Depression. Suicide attempts. Drunken binges. Gentrification. Drug deals gone awry. Stories of a torturous afterlife. Rape and child abduction. The scripted comedies that currently make for my favorite TV watching are darker than anything you’ll find on the nightly news.
At least here, though, I’m expected to laugh at so much sorrow.
I’ve always had a dark sense of humor, and as an entertainment journalist who focuses on television, I’m contractually bound to be drawn to the edgier stuff—what the cool kids are into these days. But as the actual world has become riddled with reports of environmental devastation, shootings, genocide, famine and the fear that our president could start a nuclear war in 280 characters or less, dark comedies have become my security blankets, soothingly reminding me that sarcasm may be the best defense mechanism I have.
I don’t care that the just-finished season of FXX’s You’re the Worst wasn’t everyone’s favorite. It enveloped me in a comfort that for 30 minutes each week I could see people with lives and careers that were closer to careening off a cliff than my own. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could make me cry for Rebecca’s (Rachel Bloom) suicide attempt on an airplane, and also for wanting more musical numbers to take my mind off reality for a little bit longer. My favorite parts of Showtime’s Shameless are the “previously ons,” where an ever-changing list of characters basically yells at you for not remembering what happened last week. And I’m actively following NBC’s This is Us for the Toby scenes, just to allow myself to legitimately hate-watch it.
Somewhere around the third episode of Season Two of NBC’s The Good Place, I stopped looking for expertly crafted food puns and Lost references in its colorful, modern-day rendition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Instead, I began to ponder if I—we—were merely existing in a metaphysical plane, and maybe it didn’t matter if I washed my hair today.
It didn’t used to be this way. The straight-shooting optimism of Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreations heroine, used to be my weeknight ray of sunshine. (Her favorite food was waffles, for goodness’ sake. Plus, she threw her friends custom birthday parties.) If a small-town politician with a surname that sounds like a slang term for “no” could stay positive, what excuse did I have to be sour?
Coincidentally, both Parks and The Good Place come from the mind of Michael Schur, the comedy writer who co-created the former with his The Office boss, Greg Daniels. Schur has acknowledged that the very fact that The Good Place characters live (so to speak) in an afterlife means that he can get away with a lot more than most comedies.
Earlier this year, he reminded Newsweek of a scene from last season where Ted Danson’s buttoned-up Michael is so angry that he punts a dog. “It’s not okay to kick a dog! But when he kicks a dog, you’re like ‘Oh, it’s not a real dog,’” Schur said then, referring to Star Trek’s unique take on VR by reminding readers that The Good Place is “a weird Holodeck universe. So you’re more willing to roll with cruelty.”
While I, an animal lover and the daughter of a veterinarian, am at a point where I feel comfortable laughing at a series where a dog gets blasted into the sun, I had to wonder what it was like to actually be working in dark comedies. So I called up Chris Geere.
The British actor has spent four seasons playing the overly smug, borderline alcoholic Jimmy on You’re the Worst. But this year he’s doubling down on the genre with Ill Behaviour. The dramedy, which premiered in the U.S. this month on Showtime, opens with his character, Joel, sitting trepidatiously close to the end of his London flat’s balcony. Instead of igniting fear or concern in the onlookers on the ground, he’s taunting them by making it rain with the money he just received from his divorce settlement. This is merely the precursor to the irony and debauchery that awaits when Joel teams with his friend Tess (Jessica Regan) and the dead-inside oncologist Nadia (Lizzy Caplan) to kidnap his buddy, Charlie (Tom Riley), and force him to get cancer treatment.
“I think complexity is always attractive,” Geere tells Paste. “When I was just starting out, I always imagined myself playing the best friend or guy that got jilted at the altar because… I always wanted to play the nice guy. And I soon realized that that was boring. Playing evil people is one thing. But playing complex characters with deep-rooted issues? You can play those issues without ever talking about them. That sort of thing interested me.”
Despite what he calls Ill Behaviour’s “farcical outcome,” Geere says Joel’s original intention to save his friend is “so honest that I really admired it.” Therefore, he “couldn’t wait to play someone that was so deeply troubled, but had such a wonderful intention.”
As to why he thinks people (me) like to watch shows like this, he says, “simply because of one word: empathy.”
“We like to know that we’re not in this shithole on our own,” Geere says matter-of-factly. “From having a bad day to severe mental illness, people these days believe what they’re going through, they are the only ones going through it and they, themselves, are going to have to resolve it on their own. That’s the most daunting, terrifying thing that any human can go through.”
He adds that to curl up with your TV and “take comfort that other people are experiencing similar things is not only comforting, but it’s quite motivating. It makes you think that there’s something that can be done.”
Geere knows this because he’s been there. (Everyone has. And if you’re the one who hasn’t, why are you reading this? ). When he was younger and in dire straits, financially, he would watch The Office and “take inspiration from” people who were in “unromantic and boring lives.”
But, he says, viewers of You’re the Worst and Ill Behaviour who simply take these and shows like them for the wish-I-could-do-that snide remarks and situations (again, me) may be missing the bigger message. Once these characters “finally take control” of their lives, you get to see some change.
“Take control of your happiness,” he advises watchers. “It’s rewarding that you know that you need to change if you want to grow in any way.”
I don’t know if Geere’s words can make me go through some sort of real-life getting-in-shape movie montage. But I am willing to, at least for a while, temper my TV watching habits with gentler, more optimistic shows. Jane the Virgin, anyone?
Ill Behaviour airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime. You’re the Worst Season Four is now available on FX Now.