Emmys: How the Best Comedy Series Nominees Mine Death for Humor

Illustration by: Travis Millard

What's so funny about dying? Several shows use mortality as a comedic device, from 'Russian Doll's' reincarnation storyline to 'The Good Place's' afterlife setting.

In challenging social times, entertainment can either veer into bubbly escapism or take a darker turn. Four of this year's nominees for comedy series go as dark as you can, staring death in the face. HBO's Barry and Amazon's Fleabag, both brilliant and innovative, have main characters driven by grief and guilty consciences, leading to lives that are comically absurd. Netflix's Russian Doll and NBC's The Good Place confront the specter of death by positing an afterlife, creating laughable loops of time in which their characters learn to become better people. These shows are not based on simple gallows humor — rather, death is woven into the fabric of the characters and gives meaning to their ludicrous lives.

Barry and Fleabag, series shaped by the distinct voices of their stars, became more death-obsessed and even stronger in their second seasons. As Barry, Bill Hader (also a co-creator, writer and director on the show) is still trying to leave his hitman life to become an actor. But this season, when we see flashbacks to his time as a Marine in Afghanistan, they reveal the truth: After his buddy was killed by a sniper, Barry shot the wrong man in revenge. And we finally see him in the act of shooting Detective Janice Moss, who had figured out that he was a murderer. Barry channels both these scenes in flashbacks, haunted by the faces of his victims as he pulls out his deepest emotions for one of the character's few effective acting-class scenes.

Comedy perfectly balances the powerful drama by leaning into the goofy incongruity of a hitman-actor. The series takes plenty of satiric swipes at show business, from the pompous delusions of Barry's acting class and teacher, Gene (Henry Winkler), to the way Barry flounders his way into an audition for a plum movie role, talentless though he is.

This season Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also the creator and writer) fell for a character the internet nicknamed "hot priest" (Andrew Scott). The romance began as another sign of Fleabag's self-destructive choices and ended with true heartbreak. But the season was really shaped by death, revealing more viscerally than ever how grief and guilt led to her messy emotional life. Fleabag has always felt horrible for having slept with the boyfriend of her best friend, Boo, leading Boo to step into traffic and die. This season, we see flashbacks to the funeral of Fleabag's mother. "I don't know what to do with it, all the love I have for her," Fleabag weeps to Boo. "I'll take it," Boo says, exposing the perfect storm of bereavement that has left Fleabag shattered inside.

But her life is as funny as ever. Who but Fleabag would fall for a priest? There are plenty of small, memorable comic touches — including her sister's disastrous new haircut.

Death is more overtly comic, and looks a lot like life, on Russian Doll and The Good Place. On Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) repeatedly dies, only to return to life again, always starting in the same place: looking in the bathroom mirror of an apartment where her friend is throwing her a birthday party. Harry Nilsson's jaunty "Gotta Get Up" plays on the soundtrack every time, a sign that her deaths are more absurd than tragic. Lyonne's sharp performance makes Nadia comically exasperated as she tries to figure out how to break the loop, even seeking help from a rabbi.

The series' true theme emerges, though, when Nadia discovers Alan, who shares her recycling problem but is so despondent, he wants to die for real. As Nadia helps him face the future, it becomes clear that the show is using death and humor to address the vital question of how to live.

The humans on The Good Place are all dead, but they look and act alive, and this season they were sent temporarily back to earth. Unlike most network comedies, this one raises ethical questions and reboots its timelines. But at heart it's a first-rate ensemble comedy about friendship and romance. Will Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) ever get and stay together? On The Good Place, the great beyond is the comic hook, but over the seasons that setup also has become a gateway to a more humane life.

This year's comedy category couldn't ask for a stronger list of death-defying nominees. Only Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel opted for a candy-colored escape into the early 1960s. Even Veep ended its seven-season run on HBO with the funeral of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). What better way to polish off one of the best series ever than by icing its antiheroic heroine? And as televised coverage of Selina's death was interrupted by breaking news that Tom Hanks had passed on, Veep used death to make one last mordant joke at her expense.

 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.