By Jim Sabataso
This week, let’s take a look at the best comedies of 2016. As with last week, keep in mind that this is by no means a definitive list; there are other great shows out there — “Transparent,” “Catastrophe,” “Better Things” — that, for one reason or another, got by me this year. One thing that’s immediately clear with my list this year is how many of these shows could pass as dramas. While it’s a trend that’s been building for a few years now — “Louie,” “Master of None” — 2016 saw a slew of 30-minute series that didn’t back away from including dramatic elements and real emotional stakes. And most were better for it.
Donald Glover’s offbeat homage to his hometown, “Atlanta” is easily one of 2016’s best shows of any genre. Glover plays Ern, a Princeton dropout who returns home to manage his cousin’s fledgling rap career. Caught between two worlds, Glover plays the character with a restlessness bordering on existential that permeates the entire show. The series is at once grounded and surreal, giving itself over to dreamlike sequences that add depth and build a contemplative pacing.
Caustic, cruel and absurd, “Baskets” is Zach Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel’s strange story about a sad-sack rodeo clown and his equally sad-sack family, living in sad-sack Bakersfield, Calif. The series thrives on the sort of cringe-inducing humor fans of “Louie” and “Portlandia” will immediately recognize — awkward situations and explosive outbursts abound. Supported by a strong cast, including Martha Kelly’s mousy, deadpan Martha and Louie Anderson’s gender-bending (and award-winning) matriarch Christine, “Baskets” is an acerbic treat.
‘High Maintenance’ (HBO)
Originally created as a web series by husband-and-wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blickfeld, “High Maintenance” made the leap to HBO without missing a beat. Sinclair stars as the nameless “guy,” a marijuana delivery man in Brooklyn. Episodes comprise one or two stories, which function as vignettes offering entertaining, humorous and occasionally poignant glimpses into the lives of his various customers. Despite the premise, the show is anything but a typical stoner comedy. It’s artful and ambitious. Scenes are beautifully shot, characters are rounded, and the writing is smart, tight and efficient throughout. (Tip: For a fuller appreciation of the show, be sure to watch the original web series first, which HBO has made available on demand.)
Issa Rae’s smart, funny depiction of a young black woman struggling to navigate the world of dating and career is a fresh take on a classic sitcom premise. But where shows like “Mary Tyler Moore” and “30 Rock” went for broad laughs, “Insecure” adheres to contemporary comedic sensibilities, practicing restraint and building in real emotional stakes. Rae’s Issa on the show is a selfish mess who wants to be better. However, unlike Hannah Horvath on “Girls,” Issa is infinitely more likable and pleasant to be around. The series also explores the politics of both gender and race in a way that never feels hectoring or didactic. “Insecure,” instead, tells a story that is easily relatable through the lens of an experience that is largely unknown to many viewers.
‘Last Man on Earth’ (Fox)
I’ll admit it took me a few episodes to figure out what this show was up to. But once I did, “Last Man on Earth” shot to the top of my weekly watchlist. Three seasons in, Will Forte’s post-apocalyptic tale about a ragtag group of humans who survived a global plague remains one of network TV’s most audacious comedies. It’s aggressively weird and defiantly resists narrative expectations — Forte’s character spends an entire episode in a gigantic, lifelike dinosaur costume, A-list guest stars appear in cameos only to be immediately killed off. In a field of excellent sitcoms, “Last Man on Earth” stands out as one of the most consistently satisfying in terms of writing and pacing. Episodes give you exactly what you need — no more, no less — making the most of their time and always ending exactly where they should, even if it’s not where you’d expect.
“BoJack Horseman,” “Speechless,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “One Mississippi,” “Archer,” “Difficult People,” “Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” “Fleabag,” “Broad City” and “Lady Dynamite”