New comedy Ill Behaviour starts on Showtime this week (November 13), and to say its premise is unusual would be an understatement.
Imagine the scene: Recently divorced Joel (You’re the Worst‘s Chris Geere) discovers his best friend Charlie (Tom Riley) is refusing chemotherapy for his cancer, so enlists an alcoholic oncologist (Masters of Sex‘s Lizzie Caplan) and mutual friend Tess (Jessica Regan) to enact a recklessly illegal plan to help him.
Got it? Good. It’s part of a growing trend for high-concept comedy shows, 28 years after the launch of Seinfeld, a sitcom that was famously about “nothing,” and 15 since the mockumentary era spawned such lo-fi hits as The Office and Parks and Recreation.
The traditional sitcom formula is this: pick a location and add well-rounded, preferably funny people (the word “sitcom” is, after all, a contraction of the phrase “situation comedy,” signalling a focus on characters over premise).
These new shows, on the other hand, eschew such a low-concept approach, setting themselves up instead with a bold and sometimes complex premise that’s often got more in common with sci-fi or crime thrillers than the familiar settings of Central Perk or Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Bewitched (1964 – 1972)
High-concept comedies are not new, of course — Mork & Mindy, ALF, and My Mother the Car are just a few examples — but their immediate hook and easily digested premise helps them stand out among the vast array of TV offerings available now. For instance, “suburban housewife is actually a witch” would be the one-sentence pitch for this classic 1960s show.
Goodnight Sweetheart (1993 – 99)
Gary Sparrow (Only Fools and Horses‘ Nicholas Lyndhurst) steps back in time one day to the Blitz, and meets Phoebe (Dervla Kirwan, then Elizabeth Carling). The trouble is, he already has a wife back home in the present day. Cue some back-and-forth shenanigans as he tries to decide between the two women, and encounters real-life wartime characters such as Noël Coward (David Benson) in the process.
My Name is Earl (2005 – 09)
After losing a winning lottery ticket in a car accident, amoral waster Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) decides that karma’s to blame and tries to make up for a lifetime of bad deeds.
The Wrong Mans (2013-14)
This show was created by and stars James Corden and Horrible Histories‘ Matthew Baynton, and tells the story of two unassuming British council workers who accidentally get caught up in a high-stakes Russian conspiracy. Cue apologetic grovelling, some cultural faux pas, and a serious case of mistaken identity.
People of Earth (2016 – )
This show’s high-concept premise is grounded by a strong story, quirky humor, and sweetly relatable humanity. It stars The Daily Show‘s Wyatt Cenac as Ozzie, a journalist assigned to cover a support group for “experiencers,” or alien abductees. A less sophisticated show would simply point and laugh, but this one instead sympathizes with the many ways people try to hide from their true selves, especially when some aspects of life are just too messy or painful to embrace fully.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015 – )
Driven New York attorney Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) drops everything to move to West Covina in pursuit of her ex-boyfriend Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III). It’s a bold move, and one that’s still providing increasingly movie-like storylines (not to mention huge song and dance numbers) three seasons in.
The Last Man on Earth (2015 – )
Initially centered around the heavily bearded Phil Miller (Will Forte) in the year 2020, seemingly the only human left alive after a deadly virus has swept the planet, this absurdist comedy manages to subvert expectations and push the boundaries of the genre by putting a comic spin on the apocalypse.
The Good Place (2016 – )
Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur consulted Lost‘s Damon Lindelof on world-building before getting stuck in to this comedy take on the hereafter. Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, a regular dirtbag who’s run over by a billboard truck advertising impotency medicine and wakes up in heaven — not hell — after an administrative error.
Son of Zorn (2016 – 17)
Its lead character may be animated muscle-bound Zorn (Jason Sudeikis), but the majority of this show from The Lego Movie filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller takes place in a typical live-action suburban setting populated with flesh-and-blood humans.
The End of the F****** World (2017 – )
This eight-part dark comedy brings Charles Forsman‘s 2013 graphic novel to screens. It stars Black Mirror‘s Alex Lawther as James, a self-diagnosed psychopath, and Penny Dreadful‘s Jessica Barden as Alyssa, who’s angry with everything in their suburban home town. Currently airing in the U.K., it comes to Netflix in early 2018.
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