“My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we’ll begin to see decline coming the year after that and beyond,” President of FX Networks John Landgraf said at this year’s seemingly endless semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles. Whether or not you believe that the end of the Golden Age of Television is coming soon, what’s clear is that television has never been such an immensely vital creative force in our culture.
However, that’s not saying television hasn’t been important before. On the contrary, television has been a cornerstone of popular culture for roughly 60 years. But it’s hard to say that it’s ever been this good. Despite this, the conversation around the quality of TV still bears a stain that should be scrubbed out.
When discussing the quality of television today, 90 percent of the time, both in critical and popular discussions, you’re talking about dramas. You’re talking about “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective” or “The Wire.” These complex, mature, dark dramas are certainly wonderful to watch, but so much focus on these shows takes away from the fact that comedy on TV has never been better than it is right now.
Much like that of the great dramas of the modern era, we lack discussions surrounding the exceptional comedy shows available to us on networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “New Girl” have been holding down a strong FOX lineup for a few years now, and ABC’s “Modern Family,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” have been creating what is one of the most diverse lineups in television — even if the comedy itself is rarely innovative.
But, these shows are largely a holdover from the previous era of television comedy. The move away from the traditional multi-camera style to the almost total dominance of film-like, single-camera shows that I call the “Single-Camera Revolution” was heralded by shows like “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Scrubs.” While their formal innovation and penchant for bringing film level talent onto TV would become important, it isn’t what’s happening in today’s era.
What makes today’s era so special is the simple idea of authorial voice: the ability of the creators (particularly the comedians) to put their own personality and ideas into what audiences see on screen. In earlier eras, especially during the 1990s, it was common for edgy or innovative comedians to tone down their voices to win regular sitcom roles. Go look up Bob Saget’s stand-up, then watch an episode of “Full House” — it’ll blow your mind.
Perhaps indebted to similar creative freedoms in drama, comedy now exists not as a channel of comedian popularity, but rather as a channel of comedic talent. Comedian Patton Oswalt tells a story in his stand-up about how he performed shows during “King of Queens,” an utterly traditional multi-camera sitcom starring Adam Sandler and collaborator Kevin James in the “big funny guy with good-looking wife” genre that goes back to “The Honeymooners.” His liberal comments shocked audiences, who expected the same harmless humor that he spouted in his supporting role. But today, when you see a comedian on TV, what you see is almost universally what you get. This allows for real creativity and innovation in performance, in writing and in crafting. Comedy on TV is simply original.
But just talking about why it’s so great isn’t enough. Let’s dive into the networks and shows that not only demonstrate what’s so fantastic about it, but also what you absolutely should be watching. More specifically, let’s look at three of the big networks: Comedy Central, FX and Netflix.
Every conversation about modern TV comedy should make its first stop at Comedy Central. Long the home of stand-up specials, edited movies and the “South Park”/”Daily Show”/”Colbert Report” trifecta of the “really political guy who doesn’t watch the news,” the network has in the past few years become the king of comedy on TV. They find great comedians, they give them the freedom to craft a show to their voice and they let it run with a shocking amount of leeway.
“Inside Amy Schumer” is perhaps the most famous of these today. Amy Schumer is comedy’s “it” girl with her raunchy and cleverly satirical style, and the show is beautifully every bit of that. The show’s “12 Angry Men” parody “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” about whether or not Schumer is hot enough to do TV, is perhaps an even greater statement of her and her purpose than this summer’s hit, “Trainwreck.”
But there’s so much more. “Review” with Forrest MacNeil is almost definitely the best show you’re not watching. The product of possibly insane character improviser and show creator/star Andy Daly, this show is an ever spiraling downward look into one man’s quest to review life experiences like road rage, divorce or starting a cult. It is the funniest and darkest show on TV pound for pound.
“Broad City” celebrates female friendship and the glorious weirdness of being a 20-something with two of the best comedic performers on TV: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.
“Nathan for You” is a show on another level, about a “business school graduate” who tries his best to fix real struggling businesses. Essentially, it’s a show that uses comedy as a tool to manipulate the world around its protagonist.
