With so many fictional misanthropes on offer at present, it takes a very special one to compete for attention. And the awkward couple of Love, Mickey ( Gillian Jacobs), a satellite radio producer, and Gus (Paul Rust), an aspiring television producer who tutors the young star on a supernatural show, don’t quite make the cut. But Love does serve one useful function, making it clear that the guidelines for comedies with aspirations to the prestige label have become as clear as the anti- hero requirement that has become such a drag on prestige dramas.
Dramas signal their intentions to something greater by embracing the idea that — as Westley ( Cary Elwes) put it in The Princess Bride — “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says different ly is selling something” and punctuating the sentiment with a decapitated head or a shattered skull. In prestige comedies, by contrast, life is glum and often, life is grubby. Louis C. K.’s heirs, male and female alike, have developed their own cliches just as surely as have the sons of Tony Soprano.
Take the protagonists, who will be arrested in their development, off- kilter or in some way determined to self-sabotage. On her comedy Girls, Lena Dunham plays Hannah Horvath, a character who seems designed to embody ever possible negative cliche about millennials in order to provoke extreme reactions from the people who like to stereotype them. In FX’s Baskets, Zach Galifianakis washes out of French clown school, proposes to a woman after declaring how poorly his life is going and ends up working as a rodeo clown in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. Now in Love, Mickey is an obvious drug addict who shuffles around inflicting her misery on other people.
The more i nt ere s t i ng shows in this category tend to source their protagonists’ allergic reactions to everyday life and their difficulties interacting with others to deep and interesting wells. The titular character in Louie is a seeker, hoping to interrogate his own masculinity as he raises two daughters. On You’re The Worst, music publicist Gretchen’s ( Aya Cash) slovenly apartment and antisocial behaviour prove to be leading indicators of her persistent clinical depression. And in Transparent, the Pfeffermans act out in ways that allow them to explore their sexuality, gender identities and Jewish roots.
But in lesser shows and episodes, sourness and antisocial behaviour seems to be the point. It’s a teenage vision of rebellion and authenticity, an adolescent existentialism. Kissing your boss to avoid being fired or ordering fancy French soda at a drivethrough doesn’t make you heroic or truthful; it kind of just makes you a jerk.
IN LESSER SHOWS ... SOURNESS AND ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR SEEMS TO BE THE POINT.
Sex on these comedies often comes across as a similarly grim affair, whether the girls of Girls are having it on grubby thrifted couches or in tiny New York kitchens; Mickey is letting a cocaine addict she’d rather dump pound away on her in the hopes that it will make him go away; Louie is wading through a series of doomed encounters with his friend Pamela (Pamela Adlon); Lindsay ( Kether Donohue) is embarking on a series of hookups in an attempt to destroy her marriage on You’re The Worst; or Josh Pfefferman ( Jay Duplass) is seeking out Rita ( Brett Paesel), the babysitter who mo- lested him when he was a teenager in Transparent.
Again, the best of these shows manage to mine something rich and rare out of their loucheness and sexual discomfort.
One of the many things that makes Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix series Master of None such a cool drink of water, beyond the show’s already- welcome casual diversity, friendships between men and women and experiments with form and narrative pacing, is the sense of health, optimism and effort that pervades the series.
Dev (Ansari) is still in the early years of his career as an actor, but he’s working to move beyond commercial work with focus and diligence. His apartment may not be large, but it’s clean and furnished in a way that suggests a man who has both interests and a personal aesthetic. His friendships with Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Denise (Lena Waithe) and Brian (Kelvin Yu) are deep and easy, defined by shared experience and mutual curiosity about each other rather than self-sabotaging competition.
And when Dev begins dating Rachel, with whom he has an abortive encounter in the show’s pilot, he does so with clear intentions, an open heart and an endearing, almost oldfashioned, amount of effort. They may have fallen into bed the night they met, but their path into love is anything but sloppy. After Rachel breaks up with her boyfriend for good, Dev takes her on a carefully curated weekend trip to Nashville where she accommodates his lust for barbecue and he adjusts to the fact that she’s a vegetarian. When they move in together in the episode Mornings, Master of None mines drama from their efforts to build a life together, with all the inevitable fights over the piles of clothes she leaves on the floor and the Campari-sticky glasses he abandons on the kitchen counter. And when Dev and Rachel break up, it’s Rachel’s housewarming gift to Dev, a pasta-maker, that helps him figure out how to move on.
Making Dev a relatively functional adult not prone to dramatic acts of self-sabotage closes off certain sources of plot and drama for Master of None. He’s not prone to screaming fights with Rachel, or absurd, immature spats with Arnold, Denise and Brian, or cliched fights with his parents. But there are compensations. When Dev faces a major decision in his career or personal life, the conflicts on Master of None take on genuine weight: His decisions are hard because being a functional, interesting and interested, ambitious and kind-hearted grownup is a genuinely challenging thing.