I was out with a friend recently who, à propos to nothing, said, ‘do you ever watch something that just makes you feel seen?’.
She was referring to that episode of Netflix easy with the lesbians, where one pretends that she is a cool bike-riding vegan to impress the other. And she’s right. That episode really does capture something about the culture of women-who-love-other-women. Because the writer just gets it.
Audiences use media to understand themselves and their surroundings. And in such uncertain times, they are more desperate to do so than ever. The same thing happened in the 80s with the rise of satire and political farce, and now here we are again.
With that in mind, here’s a selection of TV shows that ‘get it’, and the different ways ‘it’ can be achieved.
Bojack Horseman (2014-present)
The new series of Bojack Horseman came out last week. Naturally, I watched it all in one day and cried multiple times.
I really do think Bojack is the best thing on TV (er, Netflix) right now. If you’ve missed it, it’s the story of an aging, alcoholic ex-sitcom star living in LA. Also, he’s an anthropomorphic horse, living in a world where much of the population are anthropomorphised animals living alongside humans, but don’t worry about that too much. The animal schtick is mainly used for additional jokes and puns and, apparently, to prevent it from being just another show with a misanthropic middle-aged white male lead.
While much-lauded for its whip-smart jokes and the way it plays with format, Bojack is also notable for the way it portrays the world. In my opinion there is no other show out there that truly understands society, television, and people in the way that Bojack Horseman does. It feels placed within our world, even with the scripted dialogue and bipedal horses. It examines masculinity and how we are shaped by society and by our pasts, but also how we must still have accountability for ourselves and our actions. Already it is a show that examines human nature and modern civilisation, but its premise and Hollywood setting make it well-placed to apply its critical eye to the television industry as a whole, making its star-studded guest cast almost inevitable. It’s no surprise that everyone in the business would see their truth Bojack and want to get involved – except, of course, those being targeted (looking at you, Mel Gibson).
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-present)
In many ways, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the same show as Bojack Horseman. Both centre around their California-based troubled protagonists grasping at any chance to live a healthy, happy life, only for their own nature and trauma to drag them back to their old patterns. This type of narrative is somewhat common in post-modern television – see the discussion of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia below – and is a comment on humanity in and of itself.
What makes CXG unique, then, aside from its 2-3 original songs per episode, is its complete focus on the mental health of the protagonist, as suggested by its title. What is merely a feature in shows like Bojack and Always Sunny, a symptom of their circumstance and a cause of their problems, is here front and centre to be probed and explored. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really, really gets what it’s like to have mental health issues.
The first half of season 3, where we really knuckled under on Rebecca’s personal crisis and mental health, is some of the best television I have seen in my life. And I have seen a lot. The show dealt with themes of suicide ideation frankly and without romanticising anything, and the song where Rebecca is jubilant that she might actually get a correct mental health diagnosis isn’t anything I’ve really seen dealt with before.
Unfortunately, another way that CXG differs from Bojack is that it has occasionally let me down. There have been many moments where I have thought that maybe something could have been done differently or better, which has somehow never happened in my own experience with the apparently near-perfect Bojack. But then, CXG is longer, and there is a lot more going on. It’s also on the CW. Having said that, I trust the creators and am sure its upcoming final season will be phenomenal.
Adventure Time (2010-2018)
Even as an adult, I love cartoons, but perhaps this is to do with how good cartoons have been recently. There’s something of a renaissance going on, and it’s in large part due to Adventure Time.
But how does Adventure Time get it? I can see why people would write it off as weird and childish, and populated with the ‘so random’ humour that was pandemic in the early 2000s. It’s certainly complex – in the final seasons, I had to watch a YouTube video after each episode explaining all the plot strands and back-references and foreshadowing that had appeared over just those 10 minutes. The lore is extensive, because, as is again hinted at in the name, Adventure Time is largely about the passage of time.
