Two decades ago, TV's most distinctive stories were defined by a tone of ironic detachment. Today, they're more often sincere and direct. How did we get here?
Could David Brent get hired today?
Ricky Gervais, who awkwardly danced onto TV as Brent in the groundbreaking comedy The Office in 2001, was recently interviewed about his and Stephen Merchant's creation. "Now it would be cancelled," he said, meaning a cultural rather than commercial verdict. "I'm looking forward to when they pick out one thing and try to cancel it."
Gervais later wrote on Twitter that his remarks were a "clearly a joke." I believe the "joke" part. The "clearly" is debatable, given Gervais' long history of posturing that his humour is too real for the thought police. Either way, it was an odd claim to make right as his widely praised series was being celebrated for its two-decade anniversary.
But if Gervais did not entirely have a point, he was at least near one. The Office might well be received differently if it were released today (if the Ricky Gervais of today would even create it). But the reasons go beyond "cancellation" to changes in TV's narrative style — which have happened, at least in part, because The Office and shows like it existed in the first place.
In TV's ambitious comedies, as well as dramas, the arc of the last 20 years is not from bold risk-taking to spineless inoffensiveness. But it is, in broad terms, a shift from irony to sincerity.
By "irony" here, I don't mean the popular equation of the term with cynicism or snark. I mean an ironic mode of narrative, in which what a show "thinks" is different from what its protagonist does. Two decades ago, TV's most distinctive stories were defined by a tone of dark or acerbic detachment. Today, they're more likely to be earnest and direct.
You can see this change in the careers of some of the medium's biggest stars and in its creative energy overall. You could chalk the shift up to burnout with cringe comedies and antihero stories, to exhaustion with the cultural weaponisation of irony, to changes in the viewership and creators of TV — to all these and more.
But the upshot is that, if David Brent would be out of place in 2021, it wouldn't be because of the strictures of some cultural human-resources department; it would be because of the current vogue for TV that says things, for better or worse, like it means them.
Watchable, not likeable
Earlier this summer, my fellow Times critics and I put together a list of the 21 best American comedies of the past 21 years. It runs chronologically — I hate ranked lists that turn art into math — which has the side benefit of showing you TV history in time-lapse form.
It kicks off with the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and the American Office: series with comically obnoxious or oblivious protagonists. It ends with the warm dramedy Better Things and the coming-of-age buddy comedy PEN15: big-hearted shows whose main characters may be imperfect or awkward, but whom you are meant to identify with.
If the patron imp of early-aughts comedy was Gervais' David Brent — self-centered, desperate to be liked, casually vulgar and insulting to his staff — the essential face of comedy today might be Ted Lasso, the earnest American-transplant soccer coach in England who quotes Anne Lamott, encourages his players to be psychologically healthy and bakes cookies for his boss. He's so sweet you could box him up like shortbread.
At heart, the original Office and Ted Lasso (which just scored 20 Emmy nominations) are both about the importance of kindness and empathy. Gervais' show may be even more morally didactic; it has a sentimental, even maudlin streak that has become all the more pronounced in his later comedies, like After Life. But it makes its case ironically and negatively, expecting you to infer its judgment on David Brent from the reactions of other characters, and from your own.
What was going on at the turn of the millennium? The Office and company followed on the Seinfeld and David Letterman era of High Irony, a time when a literary device was enough of a cultural concern to inspire magazine covers, books and premature obituaries. They were also of a piece with dramas like The Sopranos, which asked you to like watching their protagonists without like-liking them.
Antiheroes existed in art long before Tony whacked his first victim. Dostoyevsky created them; Northrop Frye wrote about them. And earlier TV dabbled in difficult protagonists, like Archie Bunker of All in the Family. But they were a harder sell for television, which required much broader audiences than literary fiction — or did, before outlets like HBO came along.
The common thread of antihero drama and cringe comedy is the assumption that audiences could and should be able to distinguish between the mindset of the protagonist and the outlook of the author. They asked you to accept dissonance within the story and within yourself: You could see Tony as an animal while acknowledging the beast in you that resonated with him, you could see Larry David as a jackass while recognising that you found it thrilling.
Audiences did not always observe this nuance, which led to what the critic Emily Nussbaum identified as "bad fans": the aggro Sopranos and Breaking Bad viewers who just wanted to see Tony bust heads and Walter White science his way to the top of the meth trade, and who got irritated if other characters, fans or even the artists behind the shows suggested that they were anything other than awesome.
You could say that this move away from the ironic and anti heroic modes is a repudiation of the bad fans. But you could also argue that it's a concession to them — at least, to the idea that good storytelling means that author and character should be in sync.
When you watched Arrested Development in 2003, you might love watching the Bluths, but you were under no illusions that you were meant to see them the way they saw themselves. Whereas watching Ted Lasso, you believe that Ted Lasso is decent, and so do the supporting characters (even the ones who don't like him), and so does Ted Lasso.
You can even see this arc in the careers of individual artists. Take Ryan Murphy, who went from dark-comic acid baths like the high school satire Popular and the mordant plastic-surgery drama Nip/Tuck to the idealistic Hollywood and the recently concluded Pose, a heart-on-its-sleeve celebration of the queer and transgender pioneers of the New York ballroom scene in the 1980s and 1990s. In between was Glee, which managed to be savage and sentimental at the same time.
Or consider Stephen Colbert, who spent a decade on The Colbert Report playing himself as a blowhard conservative commentator, a deep-cover ironic immersion assignment that required narrative detaching not just from his show but, in a way, from himself. By the Trump era, Colbert was the host of CBS' Late Show — still funny, still cutting, but delivering jokes from his authentic persona, becoming a Resistance-viewer favourite by spoofing the president directly, rather than killing him with fake kindness.
