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Having very much liked the first season (but very much not the second) of HBO’s Big Little Lies, the other night my wife, Sasha, and I decided to check out Reese Witherspoon’s latest miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere, on Hulu. But so predictable seemed the dramatic intent and social attitudes of the characters and the material itself that we couldn’t even make it to the end of the first episode. Needing the bracing tonic of some guaranteed laughs, we switched over to knock back a couple of quick episodes of that old reliable, Schitt’s Creek, and got the relief we were looking for.
Earlier in the week, we’d experienced the very same sort of limited patience with the first episode of HBO’s The Plot Against America, despite the fact that for years I had looked forward to a screen adaptation of what I often (if not always) consider to be Philip Roth’s best novel. But I honestly can’t be certain if it was the show or just our state of mind that was to blame.
At this unprecedented moment, mood relief may be in short supply but heavy demand, quite possibly more so than at any time since the Great Depression. For a while, anyway, heavy, socially relevant content may not be what the doctor ordered when it comes to entertainment; who would want to watch Chernobyl, in my opinion the best show of last year, when the contagion and body count is all you can think about?
Eventually, there will be films and miniseries (and books and plays and songs and every other art form) that delve into the reasons, miscues and tragedies associated with what we’re all going through right now. But more than at any other time in my life, I’ve suddenly been overcome by a genuine craving for escapism — not in a cheap or silly way but in a manner that can lift my spirits and take my mind off of what otherwise is a complete and depressing preoccupation.
Our son Nick, a film major at college, returned home three weeks ago from the East Coast only to see his spring break metastasize into a permanent vacation; he’ll finish his senior year in late May at home, cheated, like so many others, out of a graduation ceremony and facing the worst job market society could devise. My wife also majored in film (I, however, did not), so our interests and tastes overlap considerably, if far from entirely. In all events, however, it’s a pretty film-freaky household (except for our daughter, who could care less).
It didn’t take long to brainstorm a top-10-comedy-of-all-time list. The main point that provoked some reflection pivoted on whether romantic comedies or, more precisely, human comedies should be included in the same category as outright farces and gross-outs. My conclusion, after polling my family, was that humorous classics such as Sullivan’s Travels, The Apartment and Annie Hall, for example, belong in a separate, exalted category of their own, one based more fundamentally in the relatable humanity of the characters than in the jokes and gags. Another classic, Dr. Strangelove, also exists for me in another realm, perhaps one all of its own, that makes it an uneasy fit for easy categorization.
So these are the films that provoke out-loud laughter and, crucially right now, succeed in distracting minds from the woes and tragedies of the moment for at least as long as they last. Although it does stretch across nearly 100 years of film history, the list is admittedly relatively conventional and America-centric.
There’s also the great unknowable issue of what holds up and what doesn’t. When the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary came out in 1998, it was widely greeted as a comic breakthrough that pioneered new levels of lewd hilarity. Checking it out recently, I found the film almost embarrassingly flat and flagrantly unfunny, not appealing at all except when Cameron Diaz is onscreen. Beyond that, some comedies that play well to an audience in a big theater just sit there sadly when played at home.
Here’s the list, in chronological order. It could easily look different next week and the week after that.
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