From Veep to The Good Place, the Art of Finding TV Comedy’s Story Engine

TV Features Comedies
From Veep to The Good Place, the Art of Finding TV Comedy’s Story Engine

Comedy on TV was once mostly restricted to self-contained episodes, with little to no serialized plot. When there was a long-running, ongoing story, it usually lurked in the background. The simmering sexual tension found in will-they-won’t-they relationships like Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long) on Cheers, or Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) on The Office, was carefully threaded over the course of seasons, but it rarely dominated the runtime of any episode.

But in the past 10 years, the recent growth of plot-driven comedy series has allowed new forms of comedy to thrive. Satire, for example, tends to flourish more easily when it’s grounded in plot; the ongoing story elements of a satirical series are often more important to the comedy than clever dialogue or low-stakes interpersonal conflict. This isn’t to say that all comedies benefit from serialized narrative arcs—just as many shows excel without any serialization. The duty of the showrunner and writers is to figure out what approach works for their particular series. If they choose the wrong one, the show can feel like it’s working against itself.

Two series on HBO, Veep and Silicon Valley, have had this issue. Both rely on a steadily moving plot to make their satire stick, because without the politics- and tech industry-focused stories, the series couldn’t exist. These shows must be plot-driven, because without change—in setting, in character dynamics, in the characters’ individual career standings—the satire would get stale.

The latest season of Veep suffered from that very sense of stasis. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) losing the presidential election in Season Five seemed to promise fertile new ground in Season Six, but the show has been content to repeat itself instead of evolving and taking its characters to interesting new places. We know the basic formula by now: Selina treats personal aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) like shit; spokesman Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) bumbles around, forgetting important documents; and Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) fails upwards.

True, those patterns were well established in previous seasons, but they feel particularly stale in Season Six because the plot itself—not just the character dynamics—is stuck. Veep is funniest, most biting and most exciting when a million things are happening at once, when Selina’s team has to put out a dozen fires while simultaneously fundraising, securing votes and keeping allegiances intact. Season Six lacks that urgency, and as a result the satire falls short. While the finale suggests a return to form—Selina is back on the campaign trail—that in itself is another disappointingly transparent reversion to the norm. Paradoxically, the only move lazier than eschewing plot in favor of tired running jokes is going back to an admittedly reliable formula. One begins to suspect Season Five should’ve been the series’ last.

Silicon Valley, too, has hinted at new directions but failed to break out of old patterns. In the fourth episode of Season Four, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) assembles an intriguing new team to work on his decentralized internet project: Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Jared (Zach Woods). It’s a surprising choice of characters to group together, considering that Gilfoyle rarely has the opportunity to operate outside of his frenemy-ship with Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani). Even more significantly, the previous three seasons pitted Richard and Gavin against each other; a potential partnership between them is ripe with storytelling opportunity.

And then, in the next episode, Gavin leaves for Tibet, the group returns to home base, and this glorious idea is snuffed out before it begins. This happens repeatedly throughout the series, but Silicon Valley usually finds a way to make its try-fail cycles feel fresh; Season Three’s “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack,” for example, teases a whole arc devoted to an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist, but it comes to an abrupt end when Richard trips and spills incriminating documents, revealing their whole plan in the same episode it was introduced. In that instance, Richard’s failure felt like a wicked, funny joke. In Season Four, though, forgoing new stories in favor of returning the series to its starting position only exacerbates the feeling that the writers have gotten lazy.

When series like Veep and Silicon Valley deprive their viewers of plot movement and stay in their comfort zones, they begin to resemble low-stakes hangout sitcoms, which is contrary to such shows’ satirical aims. These series thrive on conflict, and interesting new character groupings are essential. Turning Selina’s disrespect for Gary and disdain for her daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), up to 11 isn’t enough to offset the aimlessness of a plotless season, nor is Silicon Valley’s halfhearted antihero arc for Richard.

In these cases, the engine that drives the comedy is plot itself, and losing that strong narrative core can be fatal. On the other hand, the right series need not construct a serial narrative to offer a certain kind of political commentary: In the recently canceled The Carmichael Show, for example, each episode is structured around a “dilemma of the week,” usually ethical in nature. Episode titles like “Guns,” “Gentrifying Bobby” and “Support the Troops” exemplify the show’s episodic structure. While some episodes focus on issues in Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) and Maxine’s (Amber Stevens West) relationship, like “Everybody Cheats” and “Perfect Storm,” these issues are typically confined to the episode, with few far-reaching consequences. This approach works for the show, which uses its traditional family sitcom template to explore different perspectives on political issues with nuance and open-mindedness.

By contrast, early “hangout comedies” like Seinfeld and Friends, rely on the particular energy and tone of their central friend groups. New Girl, for instance, excels when the writers stick characters in a room together and let them have wacky conversations. There are wisps of plot and character development to prevent characters from feeling too static—Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) gradually matures enough to open a bank account and commit to his writing career, for example—but this progression happens slowly, rarely dominating any particular arc. While Veep and Silicon Valley will be remembered for their incisive commentary on the structures they satirize, New Girl will be remembered for the bizarre hijinks in a Los Angeles loft: nonsensical games like True American and silly alter egos like Julius Pepperwood.

If plot-driven shows like Veep and Silicon Valley fail when they stray from their densely plotted arcs, low-stakes hangout comedies fail, conversely, when they impose a complex plot on a show that doesn’t need it. Season Three of New Girl suffered due to the manufactured drama of Nick and Jess’s (Zooey Deschanel) breakup, and immediately the show improved during Season Four and Season Five, when plot was kept to a minimum.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia represents the stasis of hangout comedies, taken to the extreme. It thrives on the intellectual and emotional stagnation in which its ignorant characters exist; the never-changing maniacal delusion of “the gang” finds new ways to manifest in each episode. Like on New Girl, the least funny episodes of It’s Always Sunny tend to be the ones where a lot happens. “Frank’s Brother,” a prequel episode telling a story from Frank’s (Danny DeVito) past, is frequently cited as the worst, and it’s partly for that reason. To introduce an actual story in a series loved for its characters’ hilariously ignorant conversations is to clutter the show up and forget what makes it special.

There are exceptions to both rules, of course, and interesting wrinkles appear when the form and content of a comedy series are opposed. The Good Place has the tone of Michael Schur’s other comedies, like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and yet it’s plotted like a fantasy drama, and structured with cliffhangers at the end of every episode. (The same is true of Younger.) The Last Man on Earth relies even more on plot and setting, being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where survival isn’t a given and main characters in the central friend group are even sometimes killed off, The Walking Dead-style. But the show’s frequent forays into typical sitcom-style episodic plots are all the funnier because of how the traditional form contrasts so jarringly with the alien dystopian setting.

There’s a multitude of factors that go into creating a good comedy series—no amount of clever plotting will make up for dull, two-dimensional characters, of course, and no eclectic setting will make a comedy funny if the dialogue is atrocious. Still, it’s worth considering what the natural engine is for a comedy series: Does it require an overarching plot, or is it better with low-stakes storytelling and jokes based mostly on dialogue between friends? Calibrating the balance of plot can be one of the most difficult parts of writing comedy, but when you pull it off, you come away with a series that feels both funnier and more confident in its identity. You can come up with funny one-liners all day, but sometimes what’s most important is that a comedy feels like its best, truest self.

Ben Rosenstock is a New York City-based writer and critic whose work has appeared in Audiences Everywhere and The Michigan Daily, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @brosenstock18.

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