And I’m sure little has to be said about “Key & Peele,” a brilliant two-man sketch show entering its final season. With this much quality programming, Comedy Central is probably (bold statement alert) one of the best channels running right now.
While Comedy Central is your first stop, the unequivocal second is FX Networks. This network is likely the grandfather of every show on this list, thanks to the two shows at the heart of its comedy line-up.
The first is “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” It’s a show that asks a difficult question: how deep in the depths of depravity can we put a group of characters and still bring an audience back week by week? “It’s Always Sunny” is a bold show, to put it mildly, and its almost brutal insistence on dark humor has turned it into a cult classic. Yet it is unequivocally the show of its creators (Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton, who play Mac and Dennis), and the absolute artistic freedom that they’ve been given to go to horrible places is an inspiration to others.
The second is “Louie,” the eponymous show of creator Louis C.K. If “It’s Always Sunny” uses its creative freedom to go toward the absurd, then “Louie” uses it to become almost painfully close to its creator. “Louie” represents the other tendency of this era of comedy — using comedy to examine the way audiences interact, view or deal with very real world issues, just as stand-up often does. “Louie” is a deeply personal show, closer to film than any multi-camera sitcom. It is wonderfully crafted, beautifully acted and written and intelligent about issues that other shows would stumble over.
While these two shows are the cornerstones of the network, FX has not merely rested on such laurels. “Archer” is still one of the most quotable and joke-dense comedies in the business, entirely based on the characters, with every episode written by its creator, Adam Reed.
“Man Seeking Woman,” “You’re the Worst” and “Married” are a family of shows, each finding its own intelligent way to look at romantic relationships at every possible stage.
And of course, “The League,” a fully improvised show about a team of fantasy football enthusiasts, proves that even in an era of consistently brilliant comedy, there’s nothing like really stupid fun.
Finally, let’s step off television and onto the internet with Netflix. While you’re likely thinking “Orange Is The New Black” (and that’s reasonable because there are definitely funny moments), I have always viewed the show as a drama with comedic elements, like “Mad Men.”
Instead, I’m putting “BoJack Horseman” at the center of their comedy lineup. That’s right, the weird animated one with the animals that has quietly become one of the best shows on Netflix. Combining a sharp satirical tear into Hollywood industry practices and plenty of animal puns with one of the most heartbreaking and realistic portrayals of depression and the difficulties of life, it’s unquestionably a show that could only happen on a platform like Netflix.
However, for a show that almost happened on a network very unlike Netflix (NBC famously lost out on this), look to “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” It’s a relentlessly positive ray of sunshine that feels like show creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey finally got to go off the leash and do every weird thing that they wanted to do during “30 Rock.”
And when talking weird, one cannot forget “Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp.” A prequel show to the cult classic filmed 15 years after the original, it’s everything a prequel, sequel and expansion of a favorite movie should be. Netflix may be the youngest on this list, but it already displays a penchant for groundbreaking comedy that, again, gives the power to its creators.
At this point, you’re thinking, “Wow, that was so long. Surely he must have covered everything?” Well, I didn’t — I’m not even starting on HBO (“Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” Girls,” “Last Week Tonight”), IFC (“Portlandia,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Documentary Now”), Adult Swim (“Rick and Morty,” “The Venture Bros.”) or the countless shows scattered across other networks and online streaming services and those that are unreleased and may be available in the future.
While comedy has always been seen as the silly younger brother of drama — an amusing distraction from people being serious on the rest of television — we cannot ignore how innovative and amazing comedy on TV is right now. It’s fresh, it’s clever, it’s even deeply and truly emotional. It takes talent from all walks of life and gives them a chance to show audiences who they are, to make us laugh and to make us think. To put it simply, it’s a Golden Age for comedy on TV. And right now, I don’t see it stopping.
Opinion Editor | Brandon Wagner is a College Senior from God Only Knows Where, America studying Film and Media Studies with a minor in Religion. This is his first year for the Wheel, in a likely misguided experiment to be a film critic. When he's not writing on the biggest blockbusters or the films of Spike Jonze or Andrei Tarkovsky or Zack Snyder, he's writing on comedic television, the future of gaming as an art, or the relationship between audience and cinematic experience. In other words, Brandon Wagner has basically nothing else going on but this.