TV comedies are evolving—(mostly) gone are the days of laugh tracks and predictable one-liners. With many of television’s boundaries thoroughly pushed already, shows that don’t do something new can seem stale and unoriginal.
If a series is going to survive past its pilot, it needs to explore some aspect of life that we haven’t laughed at a million times before—even if that means mining the most unpleasant of topics. Some of the best comedies out there have found hilarity in the tragic, with new shows like Wilfred making punch lines out of failed suicide attempts.
Here are ten TV shows that can make us squirm as they present the darkest situations in a new light.
10. The Big C
When Cathy Jamison finds out that she’s got cancer, she decides that putting on a happy face and trying to think positively just isn’t for her. Instead, the high school teacher and mother starts to live recklessly, kicking out her husband, buying a new car, and having an affair.
If you haven’t already blazed through a season or two of Weeds on your Netflix queue, the series starts off in the quiet suburbs of Agrestic as Nancy Botwin struggles to support her family following the death of her husband. As the title suggests, she finds an unlikely source of income by selling the green stuff to the untapped market of upper-class socialites in her neighborhood. Of course her involvement with drug dealers gets her into more and more trouble, and as each season progresses, her situation spirals further out of control, but it’s a train wreck from which you can’t look away.
William H. Macy
brings plenty of uncomfortable laughs to this series as Frank Gallagher, an alcoholic deadbeat dad raising a family of delinquents in the slums of Chicago. Since their father is almost always under the influence of something (or passed out on the living room floor), the kids find their own ways of supporting themselves while not exactly obeying all the rules themselves.
7. United States of Tara
Created by Diablo Cody and Steven Spielberg, this edgy little comedy centers around Tara Gregson, a mother and wife with dissociative identity disorder, causing her alternate personalities to take over whenever she’s stressed. At the beginning of the series, Tara has three alters: Alice, a housewife straight out of a 1950s sitcom; T, a flirty, out-of-control 16-year-old girl; and Buck, a manly war vet. More personalities are introduced as the show progresses, but unfortunately the series’ final episode aired last month.
This Showtime series isn’t all beaches and sex scenes as the name suggests—though the latter is definitely a big part of it. At the start of the show, David Duchovny is introduced as Hank Moody, an oversexed, recently dumped novelist with writer’s block. Hank’s promiscuous qualities often get him into trouble, most notably when he sleeps with his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend’s 16-year-old daughter. Yeah, it gets a little complicated, but somehow the show keeps you rooting for Duchovny’s dirtbag character.
5. Eastbound & Down
With an endorsement deal from K-Swiss, Danny McBride’s alter-ego Kenny Powers may soon be bigger than McBride himself. Powers is a washed up baseball player whose fall from grace leads him back to his hometown. He immediately starts training in hopes of returning to the majors—though his fondness for anything from booze to ecstasy often slows his progress.
The now-retired medical sitcom is syndicated on so many channels that the re-runs are almost inescapable. But with all of J.D.’s wacky fantasies and heartwarming sentiments, it can be easy to forget that the show actually employs some pretty dark humor. The main characters do work in a hospital after all, and the show often finds them lightening up situations of death and disease with some much-needed comic relief.
3. South Park
The most offensive cartoon (maybe even just TV show, period) is now into its 15th season, and you can’t imagine that series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone could’ve known the disgusting, vile things their characters would get into back when they were cutting them out of construction paper. The show has always pushed the limits, however: The Simpsons definitely wasn’t killing off a main character on every episode back in the ’90s.
2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The idea behind Sunny is simple yet brilliant—bring together the most narcissistic and cruel characters imaginable and let them wreak havoc on the world. Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie, and Frank all run Patty’s Pub together, though that endeavor never seems to keep them occupied for long. To entertain themselves, the group hatches one scheme after another. “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System,” for example, is Dennis’ foolproof method for manipulating women’s emotions so that they’ll fall in love with him. To give you an idea of how it works, the strategic acronym begins with “Demonstrate value” and ends with “Separate entirely.”
manages to make the most tragic and taboo situations hilarious in his stand-up routine, so it only made sense that his show on FX wouldn’t pull any punches either. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, the comedian gets divorced, copes with aging, and, most recently in the show, watches a homeless man get beheaded by a bus. A huge amount of self-loathing and depression runs throughout the entire series, yet despite being a gigantic bummer, Louie includes enough subtle winks to the audience to remain one of the best comedies on television.