The cultural landscape has, over the past few years, witnessed the rise of “sadcoms,” or, shows that take on the structure of the classic “sitcom” or situational comedy genre and infuse it with darker elements and nuanced character arcs.
Traditional sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, Seinfield, and Friends, are centered around a set cast of characters that tell mediocre jokes signaled by laugh tracks. They are meant to leave TV audiences happy and satisfied after a half-hour of cheery, heartfelt, but inevitably predictable storylines.
Today, “relatability” has become popularly accepted as a “criterion of value,” even by critics who might be expected to have more sophisticated terms at their disposal. Relatability measures how much a song, a book, a film, or any piece of art captures narratives that we can empathize with and see ourselves in. This identification with fictional characters actively engages viewers by allowing them to reflect upon themselves. Sadcoms present the untold, personal, and often psychological narratives that we all experience, but rarely talk about openly.
Shows like Family Guy and the Simpsons are considered animated sitcoms, but harbor more of a cynical, satirical aspect that departs from the “feel-good” essentiality of sitcoms. Louie, created by comedian Louis CK as an autobiographical comedy, is the modern groundbreaker for the sadcom genre and set the general format for future shows to follow. Louie is the unremarkably average titular character who wrestles with often-reprehensible morals, fatherhood, dating after a divorce and other mundane yet recognizable everyday circumstances.
At its core, Louie is just about a regular guy with an “all-consuming empathy for humanity, undercut with a healthy sense of self-loathing.” Its brutally honest depiction of the expectations, awkwardness, and absurdity of adulthood turned out to be something audiences found refreshing and “relatable” in the sea of shallow, over-serialized sitcoms.
Other series have followed suit. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British TV series called Fleabag is centered around Fleabag, a thirty-something millennial woman who runs a guinea pig-themed cafe. Her real name is never revealed. The show is brutally honest and hilarious; Fleabag constantly breaks the fourth wall to confide in us, the audience, with her witty internal monologue.
Bojack Horseman is a show I discovered about a year and a half ago. As a high school senior anxiously waiting for college to start, the absurd animated world co-inhabited by anthropomorphic animals and humans paired with the show’s existential undertones struck a chord with me. Fleabag and Bojack are both hilarious protagonists who have faced trauma. They’re imperfect main characters, but it’s their vulnerability and real anxieties that underlie their narratives that makes these shows so profound and “relatable.”
Sadcoms are a symptom of a large societal movement rejecting the over-glamourized lives of celebrities and moving towards more recognizable portrayals of life. As we move away from “unrelatable” celebrity content and towards Instagram influencers that reflect a more relatable narrative, the film industry is finding a huge demand for more empathetic and realistic narratives in film. Seeing a character who reminds us of ourselves, flaws and all, gives us a way to confront our own personal narratives in a realistic way.
Sadcoms center around people who may not physically or situationally be relatable to viewers, but they accurately embody a mindset that reaches a deeper, human truth that everyone can understand. When a show can balance elements of comedy and satire with these darker, heavier narratives, it reflects real life, with all its ups and downs. A good sadcom comes along when the laughter and sadness are perfectly married.
Bojack Horseman and Fleabag not only incorporate these two elements perfectly, but they are also two of the most timely sadcoms I believe are out there. Bojack Horseman is an adult animated Netflix show that centers around its titular character, Bojack, a washed-up TV sitcom star. The show is known for its realistic take on mental illness, trauma, and addiction while balancing all its dark themes with satirical, punny, and very socially relevant humor. The main character Bojack is an actor past his prime, but with an ego three sizes too large for alcoholism. He is narcissistic but depressed, frustrating but relatable. He is not a particularly pleasant character, but we sympathize with him because he is real and we stick by his side even as he self-destructs. He is highly self-involved and voices his petty but hilarious insecurities in a way that feels like we are laughing at ourselves.
Bojack Horseman is full of insightful, often cynical, nuggets of truth that pull at our heartstrings:
“Nobody completes anybody. That’s not a real thing. If you’re lucky enough to find someone you can halfway tolerate, sink your nails in and don’t let go, no matter what… Because otherwise you’re just gonna get older and harder, and more alone. And you’re gonna do everything you can to fill that hole, with friends, and your career, and meaningless sex, but the hole doesn’t get filled. One day, you’re gonna look around and you’re going to realize that everybody loves you, but nobody likes you. And that is the loneliest feeling in the world.”
The show establishes Bojack as a selfish, egotistical asshole, but shows his complexity and awareness through flashes of honest feeling, which land all the harder because they’re unexpected. It’s moments like these, sprinkled in between animal puns and the whimsical adventures of Todd Chavez, that make Bojack Horseman a masterpiece.
In Fleabag, on the other hand, the protagonist’s antics are witty, thought-provoking, and performed flawlessly by Waller-Bridge. Fleabag is just about one young woman trying to navigate her own feelings of guilt, grief, and alienation. Unlike Bojack, Fleabag is trying to connect with the people around her, like her sister, her many lovers, and her dad who she goes to in the first episode and tells him that she is afraid that she is “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
In the second season, Fleabag grapples with modern religion as she falls for the unnamed “cool, sweary” and “hot” Priest played by Andrew Scott. Other hilariously caricatured yet complex characters like Claire, her uptight sister, her emotionally distant father who remarried their passive-aggressive godmother are all perfect moments of comedic relief as well as unfortunately recognizable people we all have in our lives. The narrative of Fleabag is undeniably tragic and personal, yet simultaneously raunchy and irreverent. The result is this spectacularly nuanced portrait of a character we feel like we understand on an intimate level.
Sadcoms walk the fine line between profound personal narratives, drama, and comedy. Shows that use elements of dark humour but aren’t necessarily sadcoms often fall into the realm of “dramedy.” Shows like End of the F*cking World and even Rick and Morty are more adventurous and plot-focused. Rick and Morty, in my opinion, misses the mark on being a sadcom because of how absurd and fantastical it is. Even though it shares Bojack Horseman’s existential undertones, Rick and Morty lacks the relatability aspect that I believe makes Bojack Horseman so moving. Other sadcom-esque shows like After Life or Schitt’s Creek place tragedy at the forefront of the show, so that much of the show’s comedy comes from their cynicism and sarcasm rather than the irony that prevails everyday life. Fleabag and Bojack both begin with the premise that their protagonists are supposed to represent “normal” adults maneuvering through society, and over the course of the show, we learn about their past traumas and how they’re learning to live with them.
In an era where we are increasingly alienated from each other despite the multitudes of social media platforms we can choose from, these shows take a humanistic approach of showing us characters we recognize in ourselves. Escapism through shallow feel-good sitcoms is not the answer to people’s real problems– it’s shows like Bojack and Fleabag, though sometimes hard to watch, that truly capture the essence of the human condition, blurring together the lines between what’s funny, tragic, banal, and ultimately absurd in our lives.