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‘The Bear’ is not a Comedy—but ‘Succession’ really is one

It’s time to break down the reductive line between comedy and drama. The best comedies are dramatic and the best dramas have an excellent sense of humour

A scene from 'The Bear'
A scene from 'The Bear'

The Bear is not a comedy. The sensational series—streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar—may have won several Emmy awards and Golden Globes this month in the Comedy category, but The Bear gave us arguably some of the most devastatingly depressing TV of last year. Christopher Storer’s series is a show about a sandwich shop trying to go gourmet—which, I grant, does sound like an admittedly sitcommy setup—but the series is a meditation on grief and loss, on family and fragility. It’s a relentless, intense and powerful series.

The Bear is so harrowing, in fact, that the reason the protagonist Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White (who must have run out of mantelpiece room after sweeping all those awards for Best Actor in a Comedy Series), has to take over the aforementioned sandwich shop is that his elder brother, who ran the shop, killed himself and left the shop to Carmy. That, dear academies, is a pretty good sign: most comedy premises aren’t constructed upon suicide.

Also read: The Bear serves up a succulent second season

Suicide, in fact, brings me to possibly the first American series to have blurred the boundaries between Comedy and its pinstripe-wearing older brother Drama. Larry Gelbart’s M*A*S*H* (1972-83) borrowed its theme-tune from Robert Altman’s 1970 classic film of the same name. The film featured the song Suicide Is Painless but while its bleak lyrics—The sword of time will pierce our skin / it doesn’t hurt when it begins /But as it works its way on in / the pain grows stronger, watch it grin—weren’t borrowed for the show’s opening credits, the melancholia found its way through.

Set in a makeshift Army hospital during the Korean War of 1950-53, M*A*S*H* was an incredible show about the futility of war, a series that castigated US Army interference, and yet had American doctors trying to do the right thing—all while goofing off with nurses and distilling gin in their tents. I bring up M*A*S*H* because the DVDs of the series have my favourite DVD-extra of all time: the ability to turn off the laugh-track. Mandatory during the show’s run, M*A*S*H* is a different beast without the piped-in laughter. It’s unafraid and dark and often deathly serious. So is it a Comedy or is it a Drama?

This one-or-the-other distinction comes from a different time. Network television in America gave Drama shows longer running time—1 hour, truncated by commercials to 42-45 minutes—as opposed to Comedies, which came in at 22-23 minutes for a half-hour of TV. Dramas were longer, bigger budgeted and taken more seriously, because (most) Comedies followed a straightforward and unambitious sitcom format involving a location, a bunch of familiar characters, catchphrases and a basic return to the status quo.

Distinguishing between apples and oranges may have made sense at the time, though I firmly believe Comedy has never been less accomplished than Drama. Giving out separate awards has always been about appeasement, about bringing more stars to the shows and pleasing more viewers.

Now, we live in times of streaming where shows can have half-hour episodes alternating with 50-minute episodes, all dropping to viewers on the same day. Comedies frequently feature more ambitious and groundbreaking storytelling, while Dramas end up reliant on pithy and quotable lines. What is Beef? What is Fleabag? The apples and oranges live in the same salad now.

The last bona-fide hits to have laugh tracks were The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, which ended in 2019 and 2014, respectively, while the last successful comedy that felt like it had a laugh track was Modern Family (2009-20). The classic sitcom format has become so dated, in fact, that its only remnants now are on animated shows parodying the sitcom, shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy (both streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar). Not to say that animated shows are necessarily comedies, of course. BoJack Horseman is full of animal puns and sight gags and yet may be the deepest, most bawl-worthy series of all. So why does a show have to be one or the other?

(A quick aside: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane has a new series out, Ted—streaming in India on JioCinema—which is a prequel to the two Ted movies starring Mark Wahlberg with MacFarlane voicing a foulmouthed and inappropriate teddy bear. Set in the 1990s, the show is a defiantly old-school comedy, full of political incorrectness and excessively bad behaviour from its underage protagonist. I laughed through the first season—even though none of it was memorable—and I believe the reason Ted works is simply because it authentically feels like a throwback.)

I think it’s time to break down this reductive line between Comedy and Drama. Yes, some shows are obviously funny. Yes, some shows deal with more depressing content. Yet the best comedies are dramatic and the best dramas have an excellent sense of humour—why else would we keep quoting The Sopranos?

Speaking of quotability, television’s most acclaimed (and awarded) Drama series is, to me, its top Comedy. Succession might involve a sadistic patriarch dangling an inheritance before his inept children, forcing them all into abusive oneupmanship, but you and I both know that Jesse Armstrong’s magnificent series is actually all about the lines. Those prickly, poetically profane putdowns. Tom Wambsgans is a pathetic character, but really, how pathetic can he be if, spotting someone with a particularly large handbag, he says, “She’s brought a ludicrously capacious bag. What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail?”

Swap the trophies. Better yet, let’s call the whole thing off. Break down the silly distinctions. Let Roman Roy and Carmy duke it out. Comedy is Drama, Drama is Comedy. That is all you know, and all you need to know.

Also read: Nobody wins on Succession: The devastating satire comes to a close


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