Nothing in culture happens in a vacuum, and here, TV has mirrored other arts. In Bookforum, critic Christian Lorentzen identified a move in literary fiction away from irony — "a way of saying things without meaning them and meaning things without saying them" — and toward novels with "a diminishing level of ironic distance projected by the authors on their alter egos."
Nabokov's Lolita, Lorentzen argues, would be received badly today — not so much because its protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert, sexually preys on a girl, but because "it's not immediately obvious that Humbert's passionate self-defense is part and parcel of Nabokov's moral condemnation."
It would be hacky to blame this shift on the internet. But I will be just hacky enough to say that it parallels the internet. Outlets like Twitter promote passionate fandom and unambiguous condemnation — and, because trolls can use these platforms' anonymity in bad faith, this can lead users to assume that every complex, distanced or sardonic comment is in bad faith, too.
So one can be opinionated on social media, but one is dry or ironic at one's own risk. It rewards cris de coeur and dunks, unambiguous statements that make clear the writer's direct moral or judgmental stance. "RTs are not endorsements" is the most ignored statement on the internet outside the Terms of Service.
That doesn't mean that everyone who uses social media believes that artistic depiction equals approval. But it's handy for amplifying that belief. As Laura Miller wrote in Slate, authors have changed lines in books because furious readers could not accept that writers might have their characters say things they themselves do not believe. In an era when devil's advocates are assumed to have satanic agendas, the same goes for the devil's dialogue writer.
The sincerity era
I am, of course, using a broad brush, the only size available to anyone painting cultural trends. Take several steps back, and you can see the pattern; step closer, and you will find plenty of exceptions. The Sopranos era also had the heartfelt The West Wing and Friday Night Lights.
You can also see some interesting cases in the series that fall between the two eras. Girls, which began in 2012 and ended in 2017, is arguably a series made in the spirit of the first period that often ran afoul of the expectations of the second one.
Lena Dunham had a nuanced view of Hannah Horvath, the budding-writer protagonist she created and played on the show. Hannah was packed with ambitions and flaws; she was smart and off-putting, righteous and self-centered, struggling and privileged, sinned against and sinning.
But because Girls was also marketed as a generational watershed — underlined by Horvath's hunger to be "a voice of a generation," a transparently comic line whose irony got lost in quotation — it was often treated as a kind of sincere cultural ambassador for millennials. And when its characters failed to be role models, it went through backlash after backlash focused on their "likeability," something the show's satire could not be less interested in. (Compare Broad City, a great but very different female-friendship Brooklyn-com that premiered a couple years later, which saw its central duo's stoner-slacker recklessness as straightforwardly liberating.)
Schitt's Creek, last year's Emmy winner for best comedy, took the opposite journey. It began as a tart, Arrested Development–style sitcom about a wealthy family forced to earn their own livings in a small town. But it came into its own — and found a devoted audience — when it shifted into a warm, earnest mode, in which the rich fishes-out-of-water embraced their community, finding purpose and love.
Other times, the shift can take place not just within a show but within its viewers. The American Office, which began in the caustic spirit of the original, got sweeter and more sympathetic toward its boss figure, Michael Scott (Steve Carell). And in its streaming afterlife, especially during the pandemic, it's become a kind of comforting home that fans want to return to over and over, an odd fate for a show whose founding idea was what an alienating kind of surrogate home the workplace can be.
None of this is to say that warm, sincere TV shows are worse, or simpler, or dumber than their more ironic counterparts. Yes, Ted Lasso can lean heavily on the sentiment; the new season has a Christmas episode you could frost a gingerbread house with. But it's far more nuanced than the hugging-and-learning sitcoms of TV's early years — often challenging whether Ted's winning-isn't-everything attitude is the right fit for every situation, and whether it's even entirely healthy.
For that matter, using irony and discomfort to tell a story doesn't mean being nihilistic; The Sopranos was intensely moral even if Tony Soprano was not. But antihero dramas and cringe comedies became so widespread that they developed their own clichés, just like the older, moralistic shows they reacted against. It may just have been time for the pendulum to swing, for creators to realize that exploring the challenge of being good can be just as interesting as scooping up the 31 flavors of evil.
In some cases, it's also a question of who has gotten to make TV since 2001. Antiheroes like David Brent and Tony Soprano, after all, came along after white guys like them had centuries to be heroes. The voices and faces of the medium have diversified, and if you're telling the stories of people and communities that TV never made room for before, skewering might not be your first choice of tone. I don't want to oversimplify this: Series like Atlanta, Ramy, Master of None and Insecure all have complex stances toward their protagonists. But they also have more sympathy toward them than, say, Arrested Development.
Beyond TV, we've just been through several years of a political troll war, with hate and vitriol laundered through winking memes and an antihero-styled president who excused his wishes for election interference and an unconstitutional third term as "jokes," as if his own presidency were a performance he could distance himself from by saying he was playing a character. With the Joker era of the presidency given way to one focused on empathy and catharsis, sincerity may be a better cultural fit for now.
But irony and sincerity are themselves not enemy parties. They're simply tools of art, used to achieve the same ends from different angles: to evoke emotion, to test what it means to be human, to play out ideas and to get people to see things with new eyes. One tool chisels, the other smooths; each does something the other can't.
TV is richer when it has access to both of them, and fortunately, even in this earnest moment, irony is not dead. This fall, HBO brings back Succession, its sulphur-perfumed oligarchy saga that's part drama, part comedy, part metaphorical news report. A recently released trailer for the third season is a textbook example of the ironic mode, relishing the backbiting and insult-poetry of the Roy family, who are no less despicable for being delightful to watch.
It promises a chaser of bitter absinthe to Ted Lasso's spoonful of sugar. I can't wait — sincerely.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: James Poniewozik
Photographs by: Michelle Rohn
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES