(Some spoilers throughout)
Writing about television in 2015 is fucking exhausting.
The recent “Golden Age of Television” was highlighted by a set of practically agreed-upon tentpoles and a handful of diamonds hidden in the rough of broadcast and cable schedules. It was easy to consume Golden Age television, with its seasonal rhythms and predictable players.
But the Golden Age ended, probably a few years before Don Draper closed his eyes and bought the world a Coke. We’re now in the age of Peak TV, which means more than 400 original scripted series — not just from the usual suspects, but on lower rent cable channels eager to be the next AMC and on streaming services trying to be the next Netflix. There are blockbuster crowd-pleasers (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), upscale soap operas (Scandal, Empire), critical darlings (too many to name), prestige simulacra (too many more to name) and much more.
In 2015, I just couldn’t keep up with Peak TV. I still have seasons of Hannibal and The Americans to binge on, with an entire queue of unwatched TV after those. This year, I watched too many hours of cape-and-cowl adventures (and squared circle misadventures) to stay in the conversation, especially when bingeable shows are expected to be digested over the course of one lost weekend.
What I did watch plenty of, however, were what Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe calls sadcoms: “the raw, honest, surprisingly hopeful, long-gestating progeny of M*A*S*H” that forge a path defined by “neither sincere escapism nor cynical nihilism.”
That definition certainly applies to my favorite new show of 2015 (and possibly favorite overall this year): Lifetime’s Unreal, which I previously described as “a much-better-than-it-should-be drama that peaks behind the curtain of a Bachelor-style dating show, with heavy doses of satire and dark comedy.” (I liked the show so much that it sent me down a Real World rabbit hole).
A Noah’s Arc of self-loathing cutthroats with sociopathic tendencies, Unreal — like any good backstage show — reveals that the real drama (and/or comedy) is behind the curtain. Rather than just parodying reality TV conventions, it used its premise to explore mental health, relationship co-dependency, interpersonal manipulation and the drive to find meaning and purpose in our jobs.
While certain angles were over-foreshadowed, there were legitimate surprises along the way, and a convoluted, whirlwind finale left only mother-daughter analogues Quinn and Rachel (Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby) left standing — setting up a Shakespearean second season that will hopefully have more eyes on it than the first.
Also making strong first impressions were a pair of post-mumblecore shows that both did a lot with a little. The Duplass brothers brought their act to HBO on Togetherness, focusing on married couple Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and the underrated Melanie Lynsky), friend Alex (Steve Zissis, who also wrote the show with the Dupli) and sibling Tina (Amanda Peet) that are dealing with late-thirtysomething ennui — failing relationships and failing careers — in different but equally self-destructive ways.
Togetherness could generously be described as subtle: the foursome’s tribulations pass with little in the way of Big Dramatic Moments until the finale. After turning Alex into her pet project and rejecting his puppy love, Tina finds herself on a road towards unhappiness and an unfulfilled life, as Alex heads to a new job with literally no baggage. Brett, after moping about for seven episodes, finally gets his shit together and acts like a father, finding a spark that’s been missing for years.
The show saved its climax for a cliffhanger ending, and the final sequence is worth the wait. James Blake’s spacious torch song ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ soundtracks the season’s last moments. It’s a perfect pairing, in both lyric and tone, as Michelle contemplates an affair, passing notes with youthful trepidation. All that separates her from a contented life is a hotel door, and the anticipation for her kiss with David is powerful but bittersweet: with Brett driving to the hotel to make things right, the happiness of the moment cannot last.
With Netflix casting itself as the next HBO and Amazon scoring a hit with its own sadcom (Transparent, the second season of which is on my binge-list), it was only a matter of time before Hulu stepped up its original programming. While I found Difficult People unwatchable, Casual is a pleasant, Duplass-lite look at parenting and relationships, especially where the failures of the first cause a lifetime of failures in the second.
The too-close family dynamic reminded me of Six Feet Under, and not just because Tara Lynne Barr is the new Lauren Ambrose or because Frances Conroy shows up a few episodes in. But that’s about all the shows have in common: Casual lives up to its name, with a touch more drama than Togetherness. The always-excellent Michaela Watkins is the show’s core, and Eliza Coupe (RIP Happy Endings) and Nyasha Hatendi do good work in support. The show basically ended with a blank slate, so it will be interesting to see which stories the show will tell in season two.
