Following the rapturous critical response to FX’s semi-anthology, semi-comedy series Louie, cable has become littered with half hour pseudo-“comedies” that style themselves sitcom-as-art-film. You may have skipped most of them, but the weary, chagrined vibe is visible even from the impressionistic promos. Maron. Better Things. Master Of None. Married. Legit. One Mississippi. Even HBO is getting in on the jokeless comedy train with the recent debuts of High Maintenance and Insecure. Semi-autobiographical, deliberately low-key, largely episodic, artfully composed, conspicuously soulful, carefully self-deprecating but only intermittently funny, such shows draw reviews that use words like “insightful”, “lyrical”, “thought-provoking”, “poignant”, and “masterful” more than “hilarious”. They carefully avoid total self-seriousness but will never go for the big laugh at the expense of a good wallow at the inherent sadness and alienation of the human condition. It’s like if Wilco was a TV show. (In case you are not a Midwestern white guy in your 30s, that would be a band that is perfectly capable of delivering a rollicking rock show, but only feels most itself when indulging its sad-bastard acoustic side.)
I really like Wilco, mind you, and I’m usually down for a good wallow. I watch many of these shows, and find a lot to appreciate in them an episode-by-episode basis. But I never quite fall in love, even with Louie, the wellspring itself. And as an entire genre enters its bearded-Robin-Williams phase, a sort of cumulative weariness develops with ostensible sitcoms intent on asking the question “does comedy really have to be funny, though?”
To which I'd answer yes, dummy, of course it does. I know, comedians are these secretly forlorn and tormented intellectual types (so secretly that it can take up to six minutes into a comedy-themed podcast before they start telling you about it). But if you really want to make a drama, just sack up and do it without the cover of being able to say it was all just a lark if that drama falls flat.
Amongst this field, FX’s Atlanta stands out as at once the angriest, silliest, and artiest of these shows, which has made it the one I find myself actually looking forward to each week. Whereas the rest seem most enamored with Louie’s restraint, taking its formlessness as a license to go long stretches without jokes, Atlanta embraces that formlessness as a means to tell jokes that are stranger and more idiosyncratic. Or in the case of the “B.A.N” episode, essentially transform into a longform sketch show, complete with commercial parodies that stand next to anything produced by SNL or Rick and Morty. This doesn’t mean that it won’t indulge in extended stretches of indie-film melancholia, but that it recognizes that the freedom to do so also allowed Louie to blindside you with laughs The Big Bang Theory could never pull off, whether it’s the hero’s date opting for a daring escape via helicopter when he tries for a kiss or spending half an episode on a dramatic build up to an elaborate fart joke. In Atlanta’s case, the brilliant episode “The Club” has a Wonder Woman-inspired gag that I won’t spoil except to say that it pays off in the place I least expected, resulting in the single biggest laugh any show has pulled out of me all year.
It’s not all whimsy, though, and Atlanta does not lack for cultural commentary. It is, directly and constantly, about being black in America, a subject that gets more and more fraught with each passing week and its commensurate video of an unarmed black man being shot by police. Being one of those thirtysomething white dudes that traffics in Wilco analogies, I’m not best qualified to speak to the full extent of its success or failure in this regard. But I think it’s generally to the show’s credit that, even as it is showing me things I have rarely seen on TV, it doesn’t feel like it is ever speaking directly to me. Which is maybe even more potent, showing being more effective than telling and all that. The blade of satire in episode 5 in particular, featuring special guest star Justin Bieber, gleams all the sharper because it never has anyone directly articulate the double standard his behavior lays bare.
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But my favorite thing about the show is Darius, played with spacy understatement by Keith Stanfield. As the permastoned sidekick and foil to the more grounded leads, he seems to occupy the familiar “kooky neighbor” comedic archetype – Atlanta’s Kramer, if you will. But while I generally loathe that type of character, they are not doing the things with his portrayal that bring out my inner Frank Grimes. For instance, in “The Club”, Darius finds himself quickly and humorously shut out of Alfred’s VIP section for failure to adhere to proper wristband protocol. If it were a Kramer or a Taco or a Phoebe in this set up, they would somehow get pulled into the even more exclusive balcony that Alfred had been envying, become the toast of the hipper crust through sheer dint of idiocy, and enjoy the immediate and devoted infatuation of the host/hottest person there. Darius, though, just wanders home and eats cereal.
That, to quote last week’s biggest laughline, is a real situation. We all know genuine weirdos, and we alternately love and tolerate that weirdness, but it's rare to see a half hour comedy resist turning their token weirdo into a magical elf. One who floats through life cluelessly blessed, inexplicably irresistible to the opposite sex, shrugging in blissful ignorance whenever the more “relatable” characters point out how ridiculously everything seems to naturally align in their favor. Darius can be rather clueless, but he mostly just floats, to no particular success. Which makes him, in a way, the anti-Kramer, and as I type this I’m realizing why I have such dislike for that archetype. Those magic elf-types function as walking embodiments of Privilege, generally of the White variety. And Atlanta posits that such privilege does not exist for black Americans.
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