“Let me understand. You got the hen, the chicken, and the rooster. The rooster goes with the chicken. So, who’s having sex with the hen? SOMETHING’S MISSING!” – Frank Costanza, Seinfeld, S07E11
Sunday night, HBO introduced two new comedies to their shelf of “meh” half hour shows. And, while I’m not ready to write off Insecure or Divorce quite yet, as both certainly have potential (especially Insecure) and I’ve seen one episode of each to date, these rather unimpressive landings feed into a larger point: why is it that, with a few exceptions, HBO has such a hard time picking half hour comedies for their network?
This article may be made up of a group of hot takes, but for me, there have only been three truly brilliant comedies on HBO over the last twenty or so years, with a fourth having the potential to reach that level. These are Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, and the underrated Life and Times of Tim, with Silicon Valley getting to that point. This is since the beginning of the “modern era” of the network, meaning I’m not including shows from upwards of twenty years ago (thus Mr. Show and Larry Sanders Show won’t be brought up much.) Why is it though, that the network with probably the best history of dramatic television can’t seem to choose their comedies as well?
Let’s begin with Divorce, the highest profile new comedy on the network. Created by Catastrophe‘s Sharon Hogan and starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, this dark comedy about, well, divorce, really did have potential. There are moments in the pilot that have moments of brilliance, such as the cold open of the show, wherein Church delivers a monologue about having to shit in a coffee can before a smash cut to the title card, or the various jabs at Church’s mustache, yielding a lot of comedy over the course of the half hour. However, for the most part, the pilot drags. A scene at a dinner party gone wrong seems to last forever, and isn’t able to straddle the line between funny and painful, descending largely into the latter. The actors don’t have a lot of chemistry, making it hard to see what drew these two characters together in the first place, and the comedy of the show mostly comes from Church, whereas Parker is always a little too dramatic in scenes meant to have comedy and a little too comedic in scenes meant for drama. It’s a show that, when it lands, can deliver a laugh, but as a story and as a force of consistency, isn’t able to hold up.
Now, once again, I haven’t seen past the pilot, and being that I’ll be watching HBO on Sunday nights anyway for Westworld, I’ll stick through to see what happens in Divorce over the next couple of weeks, but judging by what we have so far, it seems like a swing and a miss.
Insecure is a better show than Divorce. It’s more consistent, it’s more of a true comedy, and Issa Rae is more than talented enough to carry her own show. However, at least in the pilot, something about the show isn’t quite hooking yet. The premise is pretty simple: Issa Rae, playing a slightly dramatized version of herself, just turned twenty nine, and wants to make her life more fun. Her best friend, Molly, is more successful, but also less stable in terms of relationship status. These are really the only two main characters, and seemingly, we’ll be following both of their professional and personal lives throughout the remainder of the season. The two women have natural chemistry, and there are some decent quips in the premiere, but thus far, we have no real reason to care. Why are these three or four witty quips per episode better than, say, an episode of Family Guy? Obviously, HBO wants to consider itself a more artistic network, and would argue for the intellectualism and plot points of these two shows over the directionless plotting of an episode of Family Guy, but the mark of a successful show is to complete the tasks it sets forth for itself.
If the fundamental reason for me watching an episode of Family Guy is to make me laugh a few times over the course of 22 minutes, it has succeeded. If the mission statement of Divorce is to make me incredibly invested in the plot over an extended length, it has not. If the mission statement is to make me fall out of my chair laughing, it equally hasn’t done this job. Why then, is it so hard for these half hour long dramedies to succeed, and why is HBO so bad at picking them?
Look at recent history. In between the successes of Veep, Silicon Valley, and the wildly inconsistent Girls, almost every comedy on the network hasn’t worked. Togetherness could never find a proper direction despite its likable leads, and was cancelled after two seasons. Looking was never able to find a narrative direction that was compelling and lasted two seasons (and a movie to finish). The Brink was a mess in every aspect of the word and couldn’t get more than one season. Family Tree, despite boasting Christopher Guest, was a bore and lasted a single season. Getting On, Doll & Em, Hello Ladies… the list goes on and on. The most successful new comedy out HBO has been Ballers, and while the show isn’t particularly good, it has at least managed to pick up the audience of Entourage and bring The Rock to television.
The root of the problem lies in the ways a lot of these comedies are booked. Many times, one star gets attached to a project, and despite the lack of comedy and/or plot in the show, the star power is enough to bring the show to television, even if the scripts could use rewrites and overhauls. This lack of attention to detail is not the same for the drama department. Just look at Westworld, a show that was delayed an extra six or so months due to the need for redefinition of the story and the writing. Now, it’s obvious that the extra time paid dividends. However, for the comedies, it’s the opposite. If, say, Mark Duplass signs an overall deal with the network, he essentially gets to make an unpolished show in his own way. Here we have something like Togetherness. And, while I’m all for creative freedom, sometimes it’s best to put a fist down before a show gets too far down its own rabbit hole.
Of course, sometimes this works out. Just look at Veep, wherein Armando Iannucci and co. could really do whatever they wanted, and it turned out excellently. Although, I would argue that Iannucci had already been tried and tested with The Thick of It, and that the network had a basis for giving him such trust. Likewise with other successes (giving Larry David full creative control to do what he pleases isn’t a really controversial decision, and it’s no surprise it ended up creating one of the funniest shows of all time.)
In the end, it’s more of a gripe than it is a major thorn in the side of the modern television landscape. Other networks are better at pulling off a decent dramedy, (Amazon Prime boasts both Transparent and Catastrophe) while others still can produce a better straight comedy (looking at you, FX). And, in reality, I’ll probably be watching both Divorce and Insecure through their first seasons, and my perception could certainly change.
Only time will tell, I suppose. For now, let’s just all start to mentally prepare ourselves for Curb season nine.
Want more on HBO’s Westworld? Listen to my podcast about the first two episodes right here! http://maxthesultan.com/2016/10/westworld-ep1/