June 7, 2023

No laughing matter

Last Saturday, I offered a bit of a screed on the genre known as the dramedy. As if to reinforce my point, at Slate this week, Dahlia Lithwick has a defense of the final season of Ted Lasso, the Apple+ sitcom about an American coaching in the English Premier League. Lasso has received a great deal of criticism this year from critics who accuse the show of straying too far from its roots, to which Lithwick replies, it's not the show, it's you, the viewer. "Season 3 of Ted Lasso may not offer as many laugh-out-loud funny jokes, but I would argue that it gives the audience a view into something even more compelling: the experience of living with someone who is severely and chronically depressed, while also struggling with your own escalating depression. And if that isn’t necessarily fun or amusing for the viewer, well, it’s possible that that’s the point." You see, the series gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want

Continues Lithwick, "Season 3, with its deliberately meandering, atomized, and lonely plotlines, especially concerning Ted, reflects that state of being: being at war with oneself. And if you’re experiencing all that as a letdown, I’d remind you to take a beat to reread Hamlet, which is also very much a story about profound depression and stuck-ness." And in saying that, Lithwick proves my point: I don't want pop psychology from a sitcom. I want something funny; I want to laugh. If I want a story about profound depression and stuckness, I'll read Hamlet. Besides, Shakespeare's outtakes are better than anything that any writer of Ted Lasso has ever produced.

The problem with that is that I don't want a television show trying to convince me that I really want this when what I came for was that. Let me ask you: would you go to an Italian restaurant and order sauerkraut and schnitzel? Maybe if you had a demented sense of taste, but otherwise the general idea is that you go to a German restaurant for German food, a Mexican restaurant for Mexican food, and an Italian restaurant for Italian food. I realize this may be a complicated idea for some people, but I guarantee you most people think the same way I do.

So why do sitcoms like Lasso seem to be obsessed with showing off their serious chops? Is it because, as Lithwick insists, they're giving us what they need? Or are there other reasons to be considered? Charles Holmes suggests the latter in his recent Ringer piece on recent dramedies such as Lasso, Barry, and Bupkis. "[O]ver time, each series crept toward similar conclusions. As the accolades and viewers mounted, so too did a push for a particular brand of seriousness—and, by extension, 'prestige.' " 

*Some people consider Succession a dramedy as well, or at least a black comedy, but it really doesn't seem like a laughing matter to me.

There's no question that many actors hunger for the desire to be taken seriously, and nothing says "credible auteur" more than the appelation "prestige." (It's true that comedians often make excellent dramatic actors—if you ever get the chance to catch a young Don Rickles doing a straight dramatic role, it's a revelation.) But Holmes points out that, for some time now, comedy has been less commercially successful than drama. "Collectively, theatrical comedies haven’t grossed over $2 billion domestically since 2011; that number was halved by 2018." Therefore, for the comedian trying to break through into the big time (and it should be noted that the stars of all three of these shows—Jason Sudeikis of Lasso, Bill Hader of Barry, and Pete Davidson of Bupkis—are alums of Saturday Night Live), they're faced with the knowledge, as Holmes says, that "the commercial viability of comedy is in flux with little reprieve in sight."

(As an aside, I wonder why comedies are struggling the way they are? Is it because the superhero genre, which I suppose you'd more broadly categorize as drama than comedy, has so overwhelmed the movie industry as a whole? Or is it because, in these oppressively depressing times, people just don't feel like laughing? In which case, contra  Lithwick, Ted Lasso would be giving us what we need by making us laugh. There's a third possibility as well, which is that millennials don't have any sense of humor; after all, what previous generations thought funny seems to them to be merely offensive.)

In the case of Ted Lasso, since that seems to be the prime example we're considering at the moment, Holmes says that by the just-ended third (and supposedly final) season, the show had become "more millennial morality play than sitcom." "It’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood if every character explained their emotional state through DJ Khaled and Nora Ephron references." (A wonderful line, by the way.) The problem is that while the best comedies always have room for drama, they're not equipped to handle such weighty questions as "Can people change?" "Instead of leaving room for ambiguity," Holmes says, "the characters treat this philosophical query about the human condition as an uncomplicated life lesson that can be answered within the confines of a five-minute conversation." (Or, as Mark Hemingway of The Federalist puts it, the show has become "little more than a solipsistic mess of feel-good pablum" and "subjective therapeutic claptrap."

