(This story contains spoilers for tonight’s episodes of Barry and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as well as recent episodes of black-ish.)
Something funny happened to three of TV’s best comedies this week: they all got very serious.
This week’s black-ish continued a story arc about Dre and Bow’s marriage abruptly hitting the skids. Tonight’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine saw Jake and the squad freaking out after learning that Rosa was on scene at an incident with an active shooter who had already killed several civilians. And tonight’s Barry placed the title character in a position where he had to murder his friend Chris, a husband and father whom Barry unwittingly drew into his hitman world, and who died tearfully pleading for his life.
The lines between comedy and drama have been blurring to the point of meaninglessness over the last few years, as some of the darkest, most moving series on television are “comedies” like Atlanta or BoJack Horseman. But even if you go back to the 20th century, some of the most famous moments from traditional comedies like All in the Family, Taxi, Cheers, M*A*S*H, and more were the serious ones, while other sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes and Saved by the Bell became infamous for “Very Special Episodes,” that were well-meaning but clumsy in their attempts to put the jokes aside and discuss a topical issue.
That three comedies all took dramatic turns in the same week of 2018 isn’t all that shocking, particularly when all three have done it before. black-ish has done incredibly powerful work about race in America (most notably the episode “Hope,” where the Johnsons talk about the recent spate of innocent black people shot by law-enforcement). Brooklyn‘s first episode of May a year ago was also a serious one, as Terry got racially profiled by a white cop. And from the start, Barry has taken the deaths Barry inflicts very seriously, even as much of the show’s focus is on the comic juxtaposition of a hitman taking an acting class. But the degree to which each show was creatively successful, or not, provides some object lessons on when and how is the right time for sitcoms to get heavy, and whether certain types of shows are just better-equipped to try.
Tonight’s Brooklyn is the most awkward of the three. “Show Me Going” starts out like any other episode of the series — there’s a funny cold open about Captain Holt wearing a red bowler hat to work, and Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island partner Akiva Schaffer does some brief slapstick as a cop with no depth perception — before the squad gets word of an active shooter situation elsewhere in Brooklyn, and hears Rosa radio that she’s heading towards the scene. Over the years, the Brooklyn cops have caught murderers (even a serial killer once), mob bosses, drug kingpins, and other serious and violent offenders, and there have even been jokes about dead bodies (a grossed-out Jake once had to help the medical examiner he was sleeping with perform an autopsy), but the show generally manages to walk the tightrope of taking the crimes seriously without undermining the comedy. The tone of each scene where we get new information about the incident is utterly grim, which is meant to explain why the other characters are so worried about Rosa, but it feels like something from a different show entirely — for some reason, all the previous murder victims and life-and-death situations for our heroes were fodder for humor, and these are not — and mostly makes the jokes that follow, like Amy being repeatedly sprayed by toilet water as she tries to fix a plumbing problem on Rosa’s behalf, appear in poor taste.
(Admittedly, I cackled non-stop at the scene where Scully and Hitchcock repeatedly punched each other in the groin to create a distraction for Jake to go help Rosa, but I’m only human, and only 12 years old emotionally.)
In hindsight, it’s a serious episode that fails in part because it’s still trying to be funny, which is much tougher to pull off than the racial profiling episode, which offered some jokes, but mostly muted and brief ones in the margins. That episode also rested its drama on Terry Crews and Andre Braugher, two strong dramatic actors (Braugher one of the best to ever work in TV, even if he’s mostly using his gifts these days for deadpan humor), where here the big emotional pivot of the story rests on Jake accepting that the best thing he can do for Rosa is to help their friends confront their fears about her safety. Samberg has done good dramatic work elsewhere (Celeste & Jesse Forever), but it’s not one of his strengths, especially in this role, and when Brooklyn has had to lean on Jake’s inner emotional life in the past on a smaller scale, it hasn’t worked particularly well. Here, it doesn’t at all.
black-ish, on the other hand, has both a longer track record of successfully going dramatic and two leads in Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross very clearly at ease at it. (Anderson’s career has been almost evenly split between comedy and drama.) So the current arc about Dre and Bow’s marriage coming unglued should be right up everyone’s alley. But while these recent episodes have been more successful than “Show Me Going,” the idea and the execution never quite fit.
It’s not just that the show has gone almost entirely dramatic these past few episodes, though I can understand the complaints of viewers who feel like this isn’t the experience they signed up for, at least not for weeks on end. It’s that this fissure in the Johnson marriage simultaneously feels like it came out of nowhere, and like something that the show has been joking about for too long to view as a serious problem after four years.
Dre Johnson is a good man whom the show usually sides with on the basic thrusts of its arguments, but he’s also always been portrayed as an insufferable manchild who’s forever slighting or outright insulting his patient and loving wife, without even realizing he’s doing it. So on paper, the idea that Dre and Bow might drift apart — as black-ish creator Kenya Barris and his own wife (Bow’s namesake) did during the show’s first season — doesn’t seem that outlandish. But until a few weeks ago, black-ish shrugged off all his behavior as ridiculousness on par with whatever insane thing Charlie just said, and even Bow’s annoyance with his behavior was written and played for laughs. It’s an incredibly jarring tonal shift for this stuff to suddenly have them on the verge of splitting up, particularly when this week’s episode, “Blue Valentime,” was peppered with new scenes of the spouses fighting in the past — where all the arguments and offenses are far more mild than the things Dre has said and done to her in prior seasons.
