Andrea Savage’s I’m Sorry and the Limits of Cringe Comedy

TV Features I'm Sorry
Andrea Savage’s I’m Sorry and the Limits of Cringe Comedy

Season One of Andrea Savage’s I’m Sorry presents its finale this week. It’s always useful, because it’s really that subjective, to question why something is or isn’t funny (or dramatic, or compelling) to you, and I’ve been doing it quite a bit lately. Television comedy has formulas. It has a bunch of them, but all identifiable and easy enough to critique in the context of their formula or whatever variant of a given formula it is. That’s not a jab. Every kind of everything has formulas, it’s just how the world works. The human world, at any rate. Although the rise of non-traditional media and distribution platforms has made some changes to the range and depth and especially the sheer quantity of content available to us, we are pattern-driven creatures.

In the long, long history of the half-hour situational comedy there are many sub-patterns. Shows where each episode is essentially a standalone, even if it has the same characters. Shows that develop characters over a multi-season arc. Shows that are plot-driven, shows that pivot more on character. Shows that take place in a truly single “situation” or setting and those that flash between a number of them. And countless hybrids. There’s the didactic “what did we learn from this kooky episode?” style, the School of Constantly Escalating Embarrassment, the Shit-That’s-Cold strain of comedic hijinks; there’s satire and parody and metatextual reference-fest and “aw-shucks gimme a hug ya big galoot” comedy.

Savage hails from the Cringe School. Some people love it, some people don’t. Either reaction is reasonable.

The sitcom has a formula: Los Angeles comedienne juggling an edgy comedy world with a nice stable marriage and a cute pre-kindergarten daughter. I happen to be a mother of two girls who cannot leave a wildly inappropriate joke alone to save my life, and routinely shock the other grownups with my cavalier use of colorful Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, so you’d assume Andrea Warren (Savage’s alter ego) would be my ultimate playdate. Well, I assumed that.

Instead I found myself wondering if I was as exhausting to other people as this character was to me.

Don’t get me wrong, Savage is actually really funny, at least a lot of the time. She’s surrounded by great supporting characters, and as someone who tends to upset the Junior League ladies I related to a lot of the situations around trying to fit in at school in a parent community that maybe doesn’t quite understand you or that moment when it’s totally clear you should have shut up 34 seconds ago or realizing that someone doesn’t want their kid at your house because you say the f-word way too much. Yet for every moment in this season that has made me laugh there have been two that made me think, “I needed you to shut up 34 seconds ago.” So I’ve been trying to put my finger on why.

I think this show has a case of Goes Too Far / Doesn’t Go Far Enough Syndrome.
The characters are presented in a robust, 3D, totally-there way (I especially love her lawyer husband, Mike, played by Tom Everett Scott; her writing partner, Kyle, played by Jason Mantzoukas; and her fellow preschool-parent, Ed, played by Gary Anthony Williams). You don’t need much time with any of them, from the mixed-bag preschool moms to the raunchy poker-night crowd to Andrea’s Totes Freaks mom and dad, who make it easy to see where Andrea got her boundary issues. There is some stunningly adroit portraiture here—you get these people in a few lines. That’s not a thing everyone is good at.

By definition, though, portraits are static. And that’s the deal with most of these characters, including Andrea herself: They really don’t change. That’s not always a problem. Bart Simpson has been a fourth grader since the late ‘80s and he’s still funny. But you trade certain things for that choice. Like stakes. Like long-term arc. Like audience investment. By about the third episode I could predict exactly when Andrea was going to pull out her trademark shoulder-shimmy-and-escalating-inappropriate-verbal-diarrhea thing, and by the fifth I was wondering why she was still doing it. To take as a contrast a half-hour sitcom that surprised me in the other direction, and which I’ve written about a bunch of times: Playing House. I went into it expecting it to be a little Wonderbread Genteel for my tastes and ended up falling in love with it and I think the reason is all about this tradeoff. That show doesn’t punch very hard in some ways, but those people, even when they’re at their most absurd, make you care about them because they change and grow and face things and morph over time. That’s one of the opportunities afforded writers of serialized programs and it’s risky not to take it.

Savage is spirited and sincerely funny and has some serious moxie. She’s smart. But the Cringe School has graduated some serious players, notably Curb Your Enthusiasm, and playing in the Cringe School’s sandbox isn’t easy. The parts are here. Good characters, deftly expressed, and smart production. But there can be something a little one-note and relentless about it, and what I’d hope for out of a second season would be an Andrea Savage who looks just a couple of steps past the punchline. I am positive she’d more than capable of it. The episodes as they are have a stable rhythm, but not a lot of momentum. It’d be nice to see a bit more of a long game in evidence going forward. I mean… butthole jokes are never out of style. But I’m still waiting for the nasty woman who outed the former porn star nice-mommy to get her comeuppance! What happened to that? It was worth a multi-episode arc! I don’t know, it just… it’s a choice. I’d love to see these talented people learn to braid, because weaving some of the episodic material into bigger and more elaborate threads could be amazing.

The season finale of I’m Sorry airs Wednesday, Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. on truTV.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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