Emmys 2016 – Comedy round-up
Emmys 2016 – Comedy round-up
Ah yes, the Emmys. That time of year when Hollywood reminds you of the shows you haven’t illegally downloaded yet.
Words: Niall Murphy
What’s this? A comedy about race? No. Not really anything that edgy, though that’s perhaps what it wants to be. Instead it’s just another Everyone Loves Raymond or Two and a Half Men, this time centred around a black family. Because all mainstream American comedy is really only interested in one theme, which is the battle of the sexes. And there is usually only one winner in that battle, the women.
In TV-land men are irresponsible and whimsical, while the women bring necessary practicality and common sense. This usually also requires the men to be fairly idiotic, various versions of the exaggerated male stereotype that is Homer Simpson. How else could they be in such dire need of saving by the women in their lives?
The rise of Donald Trump is no surprise if the depiction of family men on television is in any way accurate. And even less of a surprise if it’s an inaccurate parody. Some day Phil Dunphy or Ray Romano are gonna snap. Indeed, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle already has.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Making the idiot the star does not mean the show itself has to be idiotic. Enter Tina Fey, who has always understood that in order for women to get to the top of TV comedy they need to be the butt of the joke. With 30 Rock she herself was the basket case, relying on men like Alec Baldwin to set her on the right course through life. This seems like an obvious inversion, an embracing of mansplaining. But very few have had the confidence, or the opportunity, to do it.
And in Unbreakable she embraces the idea of woman as the fool again, this time for Netflix. But there’s a real feeling that Fey’s heart isn’t really in this show. She writes, but doesn’t star, having moved onto movies lately, and who could blame her. It’s as madcap and frenetic as you would expect. It’s fine. But perhaps suffers from a small setting and limited cast, compared to 30 Rock’s sprawling approach. But hey, Netflix is on a budget.
Master of None
Aziz Ansari is a short Indian in New York who finds it tough to get work so makes a show about a short Indian in New York who finds it tough to get work, and millenials suddenly have a new favourite TV show. Because Netflix is monetising laziness.
It’s a fair point to ask what’s the difference between this conceit for a show and a short, neurotic Jew wandering around New York making movies about a short, neurotic Jew wandering around New York (Woody Allen) or a self hating, overweight, ginger guy wandering around New York making a show about just that (Louie CK). But the question answers itself. Louie CK and Woody Allen thrive on being tremendously flawed, while Ansari doesn’t seem to hate much about himself at all. And it’s this self awareness deficit which sets alarm bells ringing.
When Ansari is sitting in a coffee shop and points out that the Indian scientists from the 80s movie Short Circuit was a white guy pretending to be Indian, you can’t help but feel this is how the show began. Having a chat with a mate and thinking, ‘People need to see this. People need to follow us around and listen to what we have to say. Wouldn’t it be great if me and my mates’ lives were a TV show.’
But as a counterpoint to that, no matter how self-serving it is, the show does ask some questions about race, and not much American comedy dares to be political. However, as a counterpoint to that counterpoint, talking politics without laughing at yourself is simply lecturing, it’s not comedy.
Despite all that, it’s very watchable!
The comedy companion piece to House of Cards, but arguably more cynical, and landed with the same problem of what to do when your character becomes President. There was no need for a Spoiler Alert warning. It’s no secret. She’s actually been President a while at this stage, it’s part of the show’s marketing. But in this season it seems the writers understand they have painted themselves into a corner. The comedy works with Dreyfuss as a bitter and constantly humiliated wannabe. It doesn’t work if she’s President. Indeed, the writers understand this dilemma so well they dedicate the entire season to a very obscure electoral law that allows a Veep candidate to be directly elected President. It’s a real rule, but so arcane that even The West Wing didn’t cover it.
As a side note, the original series, The Thick of It, rotates around foul mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, who doesn’t translate into American. He doesn’t exist in this show and is sorely missed. No one bursts into the Veep’s office to declare
“She’s going to have to fall on her sword. Which means that we have to stick one in the ground, trip her onto it and get someone to jump up and down on her back for ten minutes.” That would have sorted it out.
Now that we’re all modern and liberal and love each other, and no one is remotely disturbed seeing two men kissing, we’re being tested. Tested by wrinkly people. Is being true to yourself still so admirable when you’re not young and good looking?
And ya know, we’ve failed the test. This show about an aging man, a grandfather, becoming a woman, has received some love from critics, but has startled analysts by how few people are actually watching it.
So is the world still homophobic? Probably. But just to say, the show belongs to a rising genre of genteel drama, which calls itself comedy, but isn’t. In fact, the show makes no attempt to be funny at all. To the point where to call it comedy implies we should be laughing at the idea of it, as some sort of liberal fantasy pastiche, rather than with it. So maybe a failure in marketing rather than writing.
It’s so successful we have to be reminded it’s ok to like it. The show’s creators had previously worked on Cheers, then made Frasier, so are the definition of classy comedy writers. But much in the way they lost interest in Frasier after four or five seasons, they seem to have wandered off the set of Modern Family, and left it to the interns to run things.
It has won here five times already, but it is on a downward trajectory. Everyone in the show is now paid a small fortune for every episode, so they’re all given something to do to earn their payday. Now the kids are getting older they’re even getting their own story lines. Which all just serves to distract attention from Phil and Cam, who are the only characters we want to see.
All that being said, a Modern Family episode at its best is still better than anything else. If you can remember the last time it was at its best.
Probably the Best: Silicon Valley
Mike Judge hit zeitgeist gold with Beavis and Butthead in the 90s, but don’t let that turn you off his newest show. Ostensibly set in Silicon Valley, it is in fact set in the heart of corporate America, where capitalists are no longer traders and bankers, but programmers and app developers.
Judge has a fascination with the idiocies and idiots at the heart of modern America, and here he challenges the idea that the information revolution is being driven by geniuses. It’s obviously milked for comic effect, but the message is pretty clear – People just follow the money.
The show doesn’t romanticise Silicon Valley as a Big Bang Theory style commune where people have been drawn together by their thirst for knowledge. Instead it’s the Wall Street of the west coast, where people are drawn together by their love of money. The only difference being they don’t wear suits.