It’s something of a no-win scenario for Barris and the other writers. If they pull an M. Night Shyamalan and reveal that Bow was feeling genuinely hurt the entire time, and just swallowing it for the sake of getting through the day and being there for the kids, then the show as it originally existed simply can’t anymore, even assuming the two reconcile by the time this arc is done. It would prevent the show from tapping into one of its most frequent and richest veins of humor, or else it would reveal this current arc as a fraud. And coming up with brand-new (and less awful) sources of conflict between the two of them flies in the face of what the audience has been watching for four seasons. Moment to moment, these episodes have been fairly strong because Anderson and Ross are up to the material, but it doesn’t really fit with what black-ish was before and will likely create problems whenever the arc is done, unless the plan is for it to evolve into a very different show.
Bringing Barry into this discussion is something of an apples and oranges situation, as it’s a premium cable series and the others are broadcast network shows. Pay cable and streaming half-hours generally get much more latitude, from both executives and viewers, to play around with tone and genre, so long as they’re upfront about it. And the very first scene of the show was Barry cleaning up in the aftermath of his latest murder; the series wore its darkness like a badge from the start. Barry also has a full half-hour to play with (and tonight ran longer than that), as opposed to the rigid 21-odd minutes of its network counterparts, and that extra time can be enormously valuable in shifting back and forth from laughter to tears(*).
(*) Need more evidence of how important those additional minutes can be? Look at Netflix’s One Day at a Time remake, which is an even more traditional sitcom than either Brooklyn or black-ish, as it’s shot on a stage in front of a laughing studio audience, but which reaches for your tear ducts by the end of most episodes. If it were airing on, say, CBS, with the associated time limitations, those shifts from punchlines to harrowing monologues could feel forced and manipulative, but One Day gets to very gradually shift from one to the other.
All that being said, tonight’s episode, “Loud, Fast and Keep Going,” represents a pivot as potentially jarring and series-altering in its own way as the marital schism on black-ish. Until now, Barry has shielded its main character to a degree from the consequences of his own actions, the better to build up audience sympathy for his desire to quit the assassination trade and become an actor. His new bosses in the Chechen mob are the ones who wind up killing the actor who brings him into the class to begin with, and everybody we’ve seen Barry drop has been someone associated with the world of crime. It’s the Dexter approach (both characters even favor green Henley shirts when it’s murder time): yes, he’s a killer, but he only goes after other killers, so it’s probably okay.
Murdering Chris is not okay. Chris’s only crime was feeling guilty over shooting someone to save Barry’s life, and over introducing Barry to two friends who died in their botched hit on the Chechens’ biggest rival. The episode (written by Elizabeth Sarnoff, directed by Barry co-creator Alec Berg) doesn’t shy away from the implications of what Barry does here. It’s a lingering, slow-motion disaster kind of scene: Chris can’t stop talking about how upset he is and how much he needs to turn himself into the cops, even as Barry keeps hoping his friend will shut up before he says something Barry can’t let go. (Bill Hader and Samberg started at SNL together, but Hader’s always been much more comfortable with dramatic material, as particularly evidenced by how palpably Barry needs Chris to be quiet, even as he obviously knows that Chris won’t.) The scene’s even prolonged a few painful extra moments when another car parks near Chris’s and it briefly seems like this might give him a reprieve; instead, the other car drives away, Barry shoots Chris in the head, then dresses the scene to make it look like suicide, as an added burden his grieving family will have to shoulder.
No, there’s no way to really come back from that, even if Chris was a fairly minor character in the scheme of the series. As with black-ish, I won’t be surprised if some viewers respond to this episode as a betrayal of what they thought they’d signed on to watch, but in this case it felt not only true to everything that’s happened before, but a culmination of it. Barry is a killer for hire, even if he’s convinced himself until now that he only takes out bad guys, and a lot of the show’s humor stems from the suggestion that you have to be every bit as much of a sociopath to survive as an actor as you do as a hitman. The episode climaxes with a devastated Barry channeling his pain into a powerful one-line performance in his friend Sally’s rendition of Macbeth, act 5, scene 5, and Sally in turn feeding off of Barry’s emotions to take her own work to new heights.
“That was acting, Barry! You’re a real actor,” she says afterward, giddy, then tells him that whatever he did to get in the mood for that line reading, “That’s your new process.”
It’s one more sick joke in a show full of them, with Sally’s compliments briefly shaking Barry out of his grief, and the suggestion that all any actor needs to do to kill on stage is to first kill in real life. But it’s also not ignoring the monstrous thing Barry did only a few scenes earlier. It’s acknowledging who and what the series is really about, and committing to the dramatic and moral implications of that. But where Brooklyn can very easily get back to silly hijinks next week, and black-ish can probably get back to normal down the road, this is the kind of dramatic turn that can’t be undone, even if the series still has plenty of room for comedy going forward.
Again, it’s a pay cable show with fewer restrictions, a shorter season, and probably not one destined to run as long as Brooklyn or black-ish have already lasted. It shouldn’t be surprising that the dark HBO comedy about a conflicted hitman was better-positioned for its most dramatic episode ever than two broadcast shows whose dominant mode is letting their leading men make fools of themselves. And when a more traditional comedy nails a dramatic moment — Frasier Crane and his dad briefly finding common ground, Leslie Knope delivering her closing argument in a debate for a city council election, or The Carmichael Show in its more pointed moments — it can feel even more powerful than when it happens on shows that do them more regularly, because the contrast is so strong. But it’s a tricky thing. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and comedies doing drama in a way that lets them keep being comedies afterward can seem damn near impossible.