Serious is overrated.
There’s a tendency in critical discussion of modern entertainment to elevate shows that tackle “dark” and “mature” subject matter (drugs, violence, grief) above shows with sillier, funnier, brighter ideas (family, community, professional and personal success). And it’s not just television. The Oscars rarely, if ever, make room for comedies and lighter movies amid the annual barrage of solemn dramas about historical events and “important issues.” Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and getting recognition for making great comedy is the hardest of all.
To be fair, many of the critically acclaimed dark shows earn their praise – in 2013, for instance, Breaking Bad, Rectify, Mad Men and Hannibal tackled unpleasant subject matter with nuance and artistry aplenty. But too often, good or even great comedies fall by the wayside in our hurry to anoint a new drama as a worthy heir to those titans of TV drama’s alleged Golden Age. But it’s just as important to recognize achievements in comedy, a genre that requires as much talent and passion as drama but in service of a different set of goals and emotions.
While wide swaths of television fans have been obsessing over True Detective and biding their time until Game of Thrones and Mad Men return, two network comedies have quietly shoved their way to the head of the TV class. Enlisted and Trophy Wife both have trappings that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a network comedy before (slapstick, “heartwarming” moments, wacky dancing), but they’re also exploring relatively untapped thematic territory, the casts are deep and diverse, and both shows are (most important for a comedy) really, really funny. But they’re languishing in their timeslots and hurting for viewers as they approach the end of their respective first seasons. Even as critics like Maureen Ryan and Alan Sepinwall have begun to sound the gong in favor of “save this show” campaigns and last-minute timeslot switcheroos, these shows may have been doomed from their first episodes.
Trophy Wife examines the unique and sometimes tenuous bonds in a family that consists of young wife Kate, older husband Pete (Bradley Whitford), two ex-wives Diane and Jackie (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins) and three kids Hillary, Warren (Ryan Lee) and Bert (Albert Tsai). Enlisted focuses on a trio of brothers (Geoff Stults, Parker Young and Chris Lowell) and their merry band of fellow soldiers working on a domestic military base led by the wide-grinned Sergeant Major Cody (Keith David). Both shows have distinguished themselves with their warmth and optimism, telling stories that affirm people’s ability to make the best of challenging circumstances. Kate from Trophy Wife has struggled to integrate herself into a family dynamic that’s already been complicated by two different marriages. Pete from Enlisted is wrestling from confusing bouts of PTSD stemming from his experience on the front lines in Afghanistan.
The link between these characters is both our desire to see them succeed and our belief that they might because the people around them are fundamentally supportive. Rather than positioning Diane and Jackie as perpetual nemeses that require thwarting, Trophy Wife has let each have her virtues (Diane’s rigor, Jackie’s free spirit) and faults (Diane’s difficulty accepting criticism, Jackie’s lack of self-awareness). Similarly, Enlisted doesn’t mine the foibles of the Rear-D soldiers for cheap laughs. Rather, their faults allow Pete to grapple with his own insecurities and channel them into improving the quality of life for the soldiers around him.
Both shows have incorporated a wide variety of comedic gems into their repertoires. Whether it’s Dobkiss rapping and Randy disrobing on Enlisted or Bert dancing and Diane micromanaging on Trophy Wife, the lovably wacky characters get to be silly without sacrificing their virtues or humanity. Both shows have made effective use of guest stars – Dennis Haysbert is an appealing romantic foil for Diane on Trophy Wife, and Stacy Keach’s gravitas sold the emotional weight of Pete’s PTSD arc on Enlisted. And both shows have avoided many of the pitfalls of first-season network comedies. On Trophy Wife, the kids are more than alright – Bert and Warren are among the show’s most reliably hilarious characters. On Enlisted, the chemistry between Pete and Sgt. Perez (Angelique Cabral) was diffused and transformed into a platonic companionship before any troublesome sparks could blossom into cliches of forced sexual tension. Just because the show happens to feature a single man and a single woman doesn’t mean it needs to foreground a romance between the two, at least in the early stages.
Sadly, despite these shows’ reliable ability to make me laugh and tear up within the span of a single episode, both are about to go on life support. Their respective networks have placed them in unenviable timeslots (Trophy Wife sandwiched between The Goldbergs and the DOA Mind Games at 9:30 on ABC Tuesdays; Enlisted relegated to the Friday night death trap at 9 on Fox) and promoted them only halfheartedly. For some reason unbeknownst to television fans who claim to know more about scheduling than network executives themselves, ABC has never experimented with scheduling Trophy Wife behind Modern Family, where it would have a bigger lead-in and a better tonal match. Fox executive Kevin Reilly seems uninterested in giving Enlisted the American Idol lead-in (which is admittedly much less potent than it used to be). Instead, this week’s new entry Surviving Jack will debut behind the Idol results show, despite commercials that suggest a show that’s far more mean-spirited and crass than Enlisted. Despite the critical buzz around these two shows, neither one has been given a fair chance to attract an audience.
It’s a shame. With two or three seasons, Enlisted and Trophy Wife might even grow from very good and even great to truly classic. Both have the good intentions, the solid talent and the creative energy to get there. All they need is support from the network, which will only come if the network detects support from the viewers. I can’t tell you that watching these shows will save them from cancellation – the writing might already be on the wall, and unless you have a Nielsen box on the back of your TV set, your viewership doesn’t amount to much in the networks’ eyes anyway. But I can tell you that if you haven’t heard of these shows and you like television that makes you happy about humanity, Enlisted and Trophy Wife will satisfy, if only for a few weeks more.
You can watch Trophy Wife every Tuesday at 9:30 on ABC. The next new episode airs April 1.
You can watch Enlisted every Friday at 9 on Fox. The next new episode airs March 28.