It’s not groundbreaking to say that comedy, as a genre, has the latitude to experiment with novel concepts in ways that drama doesn’t. From whimsical soliloquies on ethics and death to hour-long laugh-riot mental-health musicals, comedy on television has never been so adventurous—nor so sprawling—as it has been in the last half-dozen years, as “peak TV” has become ascendant. In that ascendancy, sitcoms have evolved and complicated: Concepts both high (Younger) and high (Broad City) exist in the same ecosystem; the rise of streaming has given shows like Master of None the opportunity to play with comedy as arthouse fare; and one of network television’s best offerings of 2017 featured, earnestly, a talking dog.
And yet, while nearly every sitcom role imaginable has opened up for adults and even teens who think they’re funny, little kids have remained, when they exist at all, just that: little kids. Convenient plot devices, rarely little more than adorable and/or aggravatingly precocious props. And when sitcoms’ little kids have broken out and made a real character for themselves? It has been, so often, the boys: Evan Huang. Bert Harrison. Manny Pritchett. Brick Heck. All those brothers Malcolm was in the middle of. Young Sheldon.
Recently, though, this has begun to change. Sitcom’s little girls are finally finding their voices—and they are delightfully weird, and occasionally, impressively, scary.
First came Lily Tucker-Pritchett (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), who started Modern Family’s epic run as a quintessential plot device baby. But as the show aged, so did she—and so did her sharp tongue. From a very early age, Lily was talking back to and around the rest of the Tucker-Pritchett-Dunphy clan, spurred to acerbic proto-maturity by her older family members’ enduring lack of maturity and/or boundaries of their own. Dry-witted and far too cutthroat for comfort, Lily is unapologetic about plotting her own arc.
Even more cutthroat than Lily Tucker-Pritchett is, of course, black-ish’s Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin), whose mere existence has terrorized her family since episode one, and whose unexplained and inexplicable enmity with her dad’s friend Charlie (Deon Cole) is the stuff of comedic gold.
Like little sitcom girls before her, Diane is precocious, but not as a vague replacement for a personality: She is precocious in a specific and alarming way, hyperfocused on facts and issues which should be well outside her elementary school purview, and physically quick as a viper. In her terrifying precocity, she is the film negative of her twin brother, Jack (Miles Brown), who is as dim as he is sweet—but this isn’t a cheap writing trick on the show’s part. For all that she is legitimately alarming, Diane’s spikes are regularly shown to be something she puts up preemptively to both identify and protect herself in such a big family, in which she might otherwise get lost. In the most recent episode, “First and Last,” for example, her intensity is ratcheted up to eleven — “She’s threatened to burn the house down before, but this time I think she wants us in it!” Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) hisses; “Diane’s always tough,” Dre (Anthony Anderson) winces, “but usually she has the precision of a sniper. Now she’s just a lunatic lobbing cherry bombs at a gas station!” — but this turns out to be both a result of and cover for her first period, which is also the first period of anyone in her class, which has confused and embarrassed her and pushed her into extra (deadly) prickliness. Once Jack calls in the older sister troops and the rest of the Johnson-adjacent women descend to share their own confusion and embarrassment, the cherry-bomb-lobbing subsides, and Diane, returning to the sniper-precise toughness that is her baseline, visibly grows as a person.
In Stuck in the Middle, a recent and stellar sitcom addition over on Disney Channel (ABC’s family-friendlier sister network), Daphne Diaz (Ariana Greenblatt) has happily taken on the mantle of Diane’s long-distance soul sister. The youngest of seven kids, Daphne exists as an almost feral addition to the family, living in her own toy house on the landing between the other kids’ rooms, wandering around in hodgepodge costume outfits and birds-nest hair, toting horror film baby dolls with chopped off hair and scribbled on makeup.
She, like Diane, engenders true fear in the hearts of her family members, who know not to cross her—and who lose eyebrows or precious childhood mementos whenever they forget. But her spikes also stem from a degree of self-protection as the youngest in a large family, a lesson the show’s main character, Harley (Jenna Ortega), learned near the end of the first season, when Daphne manipulated her into lockdown because she had no other way to force her sister to spend time with her. (It’s Disney; the sitcoms always end in lessons.)
ABC and Disney have the corner on family sitcoms, and thus on the scary little oddball girls within them (see also: Dylan on Speechless, Anna Kat on American Housewife, Ava on Girl Meets World, Mabel on Gravity Falls, and Webby on DuckTales), but there are a few weird and scary little girls who exist in non-sitcomy roles outside the mouse ears’ shadow. FOX’s animated comedy Bob’s Burgers has little terror Louise Belcher (Kristen Schaal), for example, while its live-action supernatural police procedural dramedy Lucifer features precisely one non-adult, Trixie (Scarlett Estevez), the daughter of the two lead LAPD detectives whose enthusiasm about the demon Mazikeen’s (Lesley-Ann Brandt) torture skills and devices is introduced only as one facet of a layered life experience she is having in connection with but also apart from any of the adults in her life. BBC America, meanwhile, had Orphan Black’s Kira (Skyler Wexler)—not the clone club’s only little kid, but the only one with a personality (unsettling) and a plot arc (equally so, and integral to the clones’ survival).
Ultimately, while the specificity of each of these new sitcom girls is useful to their shows’ plots, Lily’s, Diane’s, Daphne’s, and all the other new sitcom girls’ scary weirdness, rather than standing in for a personality that isn’t ever developed, makes them complete characters. And while I hear Young Sheldon is actually a pretty compelling kid, that’s some Unicorn Age comedy magic I’m glad to see.
black-ish airs Tuesdays at 9 and Modern Family Wednesdays at 9 on ABC. Stuck in the Middle airs on Disney Channel. Check listings here.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.