The Unbearable Bleakness of Good Comedy

So a friend of mine recently turned me on to this British sitcom called Peep Show late last week, and since then it’s been eating up a lot of my time. The premise is fairly standard sitcom fare: two roommates, one is the shlemiel, the other the shlimazel, you get the idea. But it has an interesting hook: each episode is shot almost entirely from first-person camera perspectives, and you can often hear the thoughts of the two major characters, meaning you get an insight into how they view the world that’s a lot more uncomfortably intimate than you get in most sitcoms.

But that gimmick, as well executed as it is, isn’t the real reason to watch. What’s truly amazing about the show–besides some excellent performances by the leads and supporting actors like the guy who plays Super Hans–is just how bleak it is. If you’ve become desensitized to the painful awkardness of The Office (the UK version) and Curb Your Enthusiasm, chances are this show will still be able to get you to wince. And it’s just relentless. If either of these guys catches a break, they never fail to screw it up somehow. And as the show progresses, they somehow manage to only get more pathetic (spoiler: one of them turns into a stalker). Maybe that would be easier to watch if these characters weren’t still somewhat sympathetic, and we weren’t forced to see the world through their eyes. But it would also be less hilarious.

This is the kind of thing that I think American TV still isn’t ready for, which is a shame, because I think it’s brilliant. You can see echoes of this sort of humor in American programs like The Office and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but both shows, while still worth watching, shy away from twisting the knife as much as Peep Show. On The Office, the antics of even the most unhinged characters are softened and made out to be kind of adorable, while I felt like the last two seasons of It’s Always Sunny fell flat in parts when they turned the characters into pure cartoon sociopaths.

That kind of comedy has merit, but it doesn’t grab the way Peep Show does. The Office will never blow your mind because you know that there’s always that safety net; Michael Scott will always have to come out as sympathetic in the end. And as for Sunny, there’s only so many times you can return to the “Danny DeVito is sort of gross” and “Charlie is illiterate” wells, as fruitful as they have been. But the funniest moments of the two aforementioned shows, as well as the other great subversive sitcoms like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show have always been about recognizably human characters unintentionally revealing just show squalid and miserable their lives really are. Peep Show takes that in a direction that feels as real, dark and original as anything since David Brent made his first terrible joke.

Embedding’s disabled, but this is the first episode. Watch.

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