Some of the best television in recent years has dealt with suicide, rape, grief and depression. It's also been very, very funny, delivering whip-smart humour between the blows.
The dramedy – a portmanteau of drama and comedy – is a sub-genre which has been around for a long time, deriving from the tragicomedy of Ancient Greek theatre in which plays gave audiences catharsis through witnessing human suffering, while also making them laugh as a comforting, but surprising, antidote.
Television has long explored the space between making us uncomfortable and making us laugh, but in recent years the tragicomedy has come into its own, peering into the most uncomfortable parts of humanity one second, feeding us a wry one-liner the next.
Dark comedy is also thriving in cinema" just look to this year's Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Parasite, a jet-black social satire about inequality which is also packed with wickedly funny lines.
Tragicomedies fit a time when we feel horrified by the news of police brutality, climate change, doxxing, violence against women and all the other colossally depressing ills of the world which serve as a backdrop to mundane, infuriating trials of daily life: smashing your phone, someone not fancying us back, missing a work deadline or getting a bad haircut.
In recent hit shows like I May Destroy You, Fleabag and Russian Doll the characters who guide us through their traumas have a wry, detached sense of humour while confronting their daemons. Here the comedy doesn't give us a palatable way of swallowing this pain, instead it lulls us into a false sense of security before pulling the switch and reminding us of what the humour is masking.
These shows have a sense of humour in responding to the darkest things inside us, because sometimes we have no choice but to laugh.
Natasha Lyonne's darkly comic series follow a young woman called Nadia who keeps dying on the night of her 36th birthday at a party in the East Village of New York, each death restarting another time loop of the evening. The series grapples with existential dread through facing down death, also looking at her troubled childhood in the shadow of her mother's mental illness. Created by Lyonne alongside Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the show zips between dark moments of dread and Nadia's wisecracks seamlessly.
"I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my heart," says Phoebe Waller-Bridge's titular character in the second season of Fleabag, before laughing, "I'm good at this." The furious and furiously funny series is always in the shadow of grief and yet doesn't shy away from the comedy that can come even in the bleakest of moments. As Fleabag's sister says while losing her baby in the toilet cubicle in a restaurant, while still annoyed enough at her sister to snipe at her: "Get your hands off my miscarriage – it's mine!".
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel's electrifying BBC series retells the night she was sexually assaulted after being drugged in a bar, piecing together the clues through her foggy memories in the subsequent days. I May Destroy You looks into the dark heart of trauma, exploring broken families, lonely children, sexual betrayal and so many other tragic moments which flit across the screen. It's also brilliantly limber in how it jumps from harrowing scenes to hilarious ones, the result a series which feels like you're a in a bumper car speeding up and crashing over and over again.
HBO's masterful family dynasty drama about warring siblings and their overlord father, a terrifying media tycoon they all long to succeed, interweaves a deep sense of dread with hilarious satire so tightly that it's hard to put your finger on the emotions it makes you feel while watching it. Created by Peep Show's Jesse Armstrong, Succession's script is stuffed with lines that will have you laughing aloud throughout. Then there's moments which catch you off-guard, like a son in a depressed stupor trying to impress the father that doesn't love him, which have the riveting drama of a Shakespearian play.
The deadpan cynicism of this adult animated series is perfectly tempered by its acerbic wit, telling the story of a humanoid horse, and washed up Nineties sitcom star, who wants to make a comeback in a changed world. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who was inspired by the way shows like The Simpsons were able to tell sad stories without sacrificing humour, Bojack Horseman has reckoned with complicated issues from political correctness to the #MeToo movement, using its trademark humour to make sobering points.
Dead To Me
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are excellent in this pitch black comedy about a woman who meets an unlikely ally at a support group after losing her husband in a hit-and-run. What on the surface seems like a light-hearted female comedy in fact asks interesting questions about the complex nature of grief and what it means to carry on after you lose someone. It also provides an unusual setting to show female solidarity and the way women hold each other up.
Bill Hader was fuelled by his own anxiety to co-write this surreal series about a hitman who wants to get out of the game and finds himself thrust into another world when he takes up acting. Hader, who has twice won Emmys for this role, is sublime at showing the darkness and light twisting inside Barry and delivers deadpan humour better than anyone. Though there's a lot of death to be seen here, Barry is really about all of the complicated parts of being alive: starting over, figuring out who you are and trying to like yourself.
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