Taking Comedy Serially

By Hubert Ta

Comedy Central’s “Review” seems like your average sitcom at first glance. Forrest MacNeil (Andrew Daly) is a professional critic of life, reviewing everything from outlandish experiences like traveling to space and starting a cult to more mundane ventures such as eating pancakes and spending time in a rowboat. Each episode is generally contained within itself and full of dark comedy, but the more important part of “Review” is how Forrest’s job as a life critic is slowly destroying his personal life, with each review making his existence worse and worse. The primary focus of “Review” is the dismantling of Forrest’s ideal life, and comedy is used to advance the simultaneously bleak and hilarious narrative. This is a serial comedy.

In the last couple of years, there has been a noticeable splintering of the comedic television genre. We still have the classic sitcom where characters fall into humorous situations in relatively standalone episodes (“Seinfeld, “The Office”), the sketch show in which actors perform comedic skits (“Saturday Night Live”), and the rare stand-up comedy special. However, a new type of comedic TV show has manifested itself in the serial format featuring a long-running plot that continues episode to episode. Typically, serials are the domain of dramas, soap operas and miniseries, but the serial comedy has become increasingly popular in the last few years, with comedy built around narrative and characters. Comedy propels the story forward, characterizes individuals in the show and provides a foundation for the interplay between a story’s themes.

In the classic sitcom, plot and narrative structure typically take a backseat to the chaos of each episode’s focus. For example, the love affair between Sam and Diane in “Cheers” and Ted Mosby’s story to his children about meeting his wife in “How I Met Your Mother” portrays the sitcom’s approach to narrative: long-overarching threads and plotlines that are slowly pieced bit by bit over the course of a season or two. In contrast, the serialized comedy takes the comedic element and disperses it amongst a consistently advancing plot. Imagine something like “24,” but with wit and jokes thrown in to replace the drama and gunfights.

The serialized comedy has become a popular mode to tell a story and have audiences laughing all the way. Take for instance, CBS’s “BrainDead,” which took a satirical route to examining politicians in Washington, D.C. and the endless amount of scandal and hate-filled rhetoric. The absurdity of political infighting is interspersed with the equally ridiculous dilemma of alien ants taking over Washington’s elite, like a modern, hysterical update of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a constituency caseworker for her brother, a senator, and a few others combat the alien invasion-induced peculiarity amidst raging pundits, exploding heads and cherry blossoms. In case the satire wasn’t obvious, the recap at the beginning of each episode is a whimsical theme song bridging summary, dramatic irony and guitar riffs.

Another example is Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman,” which describes the plight of the titular former sitcom star’s descent into depression as his relationships crumble around him. A morose tale, the show’s bleak outlook is stuffed with absurdist commentary on Hollywood and celebrities, lambasting everything from CNN, ghost writers to childhood with wit, parody, and inside jokes. All the while, we laugh as Bojack attempts to write a memoir, win an Oscar, and make sense of his alcohol-induced sadness, with each episode progressing towards the larger narrative of Bojack trying to make meaning out of his life.

There are plenty of other shows that have adopted the serialized format, such as FOX’s “Scream Queens,” which depicts a sorority’s survival from the Red Devil serial killer in a satirical take on horror films, NBC’s “The Good Place,” where Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is accidently sent to utopian afterlife after her death and focuses on her attempts to hide her secret, and FX’s “You’re the Worst,” where two cynical people find love in Los Angeles amidst the despair and depression of their poisonous attitudes.

How did the serial TV comedy come about? The serial format of storytelling is popular with dramas and soap operas, but doesn’t obviously scream comedy. “Soap,” ABC’s sitcom parody of soap operas might be the origin. Running from 1977 to 1981, “Soap” had all the elements of serial narratives, with interconnected plotlines between episodes and seasons, melodrama galore and a cast of characters integral to the story, but with the sheer ridiculousness of a soap opera purposefully exaggerated for comedic punchlines. In addition, the critical success of FOX’s “Arrested Development” and NBC’s “30 Rock” heralded the idea that inside jokes, interweaved plotlines and long-running gags could be effectively used.

Serial TV comedies may be the result of genre-mixing from the popularity of serial dramas. Shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” and “24” have proven that serial narrative dramas can work and be incredibly popular, and it seems that the serialized comedy has taken this and employed it for its own genre.

A change of technology may have also influenced serial comedy’s rise, as DVDs, streaming services and binge-watching have made serial narratives easier to enjoy. No longer do you have to wait for marathons of the show to catch everything in order or dedicate a time each week to the show to stay up to date. Binge-watching has allowed cohesive narratives to flow until Netflix asks if you are still watching.

The serial comedy thus sets out to tell us a story and make us laugh while doing it. It seems to be a welcome addition to the TV landscape, where audiences can get an intriguing story, plenty of hilarity and a narrative progression that keeps you coming back week after week.