sometimes it is more noticeable than others? I certainly don’t think I remember humour this darkly human in the past: scabrous and bitter, perhaps, but never this suicidally grieving for its own abject sense of loss.

If this is a new thing, can we expect to see more of this on the horizon, as the commissioning editors commission more of the same, riding the crest of a miserablist wave? We’ve seen that effect time and time again, in all forms of media. Socially awkward, single camera ensemble comedy, anyone?

I’m not the kind of thinker who opines that the rise of one kind of art-form will inevitably lead to the reduction of quantity of its opposite. I do not for one minute think that there will be a reduction of the kind of comedy which makes me laugh. I just think I’ll have to look harder for it these days.

Looking harder means trying new things, and that inevitably opens us up to the possibility of the same problems we have encountered in the past. For instance, we went looking for a new hilarious series on Netflix: we tried Santa Clarita Diet and Dead to Me. We checked out after one episode a piece. They were great to look at, with great casts, but their darkness was not what we needed.

I can imagine a different point in our lives, a time when we hadn’t been run ragged for twenty hours by two small children and the two accompanying shouty / whiny dogs, when we would have had the capacity to absorb such brutal explorations of the human condition. That is not where we are now. We just want something which matches well with the cheap lager we’re pouring down our necks.

I’m not suggesting either that everything needs to be as accessible and as bland as Friends, or that everything needs to be as multi-coloured and as hyperactive as the cartoon series we have become accustomed to over the years. I am merely suggesting that a bit of televisual light and shade would be welcome in our house. We have roughly two hours a night to watch TV, and we want to laugh.