The show is set around 1000 years after the end of society as we know it in ‘The Mushroom War’, but its timeline encompasses literal millennia. Even the main timeline of the show that follows the primary storyline sees main character Finn age from 12 to 17. Adventure Time is, then, both a post-apocalyptic and a coming-of-age story. It is about the age when you learn that life can be difficult and terrifying and that eventually everything you know and love will be gone. We are reminded of this constantly through the series, with pre-war artefacts of the world the audiences recognises making up the backdrop of the show even as a teenage Finn learns how to navigate romance and morals and all the other things you have to learn about to be an adult. Adventure Time is a moving and poignant show about the importance faith and friendship in the face of existential dread.
*NB – In truth, there are several children’s cartoons I could have discussed here; Cartoon Network shows in particularly have been addressing major issues and writing with an additional older audience in mind – I recently sobbed at an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball because it hit a little too close to home on my existential anxieties. If you have any interest in this topic, let me know and I’ll put together another post.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present)
Occasionally incorrectly grouped with shows like Family Guy or South Park, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has matured a lot in its 13 years. On the surface, it’s another ‘edgy’ controversial satire that leans on juvenile offensive tropes and calls it a bold move, but underneath is a thoughtful, carefully constructed disassembly of the American dream and commentary on the societal structures that brought these characters into being.
And so, Always Sunny gets it in the same way that Bojack and CXG do. What’s interesting here, then, is that Always Sunny has few dramatic elements. This is a non-studio sitcom, through and through, much more in the vein of Seinfeld than either of those two shows. It combines the ‘no hugging, no learning’ mantra of Seinfeld with the vicious circle of self-sabotage found in Bojack and CXG, presenting the human condition of stagnation using the sitcom-format as an allegory. Everything must return to status quo at the end of the episode.
Now something of a footnote in the story of the freight train that is Rick and Morty, Community, the show about a diverse study group at a community college, was once the height of cult comedy.
Community differs from other shows on this list in that it was never renowned for satire or scathing political commentary – indeed, much like main character Jeff Winger, it is often stubbornly neutral and apathetic – but for its entrenchment in television and pop culture, and artfully constructed narratives. It is a masterclass in the craft of television. But something Community does understand is loneliness.
I first watched Community as a teenager and continue to rewatch it in my 20s because, more than anything else, it understands what it is to not know your place in the world, to not be comfortable with yourself, to not connect with those around you. Not only is it a found-family story, it’s the story of a group of people, aged 18 to 65, who for various reasons have ended up directionless at a lowly community college. Each character is an exaggeration, each character fills a trope, but each have a real personality and real moments of heart that will connect with viewers.
Any Show by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (various)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge gets it because she understands characters and she understands audiences. Each of her three TV projects so far have been wildly different; the thriller spy-drama book adaptation that took America by storm (Killing Eve); the angry, dry, black comedy drama based on her own one-woman play (Fleabag); the sitcomic set-up of young adults living in a disused hospital with a focus on LGBT+ characters (Crashing). Whichever one you favour and relate to is going to vary based on who you are as a person. But all of them absolutely get it.
These shows work because the characters are people. They speak how people speak. They do the things that people do. They make stupid mistakes, but never the kind that feel unrealistic and frustrating and forced for plot. Waller-Bridge’s background in theatre really shows through; these are smart, well-written, enjoyable dramas that really pack a punch. The last episode of Fleabag left me despondent and unable to move for an hour. These shows are part of the new type of television which blends the best of British and American storytelling, much like Catastrophe; shows that are true-to-life and feel real, while still being more compelling than real life.
There are many more shows I could have talked about. There are still more that, while I personally cannot relate to them, I can feel in them a truth that would ring true with somebody – Fresh Off the Boat, for example, or Broad City. What shows make you feel seen? Were there any on this list you’re now planning to watch? Let me know down below. If you have enjoyed this tenuously-linked series of brief reviews, I also compiled in writing this a collection of shows which are trying to accomplish what those listed here have, but just missed the mark. If you would be interested in reading that post, please do leave a comment below or head over to my contact page.