On the TV front, two new seasons of Mockingbird favorites are now out for your viewing pleasure. Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty just finished its third season, with Nielsen knighting it the most popular comedy on television, and Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is now available for binging on Netflix. Both shows are regulars in our “best of TV” columns each December, occupying a fair amount of Mockingbird HQ water cooler chitchat. It’s a little silly to think that TV shows featuring an alcoholic super-genius grandfather and a washed up 90s sitcom-star horse garner critical acclaim and commercial success, but that’s the world we live in these days. If you give the shows a chance, and have strong tolerance for dark humor, odds are you won’t be disappointed.

What’s remarkable about the two comedies, given their longevity, is how their plots are unapologetically sad. It’s a trend that Jenny Jaffe at Vulture picked up in 2015, dubbing these two shows (along with Seinfeld, New Girl, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) members of a new comedy subgenre: the sadcom.

The emerging American comedy, whether it be animated or live-action, carries with it neither sincere escapism nor cynical nihilism. Consider them sadcoms — the raw, honest, surprisingly hopeful, long-gestating progeny of M*A*S*H. Louie was perhaps the genre’s modern groundbreaker, showing a person with often-reprehensible morals trying and failing to work against them, for the sake of the many good people around him and a next generation he clearly cares a great deal about. It was shocking, difficult, and heartbreaking, and its honesty resounded deeply with its audience.

A piece of that sadcom landscape, suggests Zach Handlen over at the AV Club, is the ability to handle “the art of cynical sincerity,” something that he notes Bojack and Rick and Morty do uniquely well:

Each series began with apparent indifference, even hostility to its leads, encouraging viewers to laugh in shock and disgust over their behavior. They established a pattern of apparent assholery and then disrupted that pattern with flashes of honest feeling, which land all the harder because they’re unexpected. It’s a model that respects an audience’s unwillingness to settle for easy heartwarming moments by burning the bridges that lead to those moments, and then slowly, patiently rebuilding them. No one’s going to pretend that BoJack isn’t an ass, or that Rick and Morty have a functional relationship. But once that pretense is off the table, it’s possible to find other, more challenging but still affecting veins of emotion. The surprise of realizing you care about a story that, up until five minutes ago, seemed to be the antithesis of caring, is what makes loyal fans for life.

While that level of sympathy is easy to generate in dramas, as we secretly cheered for villains Walter White and Tony Soprano to outwit the law, bringing that same sympathy into an animated television context allows for another level of absurdity and sincerity.

It’s a pattern that plays out prominently in Bojack Horseman‘s latest season. When we left Bojack in season 3, he was suicidal. The actress who played his TV daughter, Sarah-Lynn, was 9 months sober, but Bojack’s drug and booze-fueled Oscar campaign drags her back into using, and she dies of an overdose. As season 4 begins, Bojack has left LA, traveling to Michigan to fix up his family’s old summer cabin and escape three seasons of pain. In Michigan, we get a glimpse of the family tree that helps fill Bojack’s spiritual and emotional backstory. We discover Bojack’s uncle was killed in WWII, and his grandmother was so hysterical over the death that Bojack’s callous grandfather had her lobotomized. Bojack’s mother was raised in that mess, and we also see how she becomes the abusive and withholding antagonist that Bojack loathes so deeply. When a young girl shows up at Bojack’s front door in Los Angeles claiming to be his daughter, Bojack panics. His immediate fear is that he will likely fail daughter Hollyhock as a father, just as he’s failed as a friend to Sarah-Lynn, Princess Carolyn, Todd, Diane, and the rest of the show’s cast.

As Bojack wrestles with the ghosts of family past, Princess Carolyn has her own struggles. Across the season, loyal assistant Judah is fired, boyfriend Ralph is dumped, rising star Courtney Portnoy fires her as an agent, and she suffers a miscarriage. The framing device of her story is the distant future, in which Princess Carolyn’s great granddaughter is presenting this awful series of events to a class as a family history project. We later discover that the scene is a glimpse into Princess Carolyn’s inner self-talk, her hope that success in suffering will be honored by generations to come. It’s a heartbreaking scene, particularly as the viewer realizes that her self-talk depends on  her fertility, which this season puts into question. As the season ends, Princess Carolyn seems a few small steps away from becoming as hopeless as Bojack.

Things are still tough for Diane and husband Mr. Peanut Butter. The governor campaign provides a distraction for the majority of the season, but when they return to a normal life, they’re forced to recognize that their marriage isn’t working. Todd’s entrepreneurial spirit is the only story line that isn’t overwhelmingly sad this season—everyone else in the principle cast is flattened by their past (Bojack), present (Diane), or future (Princess Carolyn).

