Reviewing a new TV show usually comes out to about 50 percent analysis of what's there, 50 percent psychic projection of what the show might become past the episode(s) you've seen. With comedy, the balance tilts heavily towards the psychic end of things, because so few comedies start out strongly, and you have to make an informed guess as to what mediocre pilot will turn out to be great like “Parks and Recreation,” and what will settle for being crass like “2 Broke Girls.”
Even having more episodes beyond the pilot isn't always a help. Back in January, for instance, Comedy Central sent out the first two “Broad City”s to critics. They were clever and seemed to have a distinctive voice, but it was a busy time of year, and I moved on to other things. Then my friends kept raving about it, I watched the rest of the season over the summer, and fell hard for the rest of it. (Really, it's clearly becoming great as early as episode 3.)
Even in this era of Too Much Good TV, summer is still a reasonable time to catch up on things I've missed like that, and to stick with shows that didn't necessarily wow me at first. In two recent instances, that patience has paid off terrifically – and in ways that are eerily similar – as I stuck with FX's “You're the Worst” and Netflix's “BoJack Horseman” until they turned out to be much more impressive than they seemed at first.
“You're the Worst” was one of four series premieres in the same night, all of which I found so unremarkable that I reviewed them briefly together. I liked the idea that creator Stephen Falk was playing with – two awful, shallow people struggling with the realization that they like each other as more than just sex buddies – but felt the execution wasn't quite there in the first couple of episodes, and that Aya Cash was hitting the narrow “loathsome yet lovable” window much more closely than Chris Geere.
I didn't even write a review of “BoJack Horseman,” meanwhile, though Fienberg and I discussed it on that week's podcast. Despite some amusing moments in each of the three episodes I saw – not to mention the many weird permutations of the show's conceit of a world where humans interact with animal/human hybrids like BoJack and his dog rival Mr. Peanut Butter – it felt like a variant on a dozen or so different animated comedies from Adult Swim, FX, and elsewhere.
Still, there were enough glimmers in both to stick with them, especially in the slow season. Netflix's all-at-once model let me quickly zip through the remaining “BoJack” installments, and I caught up on “You're the Worst” over the past week through a mix of FX screeners and On Demand(*). And both not only got better as they went along, but through the same method: by taking the emotions of the characters very seriously, no matter how ridiculous the situation.
(*) One awkward thing about the On Demand experience: One of the “You're the Worst” characters is Edgar, an Iraq veteran suffering from severe PTSD, while one of the commercials paired with every On Demand episode of the show is about how much fun life is in the Army reserves.
That's obviously an easier thing to do when you're a live-action comedy like “You're the Worst,” featuring human characters living in the world outside our window (if your window happens to be in Silverlake). A romance between a bitter novelist who's already a has-been after only one book and a publicist terrified of accessing her own emotions is likely to involve some pathos if the creative team is doing its job right. It just makes sense that a show about Jimmy (Geere, whom I've come to like a lot more as the show has gone on) and Gretchen (Cash) falling for each other – while constantly denying that this is what's happening – would have to turn dark and introspective at times, and it has.
Falk and company have cleverly taken their two nasty heroes and put them through the traditional paces of a romantic comedy, knowing that the characters' disdain for all this stuff will liven up every cliché. (Tonight's episode – airing, like usual, at 10:30 on FX – involves Jimmy meeting Gretchen's parents for the first time.) The writing has turned out to be really sharp, at times evoking the brutal zingers of “Happy Endings” (a dismayed Jimmy, upon learning the identity of Gretchen's favorite James Bond, retorts, “Daniel Craig?!?!? He looks like an upset baby!”), and the show has fun ideas, like Jimmy and Gretchen keeping score to maintain equilibrium when they start sleeping with other people. (Sex with an ex only counts as a half-person, logically.) But ultimately the show works because the relationship isn't just treated as a joke, nor are any of the characters. Edgar (Desmin Borges) seemed like a cartoon at first, but his PTSD is presented as a thing he genuinely struggles with, which only makes the humor the show is able to mine from it feel more rich. Gretchen's best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is stuck in a loveless marriage to the nerdy Paul (Allan McLeod), yet every time we see Paul, he comes across as by far the most thoughtful, well-adjusted and happy person on the show. And when Jimmy is sad, or Gretchen is angry, you feel the weight of those emotions, which also livens up all the comedy surrounding their aversion to all things schmoopy.
It's turned out to be a really strong debut season, and I hope FX – whose executives have been preaching about the increasing irrelevance of overnight ratings – keeps it around even though the traditional numbers have been awfully thin so far.
“BoJack Horseman” (which Netflix has already renewed) in some ways is an even more impressive achievement, because how on earth can you take anything on this show seriously when your hero (Will Arnett) is a talking horse-man, Patton Oswalt pops up as both a seal who's in the Navy and a penguin who's in the book publishing game, and Keith Olbermann has a recurring role as a news anchor who's a whale? Yet Raphael Bob-Waksberg has created something that simultaneously functions as both lunatic farce and melancholy character study.
Initially, “BoJack” feels like just another satire making fun of a has-been – BoJack once starred in a popular '90s sitcom called “Horsin' Around,” where he raised three adorable human children – pathetically clinging to celebrity. And there's plenty of mockery of BoJack's career and the entertainment industry in general, at times with actors like Naomi Watts and Margo Martindale(**) having fun sending up their own images. But as BoJack struggles to produce a memoir with the help of ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie), the show becomes an honest examination of all the mistakes that turned BoJack into this wealthy but miserable joke, and of the many forces that motivate him to cling to the spotlight for dear life.
(**) In the ongoing war with Ann Dowd for TV character actress supremacy, Martindale's role here is an impressive gambit, and not just because she is always referred to in dialogue as “character actress Margo Martindale.” Your move, Dowd. See if maybe “Phineas & Ferb” will hire you to romance Doofenshmirtz for a few episodes.
It's not just BoJack whose pain feels real amidst all the showbiz hijinks and bizarre cartoon animal/person logic. All of the major characters get moments of harsh, poignant clarity at some point or other, whether it's Diane, BoJack's roommate Todd (Aaron Paul, Pinkman-ing things up nicely) – like Edgar on “You're the Worst,” he's a squatter who's become the hero's best friend because no one else will have him – BoJack's agent and ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his dying mentor Herb (Stanley Tucci, wonderful), BoJack's idol Secretariat (John Krasinski), or even the desperate penguin from Penguin.
Given how the world of the show seems designed, like certain Adult Swim comedies, to be best appreciated while stoned, it's amazing how three-dimensional the characters become, and how poignant so much of the season's second half is, even while it's packed with absurd gags. (My favorite involves Vincent Adultman, a character whom only BoJack seems to realize is actually three little boys standing on each other's shoulders while wearing a trench coat, “Little Rascals”-style.)
Television has plenty of fine comedies whose first, second and nineteenth priority is simply to make the audience laugh, and that succeed at that without worrying about complex characterization or naked emotional moments. (The larger FX family has several of these, including “The League” – which returned to FXX last night – and “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”) And the medium doesn't lack for sitcoms that reach for your heartstrings without bothering to earn it in any way. But when you get shows like “You're the Worst” and “BoJack Horseman” that give you excellent comedy and tragedy in equal measure, it's enormously satisfying.
I'm glad I had the time and the patience to stick with both. It's always a pleasure when something surprises you by turning out to be great in the end.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org