Culture & Critics

The Atlantic|June 2020

Culture & Critics
So Sad, Can’t Stop Laughing
By Sophie Gilbert

TV sadcoms probe life’s bleak moments more pointedly than many dramas do.

The hallmark of all the superlative TV comedies of the past few years has been what happens in the moments when they’re not funny at all. The BBC import Fleabag, for all its swaggering raunch and dotty hijinks, turns out to be a surprisingly profound portrait of grief and catharsis. HBO’s Succession exposes the tragic emotional vacuity lurking beneath corporate avarice run amok. On the same network, in Barry, Bill Hader plays a hit man with a heart who, like Ferdinand the bull, would rather sit and smell the metaphorical flowers than kill people, but his internal wiring and past allegiances keep getting in the way.

While this broad category of TV tragicomedy has become a thriving staple (Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is an outstandingly surreal example), the subgenre of it now known as the sadcom—series that make you laugh not through pain but at it—is making its own mark. Here, subjects that in the standard sitcom realm are relegated to Very Special Episodes or deemed far too calamitous for the relentless cheer of Friends or Modern Family take pride of place: nervous breakdowns, addiction, the astonishing human capacity for self-hatred. The latest addition to a notably British lineup (which includes not just Fleabag but Hulu’s This Way Up and Catastrophe on Amazon) is Trying on Apple TV+. The eight-episode series is about a young married couple living in a picture-perfect pastel rowhouse in London’s Camden Town, their sweet, goofy life and palpable mutual affection shadowed by an ongoing failure to get pregnant.

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June 2020