A lot of scenes in “Catastrophe” take place in bedrooms; the stars of the Amazon comedy, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, shine brightest when they’re depicting the goofiest, messiest and most quietly devoted moments of intimacy. Sex is part of the exchange between their characters, Rob and Sharon, and their connection in that arena is certainly strong and joyous.
But not every post-coital conversation goes right, and the ones that go wrong can send them into dangerous emotional tangents. At dinner parties gone wrong and in embarrassing work situations, their knit brows indicate the questions they appear to be constantly asking themselves: How can intimacy be sustained in a fickle and unpredictable world, and how much disappointment and compromise should anyone have to put up with? Is being alone better?
The stakes are high for both of them: Rob got Sharon pregnant during a one-night stand (well, a six-night stand), and he moved his whole life to London to be with her. Though they’ve fallen for each other, they can’t figure out how much of their coupledom is voluntary and how much is driven by circumstance. They’re both old enough to know that a breakup might not just leave them adrift and afraid, it might confirm their worst fears about themselves. They make each other laugh and they find the same things ridiculous -- and Horgan and Delaney are delightful in those relaxed moments of unforced connection -- but underneath it all lurk their understandable fears: Maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe they’re not such nice people after all.
They are nice people, or, more accurately, they’re complicated people you should definitely get to know. Despite the occasional broad contrivances and a few pacing issues in the show’s six-episode first season, the fictional Rob and Sharon almost instantly won me over. They talk like real people, they are believably endearing and annoying and, in the main, they just don’t seem like “TV characters,” which is a deceptively hard stunt to pull off.
Feeling the deep existential pain of a talking cartoon horse -- now, that one’s harder to explain.
And, yet, it makes sense. Despite their various problems, if the characters from “BoJack Horseman,” “You’re the Worst” and “Catastrophe” threw a party, I would absolutely attend. I might feel later like I’d made a terrible life choice -- which would be appropriate, given that the characters on all these shows tend to make bad decisions -- but all these messed-up, wonderful, acerbic, cutting characters very nearly share a hive-mind. They can be selfish asses -- or horse’s asses -- but they have revealed surprising depth over the course of their shows’ short lives.
“These days, the shaggiest and most pleasing half-hours are often the smartest at deftly indicating how tragedy, love and absurdity intersect inside the quotidian details of daily life.”
The true sign of a TV show worming its way into your brain is when you devote a lot of thought to a fictional person’s existence, and this summer, I spent about 30 percent of my time thinking about Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), a core “BoJack” character and a role that has allowed Brie to do her finest work to date. Yes, Diane is even more memorable than “Mad Men’s” Trudy Campbell and “Community’s” Annie Edison. (Brie also voices Vincent Adultman, one of the most reliably entertaining comic creations of our time. A subtext of all these shows is that grown-ups feel like frauds, and why not manifest that imposter syndrome by stacking three boys on top of each other and putting them in a grown man's trenchcoat? Bonus: It's funny even without the subtext about emotional immaturity.)
“BoJack” is very stealthy; it took at least half a dozen Season 1 episodes before it really hooked me, but once I was in, I was all in. While taking on targets like fame, Hollywood, friendship and depression with laserlike precision, the show also built up some of the most realistic and complicated characters on TV. I could go on all day about Diane, but I’ll keep this part of the paean relatively short. First of all, Diane may be the first female journalist I’ve ever seen on TV who is portrayed as a complex human being with generally thoughtful professional motives (the only other one that comes to mind is Kelly Macdonald’s character in the original version of “State of Play,” and that is deepest of deep cuts).
Secondly, Diane’s emotional journey is depicted with subtlety and compassion in Season 2. And if you hate the phrase “emotional journey” (even using it makes me feel a little blech), don’t worry, because the surreal aspects of the “BoJack” world nimbly undercut even the slightest drift toward cloying sentimentality, cliche or preachiness. It’s hard to feel lectured or condescended to by a show that features a cop called Officer Meow-Meow Fuzzy Face (a name that makes me laugh every time), a nervous penguin as a book editor and an overly enthusiastic dog who serves as the host of a hit game show. (If memory serves, NBC has a program like this on its spring schedule.)
BoJack is clearly the star of the show that uses his name, and Will Arnett is terrific at conveying the character's hollow grandiosity and abiding sadness, but everybody gets to be a human being on this astonishingly rich show. It has built a well-constructed arc for Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a high-powered agent/pink cat, and it's given depth to even Mr. Peanutbutter, who I always want to dismiss as nothing more than a maddeningly simple-minded dog-man. But I can't do that, thanks to the nuanced writing and Paul F. Tompkins' first-class voice work. That said, Diane should definitely not be with Mr. Peanutbutter, don’t you agree? I’m not saying she should date BoJack -- that would probably be a disaster for both of them, despite their obvious chemistry -- but she needs to break up with the dog to achieve her full potential, right?
I have thought too much about this, possibly. But how could I not?