A handful of sadcoms returned for second seasons, but creative progress is not always a given. Married is nearly as casual as Casual (coincidentally, both Frances Conroy and Michaela Watkins have cameos), and its second (and final) season was as enjoyable, if as slight, as the first. It still suffered from not quite knowing how to use its supporting cast: John Hodgman was still a sore thumb, Jenny Slate exited to do a pilot for FX and Paul Reiser’s character was aimless (no matter how hilarious). Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) struggled to balance marriage, parenting and careers with a verisimilitude that wasn’t as weighty as some of the shows on this list, their brand of bad parenting generally light-hearted and the show’s emotional moments touching but fleeting. Judy Greer deserves a show that you’ll know her from, and sadly, this won’t be it.
Animated sadcoms fared better. Rick and Morty returned for another season of foul-mouthed, sci-fi misanthropy, dabbling in simultaneous timeline exploration, Inception-styled universe creation and the type of flashback-fakeouts that Community did in “Paradigms of Human Memory.” The show even “tempted fate” with a sequel to the interdimensional channel-hopping of season one’s “Rixty Minutes,” but without the gut-punch of Morty’s heartbreaking speech.
That type of moment did happen, though. The season gradually revealed the reason why Beth apologizes for Rick’s beyond-fucked behavior: he abandoned his family when she was young and she’s desperate to hold onto him, no matter what. Interestingly, Rick was the show’s emotional center, whether during a failed suicide attempt or while making a final sacrifice to save the family. Music played a surprisingly crucial role here (considering the show’s reliance on parody), with the heartstring-pulling indie pop of Chaos Chaos’ ‘Do You Feel It?’ soundtracking the former and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ scoring the latter.
Similarly, BoJack Horseman’s second season delivered more hijinks than heartbreak, with BoJack’s girlfriend (an owl who woke up from a 30-year coma), Vincent Adultman, Margo Martindale and Todd’s improv group providing easy joke fodder. The season’s best storyline follows Diane as her unhappiness with her marriage to Mr. Peanutbutter takes her to a war-torn country and then into a long, drunken depression; their surprise reunion is pure rom-com material.
While Diane’s story was told over the season, the crux of BoJack’s was contained in one subplotless episode (one that also featured an FKA twigs pun and a spot-on Drake parody). After hallucinating about the picturesque life he could have had with Charlotte in season one, Bojack drives to New Mexico to reconnect and give it a shot in season two. Instead of a finding another lost soul, he finds Charlotte with a husband, two kids and a standard-issue suburban life.
When BoJack takes her daughter to the prom as a glorified chaperone, it’s a slow-motion car crash that manages to deliver surprises even when the inevitable happens. The fallout between Charlotte and BoJack is heartbreaking and final, but when he recovers, a jogger gives him advice that resonates beyond the scene and the show. “Every day, it gets a little easier,” says the jogger, ostensibly about running. ”But you gotta do it every day.”
That advice would come in handy on You’re The Worst, which managed to outdo its impressive debut season by fleshing out its characters and honestly portraying depression. Season two followed its fearsome foursome into new stages of life: Gretchen and Jimmy found out what living together entails, Lindsay rapidly approached rock bottom, and Edgar strived for normalcy (while, like BoJack‘s Todd, delving into improv — with less culty results).
Despite the new status quo, the show seemed to be in a comfortable pocket until the fourth episode began a slow-build reveal of Gretchen’s depression. Self-medicated and struggling for control, Gretchen is in a tailspin, and Jimmy uses the same approach as he does when hunting for a mouse in the house: systematic whack-a-mole without addressing the base causes.
Eventually, Jimmy figures out how to help her (just being there is a start) and Gretchen finally accepts his help (and commits herself to treatment), but not before hitting some emotional depths that you might not expect from a show that features an Odd Future parody. The masterful “LCD Soundsystem” episode — which will have you double-checking that you’re watching the correct show — is a game changer. And by the time Gretchen echoes Jimmy’s drunken confession and says that she loves him too, the game has certainly been changed.
So many of the water cooler shows of the Peak TV era do nothing for me — which is fine, not every pop object is for everyone — but these sadcoms do. And even if the signposts of the “genre” are becoming formulaic — broken family dynamics, mental health issues, unlikeable protagonists, dark-as-night comedy, surprisingly touching moments — each of these shows used these tools to tell new stories, in new and different ways. Combing through Peak TV may be exhausting, but it’s a little easier if you know what you’re looking for.