With the ever-expanding variety of TV-style content available at the ready, old themes are taking on new polish. It’s no secret that storytelling is becoming more nuanced and diverse, and storytellers are becoming freer to tell their stories without the constraints of things like network TV schedules and limitations, demands for typical romantic sitcom tropes or pandering to certain audience demographics. Within this landscape, different kinds of romantic comedies are finding their “hour upon the loom of days” (cannot resist, however inappropriate the tone, an Ezra Pound reference…).
In the middle of these emotional days, I watched the widely praised little comedy, Catastrophe, which chronicles the accidental relationship borne of an accidental pregnancy resulting from a casual one-week fling. The couple decide to make a go of it, with the American half of the couple moving to London to pursue a relationship with the Irish woman he’s knocked up. I won’t heap rosy praise on it (other viewers have done this enough), but I will concede that it can be quite funny and “real” in ways that most sitcoms laboring under this premise could not be.
Given my state of mind, though, it mostly made me sad and reflective. Thinking about how people meet and what propels their relationships forward. How is it that they decide, “This is what I want. This is the person I want to be with”? It would be easy to say that the characters here chose to be together only because the woman was pregnant, neither party to the couple is particularly young and perhaps neither felt they had much to lose. The show did a good job at making the relationship feel more deliberate than that by highlighting the doubts and fears the characters felt – particularly the woman. The man seems quite sure (and reassuring) and never strays from this underlying conviction, even when friends, family and circumstance try to convince him otherwise.
Perhaps it was his commitment and willingness to work at it and to “put up or shut up”, in a sense, that struck me.
Overall, Catastrophe, despite having a few semi-crass jokes and whatnot, is sweet and gives the viewer a palette on which it creates two whole, three-dimensional adults who find themselves in a surprising situation. How people deal with the unplanned is telling.
The unplanned and unpleasant drives another surprisingly sweet (and short) sitcom, Scrotal Recall, which, despite its raunchy name, is both worth watching and not at all what you think it is. It follows (without bothering about chronology) the story of a guy who discovers he has an STI and needs to inform all his previous sex partners. The show finds its comedy not just in the awkwardness of trying to break the news (“Hey, sorry you’ve not heard from me in a year, but congrats! You may have chlamydia!”) but in the retelling of the stories that led the character to get into all these sexual situations in the first place. Bubbling along in parallel with these flashbacks is the ongoing, years-long tension between the main character and his friend/roommate (the old story about close friends of the opposite sex – one has a crush on the other but is scared to say or one of them has a relationship already so the timing is off… and the timing always seems to be off. It’s another version of Ross and Rachel but … cuter and less important to the storytelling). In fact, Vox compares the show to How I Met Your Mother without the irritating pomposity of Ted and without the sociopathic tendencies of Barney. I agree but add that it is much more relatable and less formulaic, and actually, in its own slightly bumbling way, quite sweet.
While this pair of sitcoms (both with roots in the UK) resides at the “sweet/nice” end of the spectrum, it stands to reason that there would be similarly angled sitcoms at the other end. That is, sitcoms that go against the grain, challenge one’s perception of a “relationship” or “dating” comedy. (This does not take into account recent takes on the ennui of marriage, such as Togetherness or Married, neither of which is perfect but both of which finally do away with some of the stupid/schlub husband + hot wife making fun of him trope that has long populated the mainstream TV landscape.)
Perhaps most routinely misanthropic and sometimes annoying but nevertheless funny and human is You’re the Worst, in which two young… let’s call a spade a spade here… assholes hook up after getting drunk at a wedding. They are both firmly convinced that they are not relationship material, commitment phobic and perfectly happy with a casual, no-strings setup. But most of the first season is spent making us – and them – realize that they’ve been wrong. It’s a little bit cliche when you write down the premise, but the execution makes it what it is. I honestly did not think I would like it. The advertising I saw surrounding the show struck me a lot like the Comedy Central advertising for Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. The ads made these shows look offensively bad (not in a good way), while in fact, both are genius. You’re the Worst won’t make any “genius” lists, but despite it being ages ago that I consumed the first season, I remember a few gems that pulled me in – from the Phil “Groovy” Collins v Peter Gabriel argument between the show’s leads to the “Sunday Funday” (although if I recall these were in the same episode, and I think the guy who plays Pied Piper CEO Richard in the brilliant Silicon Valley plays one of the poseur-follower idiots copying the Sunday Funday). At its heart, the show does display two people who are actually the worst (you would hate these people if you knew them in real life) but find each other, defend each other, fall in love with each other… and I suppose that things boil down to that kind of cliche. We go through life hoping to find that person we can relate to, be completely our ugly selves with and land, as someone once said to me in better times, “land in the tall grass”.
On an entirely different plane, particularly as it borrows liberally from fantasy and the grotesque rather than grounding itself in reality, Man Seeking Woman explores the dating life of a single guy after a breakup. On one of his first post-breakup outings he meets a woman who is portrayed – literally – as a troll. In another episode, he is invited to his ex-girlfriend’s party to find that she is dating Hitler. Yes, that Hitler. He is not dead and has just been hanging out/hiding out, is ancient and rolling around in a wheelchair. Each episode ups the ante with this surreal take on the world, with one equating marriage with a prison sentence – you become a useful penis in the suburbs with a drill sergeant wife – life sentence without possibility of parole. Some insights shine through the absurd concepts and visuals, even if some things go too over the top for me. The absurdity, though, almost always serves to channel some more basic truths: the concept of remaining friends with members of the opposite sex once you have moved on and how partners may have different rules for that depending on the relationship, the nature of marriage, the cocoon-like pod people that new couples become and much more along the same lines.
The Call of the Millennial – The Rebel Yell?
Apart from the aforementioned Catastrophe, which features basically middle-aged people, the other shows and television in general have been flooded with shows featuring millennials on the hunt – for fun, for sex, for love, for drugs, for something. Sometimes they don’t even know what they are looking for but find something anyway. Perhaps this aimless search is how and why these shows work. Familiar themes explored through a new lens – but with a slightly rebellious twist?