The romantic comedy on the big screen has been struggling (aside from "Trainwreck"), but it’s been wonderful to witness its quiet and sarcastic rebirth on the small screen. We’ve now got several flavors of slacker rom-com to choose from: “Transparent” is a good, old-fashioned layer cake of a rom-com, with all sorts of people falling for each other for the wrong reasons (add a few slamming doors and it could almost be a farce -- an indie-movie farce that alternates brilliant comedy with acutely rendered heartbreak at every turn). “Catastrophe” is about a couple forced together by both sex and unexpected circumstances, “You’re the Worst” is about a sex-buddy relationship that accidentally ripens into love, and “BoJack” has supplied one of the great will-they, won’t-they dances in recent memory. And of course, the greatest thing about how “BoJack” treats relationships is that Diane is so much more than the sum of her romantic choices -- which, in the world of this bittersweet show, are never presented as realistic solutions for individual dissatisfaction.
So, come to these shows for the sick burns about CrossFit and podcasts and people who wear sweaters; stay for the perceptive truths about the necessity and dangers of building emotional walls in a world where the Internet allows us to be both overexposed and dimly known. At their cores, these shows are about the safety of loneliness; the security that people derive from keeping their private selves hidden while gamely constructing “adult” personas that feel fake to even those employing them. These shows' stories are driven by both the fear and the joy that bubble up when scarred, smart adults attempt to leave their cocoons, and get what they think they want -- or get what they didn’t want, but sort of like anyway.
We are living in an era of Peak TV, and these shows supply more proof that many of the creative peaks are being reached in the half-hour form. Given the sheer volume of dramas being created, we’re spoiled for choice in that realm as well, but a lot of one-hour shows have been floundering lately, for an array of reasons: Most broadcast network one-hours are too safe and bland and many cable and streaming dramas are too undisciplined or superficial. (They also seem to forget that classic aughts dramas like “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” were often really funny.)
These days, the shaggiest and most pleasing half-hours, freed from the constraints of being dramatic and important, are often the smartest at deftly indicating how tragedy, love and absurdity intersect inside the quotidian details of daily life. Diane’s “arc” this season often consisted of her sitting around in sweats and building beer-can towers as she attempted to block out the reality that her life had ground to a halt. A setback on “Catastrophe” consisted of Sharon obsessing about Rob’s perky ex, so Sharon did her hair differently and tried to act nonchalant about it for a whole dinner scene; it was quietly hilarious. “You’re the Worst” can encapsulate a night gone wrong (or right?) in one unforgettable line: “I’m peeing blood and I briefly forgot the word for 'telephone.'”
The scale of these moments feels handmade and personal, and that’s why, ultimately, I don’t want to call this wave of comedies the New Rom-coms. No, I call my new favorite shows the laptop comedies.
I realized this summer that I was starting many days with a ritual: I’d watch an episode of “Bojack Horseman” on my laptop as I got ready. That’s also how I’ve watched a lot of “Transparent,” “Catastrophe,” “You’re the Worst,” “Togetherness” and “Review,” comedies that are about how difficult but necessary relationships are, and how much existential despair people experience when they find it difficult or even impossible to appreciate what’s in front of them.
It’s appropriate that I often watch these shows on computers, laptops and phones; these are the devices that tell me I’m connected to the world, even if it’s only a series of pixels and faves and texts that serve as tethers. We mediate our lives through these electronic devices; they follow us into our intimate places, mentally and physically. You can search for weird things and end up reading sad #longreads all night; it's easy to be happily or irritably distracted by social media, which allows you to find a GIF for every emotion. Ideally we share our emotional lives with human beings as well, but so much of what we experience, good or bad, comes from these glowing, ever-present conduits. It makes sense that there’s a wave of shows that have scaled down, burrowed in and and learned how to inhabit these spaces with stealthy economy.
That’s not to say that these half-hours lack ambition -- far from it. Their concerns may be narrow-ish, but they go deeply and fearlessly into emotional nooks and crannies that other shows shy away from or can't quite capture. Gretchen and Jimmy on “You’re the Worst” can be raging narcissists and BoJack generally treats other people like shit (I want to give Todd a hug most of the time, and then I have to remind myself that Todd is a fictional cartoon voiced by Aaron Paul). “Catastrophe” had Rob and Sharon confront their reaction to the possibility that their baby might have special needs; I won't soon forget how Horgan's face fearlessly showed just how terrified and vulnerable and ashamed her character was in those moments. Like "Transparent," this show made me cry when I never expected that, which is one of the highest compliments I can think of.
The people on these laptop comedies aren’t consistently self-aware (in the case of Forrest MacNeil of "Review," that lack of self-awareness approaches toxic and/or fatal levels). On occasion, though, they see who they are in the eyes of friends and lovers, and they don’t always like what they find there. And yet, despite everything, they can’t escape the gravitational orbit of love, sex, intimacy and affection they find with each other. Like the Google search engine, their true friends don't judge what they're looking for.
The comfort they find in feeling deeply alone, or in being truly known, is conveyed in looks, in gestures, in the way a head relaxes on a shoulder, in the way BoJack sighs as he looks off the deck of his rickety hillside home. You don’t need a 72-inch television to see all that. All you need is a screen the viewer won’t -- can’t -- look away from.
On recent Talking TV podcasts, Ryan McGee and I discussed "You're the Worst" (and posted interviews with the cast) and talked about "BoJack Horseman." You can find them here, on iTunes, and the BoJack podcast is below.
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