It’s hard not to feel both concerned and excited about the state of comedy on TV right now.
Comedy Central alone boasts a murderer’s row of sterling comedies with a wide range of viewpoints and attitudes. You’d be hard-pressed not to find something to like or love in every episode of “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Broad City,” “Key & Peele” and “Review” (and those last two just announced season premiere dates, hooray). Elsewhere, “You’re the Worst,” “Silicon Valley” and “Transparent” are among the most observationally acute shows around and give me hope for the future of smart, character-driven half-hour programming on the small screen.
On the broadcast networks, it’s hard to live in a world without “Parks and Recreation,” the past master of character-based comedic smarts, but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” finished out its second season very strongly and could well assume that crown one of these days. I’ve spent the past couple of months re-watching the entire series, and thus have ample appreciation of the ways in which the show endeavored to hone the strengths of its ensemble -- and make Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) more endearing.
That character was my main stumbling block in the show’s first season, but in Season 2, it went from a sometimes-watch to a must-see because all the work on the fundamentals paid off. Especially in the second half of Season 2, the show cleverly took advantage of the well-calibrated dynamics among the “Nine-Nine” crew: Andre Braugher’s deadpan comic timing and Terry Crews’ earnest, unpredictable energy are always gold, and Chelsea Peretti’s Gina is one of the most delightful weirdos on TV. Samberg’s insistent nervous energy became more tolerable as Peralta evolved into a less obnoxious and more insecure and even charming character, and in general, the leads began to mesh in very satisfying ways with the the well-defined quirks of the precinct’s lovable oddballs. As was the case with “Parks and Rec,” in Season 2 of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," each new combination of personalities and guest stars began to yield funnier and sillier results, and yet the realistic stakes have kept the world grounded and humane. If the show’s third season is as good as those of “Parks and Rec” or “The Office,” we’ll be very lucky indeed.
That said, comedy’s center of gravity has shifted a lot just in the last few years. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the reliably enjoyable “New Girl,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” have all earned permanent spots on my DVR, and it’s weird that the slight but enjoyable “Undateable” is practically NBC’s comedy flagship at this point, but we live in an increasingly unsettled (if not somewhat unhinged) TV world.
Looking ahead to next season, it’s hard not to get the impression that many broadcast networks have lost confidence in the live-action comedy arena. It’s sad that the solid yet subversive “Cristela” got canceled while an uninspired update of “The Odd Couple” will keep blundering on, and it’s worth noting that CBS, which had comedy blocks on two nights this season, will only have one comedy night this fall. But that retreat is nothing compared to the intrinsic sadness of the following words: NBC will only have one hour of comedy on its schedule in the fall -- on Fridays. As someone who loves television and grew up on Must-See TV, NBC's rout brings me no joy.
Given that the broadcast networks don’t seem to believe in comedies with ambition, distinct points of view or fresh ideas -- statements borne out by by the majority of their comedy pilots in the last couple of years -- it makes sense that shows like “The Mindy Project,” “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Community” ended up at online portals. The fact that these shows had somewhere to go once the networks washed their hands of them is, in itself, a hopeful sign. As long as adventurous cable networks and free-spending streaming services are willing to give comedy folks jobs, the skittishness and clear signs of flop sweat of the broadcast networks -- and even some cable outlets -- isn’t the end of the world, I suppose. (But I have to add, the cancellations of "Enlisted," "Happy Endings" and "Benched" -- all solid shows aimed directly at the mainstream -- still sting.)
Of course, streaming services aren’t just picking up cast-offs like “Community,” “Mindy” and “Arrested Development” -- they’re commissioning originals as well. I haven’t been all that impressed with live-action comedies on Hulu, Amazon and Netflix so far (“Transparent” and “The Wrong Mans” are the only ones to have made much of an impression, for very different reasons; one's quite emotionally intense and the other's a classic farce). But I did end up thinking pretty highly of “Other Space,” a charming new Yahoo! Screen comedy created by Paul Feig, the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and the director of “Bridesmaids.”
“Other Space” is set in the vastness of the interstellar wilderness, but the show but wisely keeps the scope of its comedic ambitions well within limited -- but amusing -- parameters.
“Other Space,” like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Parks and Rec” and, of course, “The Office,” is essentially a workplace comedy full of educated, put-upon people who have to endure each other’s quirks, obsessions and annoying habits. And though this workplace comedy is set on the bridge of an aging spaceship, you don’t necessarily have to be into sci-fi TV to get the vast majority of jokes. Like the Dunder Mifflin troupe, the characters on "Other Space" just want to be accepted and praised by the people around them, but that's hard to arrange when the replicator is on the fritz and the ship's out of fuel.
Captain Stewart Lipinski (Karan Soni) is earnest, energetic and probably entirely unsuited to his job. Managing an unruly and not particularly dedicated crew is clearly not his forte, but Stewart’s enthusiasm for exploration makes up for some of the haplessness of his leadership style.
Soni plays Stewart with winning enthusiasm, and the rest of the cast is game and appealing as well. Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, Neil Casey emerged as the standout of “Other Space”: He plays an odd duck named Kent, and his dead-serious line readings were often the funniest things in any given episode. Kent is sort of an equivalent to Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation," but with an even weirder history and odder predilections. Drawing on a long sci-fi tradition, it emerges over time that the decidedly different Kent is, in the end, more human than the rest of the people (and artificial life forms) on the ship.
Also hilarious is Joel Hodgson of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” who plays Zalian Fletcher, the ship’s grizzled and possibly brain-damaged engineer, who may have been overexposed to radiation and/or the contraband he smuggled on to the misbegotten vessel. Zalian’s constant companion is a boxy, rather rude robot named A.R.T., who is voiced by Trace Beaulieu, another “MST3K” vet with sly and dependable timing.
The “MST3K”-worthy exchanges are just one way to geek out on “Other Space”: As someone who has seen every single sci-fi TV series of the last few decades -- and I’ll admit to having watched a few of them all the way through more than once — it was enjoyable to watch the show have fun with the conventions of the genre. The wormhole gone wrong, the mysterious alien, the fake rocks and the hallways that appear to be made from tin foil, the opportunities for naiveté and bravery on the outer edges of space -- the tropes are all there and many of them are put to good use. Of course, like any good sci-fi show, “Other Space” uses its otherworldly setting to comment on the here and now, so it’s not surprising to find out that, at one point, the team’s corporate overlords planned to turn the expedition into “Real World/Road Rules: Moonferno.”
A little part of me wished that this plucky show could be on a bigger platform like NBC or ABC. Though a couple episodes sag here and there, "Other Space" is consistently good, and it is much better most of than the new comedies the broadcast networks have rolled out in the last few years. If nothing else, a larger budget may have allowed the show to have better lighting (the harsh white glare on everything only served to emphasize the limitations of the sets), and at least the networks know how to insert ads pretty smoothly. The Yahoo! Screen experience involves seeing the same ads over and over again, and there were glitchy moments when ads interrupted the flow of the program.
That said, I doubt the broadcast networks and most cable networks would be willing to take a chance on a show about a bunch of strong personalities and mixed-up weirdos stuck in outer space in a run-down spaceship. So it’s a good thing that the world of comedy, like the universe we live in, is expanding.