The hallmark of all the superlative TV comedies of the past few years has been what happens in the moments when they’re not funny at all. The BBC import Fleabag, for all its swaggering raunch and dotty hijinks, turns out to be a surprisingly profound portrait of grief and catharsis. HBO’s Succession exposes the tragic emotional vacuity lurking beneath corporate avarice run amok. On the same network, in Barry, Bill Hader plays a hit man with a heart who, like Ferdinand the bull, would rather sit and smell the metaphorical flowers than kill people, but his internal wiring and past allegiances keep getting in the way.
While this broad category of TV tragicomedy has become a thriving staple (Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is an outstandingly surreal example), the subgenre of it now known as the sadcom—series that make you laugh not through pain but at it—is making its own mark. Here, subjects that in the standard sitcom realm are relegated to Very Special Episodes or deemed far too calamitous for the relentless cheer of Friends or Modern Family take pride of place: nervous breakdowns, addiction, the astonishing human capacity for self-hatred. The latest addition to a notably British lineup (which includes not just Fleabag but Hulu’s This Way Up and Catastrophe on Amazon) is Trying on Apple TV+. The eight-episode series is about a young married couple living in a picture-perfect pastel rowhouse in London’s Camden Town, their sweet, goofy life and palpable mutual affection shadowed by an ongoing failure to get pregnant.
Trying begins absurdly: Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) are heading home from a night out when Nikki suddenly realizes she’s just missed her ovulation window. “I’m less fertile now, I can totally feel it,” she wails. On the top level of a double-decker bus, she comes up with a plan: She and Jason can seize the moment, because the only other passenger is an elderly woman who appears to be sleeping. Jason, less than eager, complains that she’s ruining the mood. Finally, they finish; the woman, it turns out, was awake all along, and is glaring at them. Nikki, laughing, doesn’t care. “I swear, I think that was it,” she tells Jason, dewy-eyed and poignantly hopeful. “That was the baby.” The next scene jumps forward in time to a doctor’s office, as the couple are told they have no viable embryos left for in vitro fertilization and only a minimal chance of conceiving with further cycles using Nikki’s eggs.
“So I can’t have a baby?” Nikki asks, devastated.
The doctor pauses, tries to think of the right response, fails, winces. “Let me get you another leaflet,” she says.
I laughed, despite myself, despite the pathos of the scene, despite Nikki’s disconsolate face and how much I truly ached for her. It was a good joke. And, in that situation, what are you really supposed to say? How can you comfort someone when the thing she wants most in the world is the thing she can’t manage to achieve? (“How,” Nikki says to Jason later, sitting on a park bench in the sunshine, “can I miss something I’ve never had?”) As a doctor, or an artist, or a TV writer, how can you try to ease the countless strains and shocks and degradations of being alive? Reason can’t make sense of the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, but humor—sometimes—can soften the blows.
I love sadcoms because the moments they skewer, in between joy and despair, are the moments that feel the most transcendently human. Neither drama nor comedy alone is sufficient for capturing what it feels like to shuffle on day by day through routine tasks, minor victories, and heartaches; through glorious breakthroughs and unthinkable plagues. When I look at social media now, my feed is invariably a disorienting mix of death statistics and sickbed bulletins and funny dads dancing, the pain and the comfort all commingling in one intimately jarring reality. The sadcom, at its best, replicates this. The café owner known only as Fleabag attends a family dinner at which a wedding is discussed, alcoholism is confronted, and pregnancies are miscarried—all in the space of a few discombobulating minutes. In the charmingly hopeful This Way Up, created by the comedian Aisling Bea, Aine (Bea), an English-language teacher recovering from “a teeny little nervous breakdown,” compulsively shoplifts a bottled smoothie before dutifully recycling the container, as if to try to restore some karmic balance to her anxious soul.
On Trying, fertility is less a subject than a theme, which allows the show to treat it with irreverence, and sometimes even ignore it altogether. In other genres, as with Tamara Jenkins’s Netflix movie, Private Life, or Duncan Macmillan’s hit play Lungs, the weight of wanting—and failing—to reproduce often comes with disclaimers: soliloquies on the lamentable state of the world, the ravages of climate change, the burden of one more tiny consumer on an already drastically overstretched ecosystem. Trying, at least early on, dispatches with the hand-wringing. Nikki and Jason simply want a baby because they love each other and they have more love to give. They’re also, like many 30-somethings, starting to wonder what life really means without the rote markers of adult progress. “If we can’t have one of our own and we don’t wanna adopt, then what are we gonna do with the rest of our lives?” Jason asks. “I dunno,” Nikki replies. “Join a sodding book club?” A scene or two later, Nikki is shown earnestly and dutifully poring over The Brothers Karamazov.
The not-so-secret secret of Trying is that the title doesn’t just refer to Jason and Nikki’s quest to become parents. Almost all of the characters in the series seem to be doing their humble best to figure it out, whether it means getting over a breakup, raising children, confronting past mistakes, or just forging ahead in pursuit of a meaningful life. “We should donate to a charity,” Nikki says, as Jason fills out the adoption application form they decide to submit. “Then we can say we donate to charity.” Jason points out that they’ll be essentially catfishing social services. “It’s fine!” Nikki counters. “As long as we’re these people by the time they meet us, it’s all good.” In Fleabag, the main character’s self-betterment rituals include signing up with a trainer, not giving in to the temptation of casual sex with idiotic hookups, and actually working at work. “Putting pine nuts on your salad doesn’t make you a grown-up,” Fleabag’s sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), says snootily. “Fucking does,” Fleabag asides to the viewers at home.
At its core, the sadcom refuses to deny, or be undone by, a bleak truth: Life can be hopelessly bewildering, and complicated, and compromising, and intermittently crushing. While many contemporary TV dramas tend to root themselves in versions of the past (Stranger Things, Peaky Blinders) or the future (Westworld, Devs) to tell freighted stories, the sadcom is set flatly in the here and now. And without being steeped in dour self-seriousness, its moments of pathos and insight ring truer. Like Shakespeare’s fools and rustic clowns before them, its characters use jokes slyly, to expound with unexpected acuity on the state of the world around them. Their Millennial angst is darkly familiar. Their struggles can profoundly resonate. And their victories mean all the more for it. “I do want to get better. Live. It’s hard, man,” This Way Up’s Aine says at the end of the six-part series. “The dailiness of it can be sort of relentless. But all we can do is give it a go.”
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “So Sad, Can’t Stop Laughing.”