Why British sitcoms deserve more recognition

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 4:10pm




Here’s a piping hot take: British sitcoms are funnier and far more refined than American sitcoms. Just hear me out.

It’s not that I don’t like American sitcoms — some of my favorite TV shows include “Parks & Recreation,” “30 Rock,” “Scrubs,” “Broad City” and currently, “The Good Place.” But ever since freshman year of college, I have found myself gravitating more toward watching contemporary British sitcoms. There’s something about British humor that I find much more appealing, more refreshing and more soul-crushingly real than the average American TV comedy. That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but British sitcoms — with their lovable yet wildly chaotic characters, brisk pacing, progressive themes and heartwarming humor — are still worthy of merit, especially in this age of binge-watching and streaming services.

Earlier this semester, I spent a good deal talking about “Lovesick,” the sharp, tantalizing rom-com from the mind of writer/producer Tom Edge (“The Crown”) that reads as a British hybrid of “How I Met Your Mother,” “Friends” and “You’re The Worst.” Rather than simply borrowing the themes and the energetic, youthful casts from each of those shows, “Lovesick” does something entirely different; it transcends classic sitcom tropes by taking major dramatic risks. Each episode pokes fun at the characters, but does so without sacrificing the more human complexities underlying their motivations and actions. “Lovesick” isn’t just a story about a single hopeless romantic; it’s a multifaceted tale of every young person’s fear of rejection and commitment. “Lovesick” trusts its audience enough to neatly balance comedy with drama, which is why it primarily succeeds better than American sitcoms and even other British sitcoms ever could. It’s also just a breezy watch — the first season contains six episodes and the second and third contain eight.   

British sitcoms also benefit from the versatility and autonomy of their creators. Three shows that come to mind are “Crashing,” “Fleabag” and “Chewing Gum.” The first two were created, written by and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Goodbye Christopher Robin”), who won the 2017 BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy for “Fleabag.” The latter was created, written by and stars Michaela Coel (“Black Mirror”), who won the 2016 BAFTA Breakthrough Talent award for her work on “Chewing Gum.” Each of these shows, while varying in aesthetic and tone, share a singular style of devilishly ribald humor.

“Crashing,” in particular, has a kooky concept: It follows the lives of six working-class friends, led by Waller-Bridge herself as the infectious Lucy, living in an abandoned hospital that poses as a sort of makeshift co-op. In just six hysterical half-hour episodes, Waller-Bridge breaks down every possible sitcom trope — the awkwardness of dinner parties, the tensions between friendships and sexual relationships, the endless existential dread of being in your 20s — with keen, almost effortless efficiency.

Waller-Bridge continued to expand upon traditional sitcom setups in her much darker and bolder follow-up “Fleabag,” where she played a nameless Londonite attempting to navigate her life after the death of her best friend. Though each episode shows her breaking the fourth wall — a typical framing device used in TV comedies like “The Office” — Waller-Bridge skillfully uses her character’s interactions with the audience as a defense mechanism for the secrets she hides from those around her. It definitely works in eliciting laughs, but it plays just as effectively when heightening the drama of a scene.

Much like “Fleabag,” “Chewing Gum” incorporates a fourth-wall-breaking structure, but to a much more absurd degree. A friend of mine once described this show as a cross between “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Insecure,” which, to be fair, isn’t completely wrong. The show tells the story of Tracey (Coel), a horny, Beyoncé-obsessed 24-year-old virgin residing with her uber-religious mother in the low-income neighborhood of Tower Hamlets, London. As an exercise in cringe comedy, “Chewing Gum” (mostly) works: The characters are wacky but not totally insufferable, the dialogue is raunchy but not too gross and the visual gags, most of which revolve around sex, are, well, not very sexy, but still entertain.

What differentiates “Chewing Gum” from other sitcoms, however, is the strong personal voice behind Coel’s writing and characters. Her subtle social commentary about religion, sex, money and young adulthood feels earned in the way Coel transposes them in an obscene, albeit unabashedly personal, setting. It’s no wonder, then, that “Chewing Gum” is based on a semi-autobiographical play Coel wrote in 2012, which inevitably helped give an elasticity to the show’s comedic flair.

Sure, British sitcoms may not appeal to everyone in the States (or elsewhere, for that matter). The stuffiness of the dialogue and the characters may come off as too esoteric for some — even The Guardian writer Ben Elton thinks snobbery and “lazy contempt” are killing the British sitcom. British sitcoms also have a known history of perpetuating xenophobic and racist humor (though American sitcoms have been guilty of reinforcing harmful stereotypes as well). But it is worth noting the value British sitcoms add to the overall scope of modern international entertainment and comedic storytelling.