2018 in television: comedy gets serious


No other television show this year left me jarred like the second-to-last episode of Barry did. In fact, as an avid purveyor of whatever new television shows look like award bait from year to year, there still isn’t a whole lot from television that, for me, evoke the same visceral reaction as watching Barry’s emotional breakdown unfold in that episode alone. I’ve been encouraging people to watch Barry by likening the feeling I got from the latter half of the season to those that come with seeing the most heart-wrenching episodes of Breaking Bad for the first time. Yet, it’s a comparison that somehow feels wrong to make — after all, we’re talking about Barry here, a half hour comedy starring New York’s hottest Weekend Update correspondent.

Upon release, however, critics (and well-deserved Emmy wins) unexpectedly flocked to Barry, a dark horse amongst the often uninspired sitcoms that pop up left and right. Praised were the quick writing, tense narrative and Bill Hader’s dramatic acting alike his comedic moments. Comedic actors generally have to work hard to be taken seriously; yet, this 30 minute laugh-out-loud comedy with perhaps the most ridiculous premise of the year (he’s a hitman who dreams of becoming an actor!) offered the intensity necessary to pull every facet of its lead’s acting chops out.

The trend only becomes clear with more reflection, but it’s been present for a while. As 2018 draws to a conclusion, it’s safe to say this year’s seen some of the best of comedy, a sign of what’s to come in the future. There’s the poignant life lessons offered beneath the juvenile veneer of American Vandal; the uniqueness behind Maniac’s exploration of genre-bending and overall experimentation with the format; Atlanta, Insecure and Bojack Horseman are some brilliant examples.

Even shows based in reality had a minute, like when Sacha Baron Cohen’s hugely discussed 20-or-so minute political satire Who Is America? made the world sit and question the people they were making famous, and we can’t forget the strange sadness that overtook TV fans as a whole upon hearing Nathan For You wasn’t returning for another thoughtful season.

If 2018 in television proved anything, it was that even comedy can come to bat in the big leagues, offering the same raw intense and poignant nature only present in prestige TV. In fact, if 2018 in television proved anything, it’s that comedy may very well be the future of prestige TV.

As of late, comedy isn’t straying away from the possibilities to get dark, to get weird, to unexpectedly drag viewers away from the prospect of mindless entertainment and into worlds built on sentiment or high-stakes situations. You’ll laugh as expected, but you’ll also cry or panic or simply sit and really think about what you just watched. It’s a weird step for comedy to take, but judging by the quality of these shows, it’s the best one possible.

It’s only in recent years that television has become accepted as an art form, largely due to prestige hour-long programming offered by HBO and the like. Now, comedies are getting their chance to shine. 2018 television opted to put laugh tracks and of-the-week scenarios in the past, trading in all the tired tropes for instruments that pull at your heartstrings but make you laugh all the same. Writing good comedy in itself is quite hard to master, so it feels like it’s about time to see the genre beginning to be shopped around with the same level of serious thought put into it as primetime dramas — not to mention, lauded with the same respect.

Looking forward, it seems to be only up from here for comedy in television. 2018’s comedy lineup, in my opinion, was the best we’ve seen in years — when it wasn’t creating an atmosphere for heavy contemplation, it was striking the audience with heavy narratives, overall demanding to be acknowledged and taken seriously like never before. Barry and those that take after it have proven that comedy is no longer just background noise or lighthearted distraction; it’s an artistic force that’s come to compete.


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