(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.