Or, A Year of Mess and Mayhem
As I write this, Facebook is exploding with holiday affection. Tags from JFK, ORD, SFO, ATL, PDX flood my feed—friends passing through city hubs, on their way back from family-filled suburbs and small towns.
My impression is, one to two weeks at home is just long enough for most people to miss and hug their loved ones without winding up in the kitchen, aggressively doing dishes to drown out the sound of mom suggesting that you “talk to a professional,” while dad speechifies in a wildly inappropriate Indian accent the next room over.
One of the greatest parts about living in DC is that, beginning December 21 or thereabouts, the city goes silent. Like all of Congress, I am a proud and steadfast procrastinator. Come Thanksgiving, I believe there isn’t anything I could do that can’t get done in January. So for the last few months of the year, instead of bettering myself, socializing or being productive in any fashion, I binged the best television of 2015. Turns out, this was incredibly appropriate endeavor for a season often characterized by nervous breakdowns and family squabbles.
In 2015, television was filled with dysfunctional people and uncomfortable mayhem. So-called comedies—sitcoms!—went all-in on some troubling stuff. The halcyon days of Friends and Gilmore Girls are no longer! TV goes, WE REFLECT YOUR FRACTURED REALITY, MILLENNIALS! SHOW NO MERCY! I just wanted to watch some stories and drink eggnog. Just kidding, eggnog is gross.
Take Hulu’s Casual, for example. A stupendous Michaela Watkins stars as Valerie, a newly-divorced mom living with her teenage daughter and emotionally stunted brother, Alex. Supposedly, the show is a portrait of casual dating—the online variety, hookups at bars, terrible setups, etc. Awkward sex with a bartender! Fantasizing about your hot photography teacher! Discovering that your absolute soul mate is “open,” and that you’re totally not cool with it! Too real.
But really, Casual is about family. Alex and Valerie were wrecked by their wackadoo parents, and work like hell to protect Valerie’s daughter from the same insanity that has made them both incapable of commitment. The series is an enormous heartbreak, one episode at a time.
We wait our whole lives for our parents to apologize. They wait their whole lives for a “thank you.” No one ever gets what they want.
Ditto season 2 of Transparent, which as been universally adored and think-pieced (I will not subject you to more here). Transparent and Casual are filled with objectively selfish, messed-up people. But these folks are also painfully aware of their shortcomings, and fight them every day—not because they want to be better, but because they want to be happy.
Basically forever, television has been an art form contingent upon empathy. We root for our heroes—and the particular deliciousness of watching The Sopranos and Breaking Bad is in sympathizing with evildoers. Valerie, Alex and the Pfeffermans aren’t villains—they’re clueless jerks. To be human is to commit small, mean crimes against the ones we love most. We all get that, just as anyone can understand the desire to be content, at whatever cost.
These are your people. They love you no matter what.
The most poignant illustration of this phenomenon: season 2 of FXX’s You’re the Worst. This spectacular series follows Jimmy and Gretchen—truly odious people that are made for each other, in all their shitty glory. The first season was a standard (if slightly unpleasant) love story. This year, the show took an unexpected turn: Gretchen falls into a deep depression, and everything falls to pieces.
I can’t tell him my brain is broken.
YOU’RE THE WORST
Depictions of depression are tricky, and I leave it to cleverer critics to judge whether or not Aya Cash’s portrayal is “truthful” or “accurate.” I’m much more interested in the way that Gretchen’s boyfriend and best friends deal with her. Some comfort her. Some look the other way. Jimmy gets angry, and almost leaves about a hundred times.
This is not unexpected. The premise of You’re The Worst is that the characters suuuuuuck. So, it’s almost easier to watch Jimmy say the terrible things we wish we could say when our loved ones are suffering: SNAP OUT OF IT. MAKE A DIFFERENT CHOICE. WHAT ABOUT ME. Still, Gretchen and Jimmy both deserve happy endings.
Casual, Transparent and You’re The Worst are billed as comedies. A bundle of laughs, all of them! Except I did laugh. A lot. Not the way I giggle at Bridesmaids or Parks and Rec. But—as anyone who has taken Intro to English Lit will tell you—great comedy goes hand-in-hand with immense sadness.
I want to say: watch these shows. You’re like, kind of a bummer gift for the New Year, no? Well, I don’t care. I didn’t get to pick my Secret Santa, and you don’t hear me complaining about my iTunes gift card. 2015 was a weird and amazing year—for me, and for TV. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.