I'll say it again: I don't mind some comedy in a drama, nor do I have a problem with some drama in a comedy. Life is, after all, a fragile mixture of comedy and tragedy. And that's likely what Lithwick is trying to say, that Ted Lasso gives us life as it is. But whenever I hear someone say that, I'm reminded of the words of the novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, who, when teaching a creative writing class, told a student that his writing was dull, lacked interest. "But that's the way it happened," the student protested, to which Mano replied, "Yes, and see to it that doesn't happen that way again." 

Television doesn't have to mirror real life, after all. I don't turn to Hogan's Heroes to see soldiers struggling with separation anxiety and fear of death, and I don't turn to Combat! to listen to one-liners about incompetent German officers. As Holmes points out, "For years, the axis of most sitcoms leaned toward fiction over fact." And it worked; "Part of the allure was the slickness of the illusion." But once you're bitten by this reality bug, the idea that a sitcom needs dramatic reality (often accompanied by a Message) destroys the illusion. I don't know when this started for sure; in Saturday's bit, I singled out M*A*S*H, and that's the series that comes to mind, but the dramedy has been the flavor of the month for awhile now for anyone looking for prestige. 

Someone once said that there's a place for everything, and everything has its place. When I want to think, I'll watch Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures. When I want to be confronted by social issues, I'll watch The Defenders. And when I want to laugh, I'll watch Police Squad!, not a treatise on "profound depression and stuck-ness." 

No matter how many times Ted throws the rope, he's not going to lasso me that way. TV  


  1. I suspect the reason "dramadies" are so popular now has a very simple explanation: The people behind them are simply not funny. Not everyone can write or perform comedy. Without an audience to perform in front of, the estimation of what makes people laugh narrows to the people behind it. I have watched modern comedies/dramadies and never once cracked a smile let alone laugh out loud.
    Maybe its a symptom of our society, we take everything too damn seriously and are afraid of 'offending' people.

  2. Nice essay. I also read your link from THE FEDERALIST, which was great. I've never subscribed to HBO or any other premium movie channel, nor have I watched much in the way of cable series. Overall, I'm disgusted w/ praise, especially from conservatives, for shows like THE SOPRANOS and BREAKING BAD, which are centered on evil people. I'd rather watch a marathon of any sitcom up to about the 1980s over 2 minutes of any of these "prestige" series. I hope some people still have a good sense of humor at least.

  3. Great piece, as always. Every now and then a series like Ted Lasso seems to break through the horde of hundreds of options and achieve something closer to the national attention that TV shows used to routinely command, and when that happens I'm always curious enough to wonder if it's worth it - just not curious enough to actually try it. What sounds like it happened with that last season was the creators desperately trying to avoid "fan service." "We could give you more of what you enjoyed so far, but we'd rather show you how brave we are by turning the tables on your expectations." 'Veronica Mars' (one of the few 21st century shows I thought was superb) chose that path with its last revival season in 2019, and fans turned against it so vociferously that future returns are unlikely.

  4. Watched the first two episodes of Ted, but never went back - not funny. Seems the lesson from the film "Sullivan's Travels" has been forgotten in new Hollywood. From Wikipedia: (Sullivan) dissatisfied with making such films as Ants in Your Plants of 1939...wants his next project to be a serious exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, based on the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? He wants to "know trouble" first hand, and plans to travel as a tramp so he can make a film that truly depicts the sorrows of humanity. (After experiencing issues with the hobo life, he receives) a six year sentence of hard labor in a work camp. In the camp, he attends a showing of Walt Disney's 1934 Playful Pluto cartoon, a rare treat for the prisoners, and is surprised to find himself laughing along with them. (In the end, Sullivan finds) he has changed his mind: He wants to continue making comedies, having learned the value they contribute to society, especially to those who have too little else to bring them joy.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!