A few weeks ago, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg observed that prestige comedies have become as clichéd as prestige dramas. The occasion was Netflix’s Love, a languorously unfolding so-called comedy starring deeply imperfect urbanites that shares much with Louie, Girls, Transparent, Togetherness, Looking, and Baskets. Rosenberg’s point was that just as anti-heroes have come to dominate ambitious dramas, affluent knuckleheads sloppily wandering through adulthood burdened by their own personalities have come to dominate ambitious comedies.
To this cluster of shows, you can now add Flaked, a new series starring Will Arnett and premiering Friday on Netflix. Flaked is a haphazardly humorous program that stars Arnett as Chip (also the name of Zach Galifianakis’ character in Baskets), a recovering alcoholic and complete phony living in Venice Beach, California. Quality-wise, Flaked slots right in the middle of the pack. It is not as original, lacerating, or self-aware as Louie and Girls, the progenitors of this trend, or as good as Transparent, the perfector of it, but it contains a deep and precise character sketch. The series, created by Arnett and Mark Chappell, sees Chip very clearly as a man more devoted to appearing decent and sober than to being decent or sober. He revels in his status as an Alcoholics Anonymous wise man, the spiritual mayor of Venice Beach, while behaving like a narcissistic pussy hound who relies on the infinite patience of the people unfortunate enough to care for him.
Flaked is irritating exactly to the extent that it takes Chip’s plight too seriously. Unlike Girls or Transparent—or The Mindy Project or Curb Your Enthusiasm, for that matter—Flaked half-heartedly frames Chip’s behavior as comic while believing it is fundamentally tragic. The show creates situations that are meant to be amusing but stomps all over them with a subtext that insinuates Chip is a tortured soul, not a dysfunctional comedic personality.
In the first episode, Chip becomes fixated on Stefan (Travis Mills), a new AA member who doesn’t show up for a meeting because he is understandably hassled trying to open a new coffee shop. Over the course of the episode, it becomes clear that Chip is obsessing about Stefan missing the meeting for purely selfish reasons: He is anxious that Stefan doesn’t like him anymore. Chip shows up at the coffee shop and, like a seasoned reality TV personality, says he’s heard that Stefan’s been upset. Having planted the seed himself, Chip responds to Stefan’s curiosity about it with, “You can’t control what other people think of you.” The balance of power has been restored: Chip is again the alpha former alcoholic. “Sorry you had to see me freak out,” Stefan says. “It’s OK. It’s not about me,” Chip replies. In this instance and so many others, Chip shows himself to be an ego monster cloaked in New Age aphorisms, but Flaked is so downbeat that it wrings this scene for pathos, not uncomfortable laughter.
Honestly, though, the specifics of Flaked are less curious to me than the larger trend of which Flaked is a part. These shows—which the Transparent writers have dubbed “traumedies”—are, as Rosenberg says, what pass for prestige in the world of comedy these days. Why then are they so sporadically comedic? I do not mean these shows aren’t sometimes funny, though they are more often “funny.” But they are distinct from sitcoms in that their relationship to humor is at will. Sometimes they will try to be funny, and more often they will not. (This is why I have not lumped You’re the Worst or Master of None in with this trend, though they abut it. Both of those shows contain jokes.)
Making people laugh involuntarily is just about the hardest thing to do on television, but it is a win-lose proposition. A sitcom is funny, or it is not. If it is not, it is a failed sitcom. Traumedies do not exist in such a stark dialectic: They can be funny, or they can be “funny,” or they can be neither, while still being anthropological, moving, insightful, fascinating, or even just barely bingeable, relying on innate human curiosity in even the wisp of a plot. This is not to say that great comedies such as 30 Rock and Broad City are not also anthropological, moving, insightful, fascinating, or bingeable. But, first, they are funny. It is also not to say that making a great traumedy is easy. Greatness is always hard. The growing horde of lesser traumedies underscores the excellence of Transparent, Louie, and Girls much the way that awful anti-hero dramas underscored the brilliance of The Sopranos and The Wire. Given similar parts, some people build art, and some people strew junk on the ground and hope it is mistaken for art.
But traumedy has proven to be more admired than comedy, which never gets the respect it deserves, whether at the Oscars or elsewhere. We value what tries to be serious over what tries to be funny. Mediocre traumedies are commended for their ambition, while mediocre sitcoms are slammed for their failure. Bad traumedies are in conversation with prestige. Bad sitcoms are in conversation with farts. The relationship between prestige comedies and prestige dramas is not just analogous, but direct. Prestige comedies also feature anti-heroes, just ones scaled to the more prosaic confines of regular life. So much of the problem with Flaked is that Chip has less in common with The Office’s Michael Scott, another goofball desperate to be a guru, than he does Mad Men’s Don Draper, another smooth operator who built a comfortable life for himself out of a gargantuan lie.
If you are a professionally funny person with a chance to make a personal TV show, traumedies are less risky than sitcoms. Just as the single-camera comedy was cooler than the multicamera comedy, the traumedy is now cooler than the single-camera comedy. If John Mulaney had made a traumedy about the dating life of a neurotic Catholic comedian for Netflix, would it possibly have been as bad, or excoriated as badly, as Mulaney, his multicamera sitcom about the dating life of a neurotic Catholic comedian on Fox? With Flaked, Will Arnett avoids having to answer this question himself.