As Vulture and TV Club outlined above, this is a show that respects how happy endings don’t come easily in real life. Bojack Horseman‘s show-in-a-show, the Cosby Show parody Horsing Around (the sitcom that made Bojack famous in the 90s) is the foil that continues to taunt the cast with the possibility of domestic happiness. Unlike that generation of 80s and 90s sitcoms, with idyllic families, easily solved problems, and thirty-minute conflict resolutions, Bojack Horseman shows respect for its viewers by putting together a much more honest depiction of life, with more complex happy endings.

Had we not been given a season four, viewers would have been right to question whether the happy ending was coming at all! Bojack’s life over the four seasons has been one of uniform bleakness, alienating friends, destroying families—the show even going so far as to insinuate that a relationship with Bojack might lead to death. But at the end of Bojack’s new season, we discover that Hollyhock is not actually Bojack’s daughter, relieving Bojack from the responsibility of parenthood. From the first moment Hollyhock and Bojack met, she insisted that she didn’t need a father (in fact, she had 8 of them?). And yet Bojack was still crushed by the law of good parenting. When Hollyhock passes out after being poisoned by the weight-loss powder that Bojack’s dementia-stricken mother added to the coffee, it’s the collapse we’ve been expecting for the whole season. That trip to the ER solidifies Bojack’s deep fear that he is indeed a terrible father.

But in the very last scene of the season, Hollyhock’s gracious response to failed father Bojack frees him from the law of fatherhood and secures her love. It turns out Hollyhock is not his daughter, but the child of Bojack’s father and the family maid, given up for adoption as an infant. “I’ve never had a brother,” Hollyhock demurs, suggesting that Bojack still has a place in her heart and life. Bojack pauses for a moment, smiles, and the show cuts to the credits, which trade the traditional raw “Ballad of Bojack Horseman” track for an indie pop ballad called “Wake Up” by Jenny Young Owens (see the clip below). While Bojack has failed to be a good parent, as he rightly feared he would, there are no “laws” that govern the relationship between siblings, or at least there are no laws in the same way that there are laws for parenting. Sibling relationships are more devoid of expectation—there are few-to-no requirements that explicitly govern how one must be a good sibling. There are no “sibling” sections in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, there are no op-eds about “Tiger-sisters,” in the paper, or there are no pressures of being a suburban “soccer-brother.” While sibling relationships do break away and fall apart, it’s usually over the sort of conflict that revolves around normal human relationships—selfishness, transference, fear, etc. Of course sibling relationships can be difficult, but the “little l” laws that govern relationships between spouses, parents, romantic partners, and other interactions simply aren’t there when it comes to brothers and sisters.

Bojack’s happy ending, four seasons in the waiting, may have come. And it came in the form of one-way love and deliverance from a crushing law. Free from the burden of being a failed father, and secure in the love of his little sister, Bojack’s season ending smile is a gift that means so much more given the three previous seasons of self-destruction. It’s a richer, deeper joy than anything viewers would have seen on Horsing Around, and one that sticks with fans long after the binge. If the point of the sadcom is to cut through the fluff of sitcoms past, then it’s important to note that the sadcom’s moment of redemption is a relationship of one-way love and the lifting of a massive burden of responsibility.

If comedies are starting to move in this direction, with an added dimension of sadness and complex endings that may or may not end happily, it’s worth asking why. Stay tuned for Part 2 with insights into why people like sadcoms and a review of Rick and Morty‘s third season.

Strays:

  • Top Bojack episodes from this season: “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” is a tour de force into the inner monologue of depression and defeat.
  • “Time’s Arrow” is likely an award-season winner, a deeper exploration on the dynamics that made Bojack’s mother so withholding, told from the perspective of a dementia sufferer. It’s also the season’s top parable for the law bringing rebellion.
  • The word-game in this season of Bojack was top-notch. “You know Courtney Portnoy! You probably recall when she soared as a thorny horticulturist in One Sordid Fortnight With a Short-Skirted Sorceress. How would you enjoy joining Portnoy for a scorched soy porterhouse pork four-courser at Koi? Glorify your source, but don’t make it feel forced, of course. And try the borscht!”
  • A list of 75 visual gags in the show’s background this season.
  • It’s entirely possible that this season’s relatively gracious ending could set Bojack up for a future failure in season 5. Have the writers given Bojack a sister only to take her away? I certainly hope not, but it would certainly put the “sad” in “sadcom” if that’s what happens!