Three of the best series on television use realism and fluid structure as their bedrock for comedy and story.
These series are, in no particular order: Catastrophe, a British comedy about a couple who have a “six-night-stand”, get pregnant, and decide to try to make it work in London, Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s TV vehicle about a young, aimless millennial in New York, and Transparent, a series that provides us with a heart-wrenching look at the life of a transgender person and the family that surrounds them.
When I say “fluid structure,” I mean a lack of a set beginning, middle, and end, each hitting their mark like we’ve come to expect from other comedies in the past. Episodes of these three comedy series are fluid in the way life is, where we pick up and leave off based on feel rather than necessity or regularity. In terms of “realism,” I mean the dialogue in a scene carries mistakes conversation does in life (starting and stopping, the wrong word — and that wrong word doesn’t lead to a revelation, it most likely leads to a cruel joke from a friend or partner), and the way certain characters interact with one another — how tension might not rise 3/4ths through a scene and lead to an explosive button (though that still sometimes happens).
The fluid structure is what allows realistic characters and plots to flourish, to take full form. Had the writers been confined to the tight plot style typical to so many multi-camera sitcoms, the dialogue would be less compelling, and also less revealing. The events over the course of the season would feel calculated, and worst of all, predictable.
I would be hard pressed to say any of the three shows have a formula, except in a very, very broad sense. Rob and Sharon of Catastrophe grow their relationship and family together.* Aziz Ansari’s “Dev” on Master of None learns about himself and how he and people like (and unlike) him fit into the current world. The Pfefferman family on Transparent learn to live with one another. Pretty broad. So broad that the writing staff of each show gets to experiment… with realism.
Fewer and fewer seen are the Cosmo Kramers of the comedy universe. It’s all Jerry’s, a few Elaine’s, and a few George’s, talking to each other in a cafe and learning about one another.
And what people have realized is that that’s enough. Don’t get me wrong, part of the pleasure of watching old comedies like Everybody Loves Raymond, or Friends, or even The Office (U.S. or British) comes from going “I don’t know anybody like that in my life.” But now we get the alternate joy of watching television and going: “I could see myself running into these people, and would genuinely love to.” — The reason I added “genuinely” is because I hear a lot of people say they would love to have, say, Chandler Bing as a friend, or to know Ray Barone’s father, Frank. I’d be willing to bet they’d get tired of both of those beloved characters after 22 minutes in real time.
The fact that experimentalism fits snugly in with realism in today’s TV is evidence of how well-tread zany, larger than life characters and problems have become. It’s also evidence of an increasingly TV-educated audience.
Catastrophe, Master of None, and Transparent will all return in the next year.
*A clear example of Catastrophe‘s freedom from conventional structure is — SPOILERS AHEAD — the fact that when the second season begins, they’ve jumped years forward. The child Sharon was pregnant with in the first season is now a toddler, and she’s pregnant again.