Hope Lies On Television #9 – One For All And All For One, For Once
When this year’s summer movie season started, most of the discussion focused on the large number of comic-book adaptations that were finding their way in to cinemas. It seemed that you wouldn’t be able to move for superheroes this year, as Captain America followed Green Lantern who followed X-Men who followed Thor. What seems to have surprised a lot of people, though, has been the simultaneous growth of a trend for raunchy comedies, of which far more have been released in the last three months than pretty much any time in recent memory.
The deluge started with the release of Bridesmaids in May, which was quickly followed by The Hangover Part Two, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, Friends With Benefits and will finish with the release of The Change-Up later this month. What’s even more surprising about these films is that, despite their close proximity and obvious similarities, they haven’t crowded each other out of the marketplace in the way that the superhero films seem to have. Though only Bridesmaids ($166 million domestically; $236 million worldwide) and The Hangover Part Two ($252 million, domestically; $563 million worldwide) could be considered monster hits, the others have all made or will make back their budgets.
What unites all these films, apart from being successful, is an underlying tone of meanspiritedness to their comedy. (Though Bridesmaids is generally more inclusive than the others, and I can’t speak for Friends With Benefits and The Change-Up because I have not seen them yet. The trailer for The Change-Up definitely suggests that it would fall into that category, though.) There has always been a strain of scarbrous humour in American comedies, but it seems to have become more dominant in recent years with the rise of Judd Apatow, whose films both as a director (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People) and as a producer (such as Superbad, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express) have that dark, slightly curdled aspect to them. Now, I am a big fan of a lot of Apatow’s work, and think that there is a basic level of sympathy towards the characters on display in all of his films that stops them from becoming misanthropic (with the exception of the first half of Funny People, which is meant to be misanthropic) but a lot of the humour in his films tends to come from characters being mean towards each other, something which the many imitators who have sprung up in his wake have taken and made the focal point of their comedy.
The movement towards a meaner, crueller style of humour in film comedy isn’t necessarily bad. Comedy is highly subjective, and if you don’t like that style then nothing will make you like those films, but as someone whose sense of humour tends towards the darker side of things, I’m always excited to see comedy moving towards a kind of humour that is almost unpalatable to a lot of people because that is where the really interesting stuff tends to happen in the genre. The main problem, for me, is the fact that these comedies never seem able to divorce their bleakness from a need to include some sentimental message at the end. In Judd Apatow’s films, it sort of works, because his films aren’t primarily about being cruel to the characters, but in films like The Hangover it undermines the darkness of the central premise to have them all learn lessons by the end. You can’t make a film which is darkly absurdist, then give it a happy ending, because it just winds up ringing incredibly hollow.
Contrast this trend in film comedy with TV comedy, and we notice that sitcoms, which so often have been the apotheosis of this approach of insulting characters only to end with a moment of sentimentality, are increasingly finding a balance that works. In the past few years a small group of sitcoms have emerged which limit insult-based humour in favour of a sense of inclusiveness. Chief amongst these is the ABC sitcom Modern Family, which over two seasons has become one of the most popular and beloved shows on television.
An ensemble comedy filmed in a mockumentary style, Modern Family features a fairly sprawling cast that makes up a single extended family, but which can be broken down into three family units. Jay Pritchett (O’Neill) is the patriarch of the entire clan, and at the start of the series has recently married his second wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), a glamorous Columbian woman several decades younger than him, and who comes complete with her precocious son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay’s daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), who tries a little to desperately to be a cool dad to their three children. Jay’s son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), lives with his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and their adopted baby Vietnamese daughter, Lily. Straight away, in its non-judgemental portrayal of different family units, the show displays an open-mindedness that sets it apart from a lot of more stereotypical shows.
Despite its cosmopolitan characters and mockumentary style, Modern Family is a show that uses very familiar tropes and jokes, though it presents them in a fast and exciting way. Much of the jokes revolve around misunderstandings, farce and wordplay, and by playing upon the tensions that exist between the various members of the family. Some of the characters don’t necessarily get on, such as Jay and Phil, who have a somewhat tempestuous relationship only befitting that between a father- and son-in-law, while several episodes have nicely mined the essential weirdness of Claire having a stepmother who is younger than her. Subsequently, some of the jokes in the show are of the mean, insult humour variety, but overall these is a sense of warmth and inclusion to the show. It’s a series about people who love each other, despite the fact that they drive each other nuts.
Probably the best example of this inclusive kind of comedy – and far and away the best comedy on television at the moment – is NBC’s Parks & Recreation. Another show that uses the mockumentary format to great effect, the series focuses on the efforts of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana as they try to do their jobs and provide services to the people of their town, despite the difficulties of working in government and the fact that a lot of the people they serve are kind of insane. The ensemble cast centres around Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), an unfazed idealist who truly believes that government can make a difference in peoples’ lives, and even though the series is a true ensemble show, in that any story can focus on any of the characters, the engine of most episodes tends to be Leslie’s attempts to do something for the town, be it catching a rogue raccoon that savaged the Mayor’s dog, or trying to host a Harvest Festival.
Parks & Recreation is a great example of the idea that television is an evolutionary medium, one that allows for shows to change over time as the key figures involved realise what works and what doesn’t. In its first season, Parks & Rec presented Leslie as something of a pushy weirdo, and as such the humour tended to come from the other cast members reacting to her: They laughed at her, not with her. By the second season, the show had completely changed focus; Leslie’s dedication became a positive, rather than a negative aspect of her personality, and the relationships on the show became more about people working together for something greater than themselves, rather than working together because they happened to share an office.
The humour changed accordingly, as the show built its ensemble into a group of people who genuinely cared about each other, and included little moments in which that affection could shine through, such as the genuinely moving moment at the end of the second season in which Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), Leslie’s boss, whose libertarian politics are often at odds with her belief in the role of government, argues for Leslie to keep her job during a proposed government shutdown. When an auditor argues that she can be let go because all departments are losing a Leslie Knope, Ron replies, that “they are not. No other department has one to begin with.” It’s a little throwaway line, but one that is indicative of the quiet emotional power that the show has, even when some of the time its humour moves towards the wackier end of the spectrum.
As much as I may be excited by the trend of raunchy, dark and bleak comedies that are coming out of Hollywood, I’m also worried that they will always be hampered by that sentimental streak that stops them from being more pure works of misanthropy that can explore genuinely edgy subjects and material. Perhaps Hollywood needs to finally show some guts and start making comedies that are really dark and bleak, or they should move towards the style that television seems to have perfected, in which the darker elements are subsumed into or balanced by an earned sentimentality, rather than one in which unearned sentimentality is crowbarred in at the end. The current median point between the two is just not satisfying.