Death Breathes New Life Into the Emmy Comedy Race

June 16, 2019, 10:00 PM UTC
TV shows about dying like "Dead to Me" (pictured), "The Good Place," and "Russian Doll" have killed with fans and critics. Will Academy voters go towards the light?

Having written for Ellen DeGeneres, the Oscars telecast and numerous sitcoms including Two Broke Girls, writer-producer Liz Feldman has one of Hollywood’s most enviable comedy careers. So what does it say about the genre that her most critically-acclaimed creation to date, Dead to Me, also is one of the most depressing shows, maybe ever?

“We’re living in very dark times, and it’s hard to not think about the eventuality of that darkness overcoming everything,” says Feldman, whose pitch-black Netflix comedy centers on the friendship between Jen, a grieving mother of two (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini), who happens to be the woman who killed the former’s husband. “Death is the most universal theme there is. If you’re a human of a certain age, you’ve experienced loss,” says Feldman, who channeled her personal fertility struggles and grief over the sudden death of her cousin into the series. “As a writer, I had to get these stories out of me.”

In the nine months since last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards, when Amazon’s sunny, retro comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won Best Comedy Series (aided, some say, by perennial favorite Veep’s absence from the race), shows about dying, the after-life, and grief have reached critical mass. From comedies like Amazon’s Forever, Netflix’s Russian Doll, and NBC’s The Good Place, which center on versions of the afterlife, to Netflix’s grief-themed trifecta Dead to Me, The Kominsky Method, and Ricky Gervais’ After Life, morose themes once employed as a “very special episode” one-offs are now backbones of the storytelling.

Outside of a few series—ABC’s whimsical one-hour comedy Pushing Daisies and HBO’s groundbreaking but never Emmy-winning mortuary-family-drama Six Feet Under, for twoTV has feared the reaper. “There’s long been a sense that viewers don’t want to think about death,” says NPR’s TV critic Eric Deggans. “But now we’re in a landscape dominated by streaming companies who crave specific audiences. The acting opportunities that come with death-focused storylines have energized writers, especially of half-hour series, to make these themes their series’ dramatic engines.”

The appeal of darkness-tinged comedy isn’t new to Emmy voters, who have long embraced genre-defying entrants in the comedy race. Los Angeles Times writer Howard Rosenberg noted the trend toward what he called “traumadies” as early as 1987, when Michael J. Fox won Best Actor in a Comedy for a groundbreaking episode of NBC’s Family Ties where his character grieved a friend’s death. And in the decades since, dozens of drama-leaning comedies and performances have taken home gold in the comedy categories, including FX’s Atlanta, Nurse Jackie star Edie Falco (who, upon accepting her Emmy in 2010 for the Showtime series, proclaimed, “I’m not funny!”), embattled Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor, and last year’s winner Bill Hader, who scored gold for playing the titular assassin in HBO’s Barry.

But this year, voters have a decidedly more existential-themed crop of series to consider. This is thanks in some part to creator Michael Shur’s critically-acclaimed, slow-burn hit The Good Place—which premiered in 2016 and is slated to expire this fall—having paved the way for more comedies that Deggans says use death and grief as a means to explore “ethics and what it means to be a good person in super-absurd environments.”

Russian Doll co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne says her protagonist Nadia Vulvokov, who perishes over and over (and over) again while trying to solve the mystery of her death, ultimately is looking for a reason to exist. “The show isn’t so much about life or death, but the murky space in between,” says Lyonne, who cites Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as writers-room inspiration. “We wanted to put Nadia on a journey toward finding a reason to become a participating member of life.”

Armisen says that like Russian Doll and The Good Place, his series Forever, created by Parks and Recreation alums Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, also takes the afterlife-as-comedy-premise to an unexpectedly grounded place. “I’ve had couples tell me the show has brought up healthy conversations for them, like what does ‘Til death do us part’ really mean?’” says Armisen. “I think these shows have resonated with people because they’re really about the human condition, perseverance and even optimism.”

Whether Academy voters are ready to cast their ballots on June 24 for this year’s wave of “traumadies” will be revealed when nominees are announced July 16. But as of press time, nearly all 19 critic-journalist pundits featured on awards-prediction site Gold Derby predicted Russian Doll, The Good Place, and The Kominsky Method (with a few also favoring the season’s freshest contender, Dead to Me) will take on the category’s frontrunner in its final year of eligibility: HBO’s three-time winner Veep.

Regardless of whether her series lands on the ballot, Feldman says fan response to Dead to Me, which Netflix renewed for a second season on June 3, signals an evolution in the relationship between a show’s logline and a viewer’s emotional experience.

“Yes it’s a show about death and loss, but it’s also about the friendship and comfort that get us through those things,” she says. “Hopefully that’s what people have connected with, and what will make them want to keep watching.”

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