There are television shows — warm and tidy comedies, generic action shows, underbaked procedurals — that feel as if they are made by no one at all. They seem to have simply arisen naturally as a result of the environment in which they exist, like mushrooms growing on a wet log. You look up and they are simply there, being bad, being nothing, and then you look up again and they are gone and no one misses them.
But thankfully, TV has gotten more specific as it’s gotten more spread out. That’s challenging as a business model, but it’s a boon to creativity. This fall, there are quite a few shows that carry the conspicuous stamps of their creator-stars, and they’re all better for it.
FX’s Atlanta, which premieres Sept. 6, was created by Donald Glover, the actor-rapper-comedian whose big break was the Dan Harmon comedy Community, but who helped cement his reputation as a complicated and thoughtful guy by posting a series of handwritten notes to his Instagram account in 2013. They talked about fears and anxieties that lots of people have but lots of famous people don’t talk about, and they ended with the reminder, “You’re always allowed to grow up. If you want.”
That’s certainly as good a summary as any of one of the theses of Atlanta, in which Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, a pun of a name for a guy who’s largely broke, has a girl and a baby, and is trying to make a way forward for himself in the Atlanta music scene. That way perhaps reveals itself when his rapper cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry) releases a popular mixtape and video. Earn pitches himself to Al as a manager, but Al sees him as inexperienced and unreliable, based on some history that largely goes unspecified in the early going but shows in the way Earn’s mom and dad love him but won’t let him in the house. Al and his buddy Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) are unsure what to do about their changed circumstances, and Earn wants to help. But to his girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and his parents (Isiah Whitlock and Myra Lucretia Taylor), it’s not clear whether Earn has any idea what he’s doing.
What carries the early episodes of Atlanta through some shaggy plotting is Glover’s quiet, focused portrayal of a person whose progress has been stalled, who’s now pushing against the problems of being poor in order to stop being poor. It’s rare for television to show quite so candid a picture of a guy who gets paid $62 at a time from his terrible job and has to figure out creative ways — both above-board and less so — to stretch it as far as possible. Being poor spills into every crack in Earn’s life and widens it: he wants to work on his relationship, for instance, but he can’t manage a simple date night because he can’t afford to buy Vanessa dinner without quite a bit of improvisation.
It’s a neat trick to be as unpredictable in tone as Atlanta sometimes is — it has its dark moments, to be sure — and to stay funny, but Atlanta is often very funny. Stanfield gets a lot of the most satisfyingly absurd material as the perpetually quizzical Darius, but even though Earn’s problems are often serious, Glover meets them with a certain still contemplation that’s entirely different from the goofy, face-pulling energy he used on Community. It still draws laughs, but they are more knowing, more based in shared experience. The humor here is less broad and less signaled by the pacing of the show. What’s funny about these circumstances is more entrusted to the audience to notice.
Unlike Donald Glover, Tig Notaro didn’t get her biggest exposure before now through a sitcom; she got it through stand-up. During what’s now a well-known year of cascading disasters, Notaro performed a set that became famous literally overnight (thanks, Twitter), and she brings a modified version of that story to her new comedy, One Mississippi, which comes to Amazon on Sept. 9. The fictionalized Tig works in comedy and radio and, like the real Tig, has survived breast cancer and a massive intestinal infection. She’s called to a Mississippi hospital in time to watch her mother die (in one of the most unsparing portrayals of hospital death I’ve seen on TV in a while), and once her mother is gone, Tig has to work out a relationship with her brother, Remy, and her stepfather, Bill.
One Mississippi is co-written by Notaro and Diablo Cody. Despite the famously particular dialogue style in which Cody works, the pilot feels very much like Notaro’s stand-up: dry as a bone, often touching, hilarious in unexpected moments, specific and absurd. As is the case with Atlanta, One Mississippi isn’t a one-person project by any means; there’s a stellar turn, for instance, from John Rothman as the chilly Bill (Tig tells her girlfriend, played by the always welcome Casey Wilson, that he’s “somewhere between room temperature and sleet”).
The influence of Louis C.K., who helped make the original stand-up set a hit and who works here as an executive producer, is evident more in philosophical terms than concrete creative ones: as with Louie, One Mississippi feels, if we can use this term, honestly fictionalized — based on real life, but real life the way it might be bent and stretched for a more cohesive narrative. (Louis C.K. is also an executive producer on Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s fine new FX show coming later this week, made more directly in the Louie style, about a woman raising three daughters.)
But while Glover and Notaro are both familiar figures to American comedy audiences, Phoebe Waller-Bridge may not be. Her new comedy Fleabag, coming to Amazon on Sept. 16, is already airing in the UK, but as with the unconventional romantic comedy Catastrophe, Amazon was smart to pick it up. Waller-Bridge plays the lead, but she’s also the creator, and she based the series on her play of the same name. Fleabag follows a single woman (who does, indeed, go by “Fleabag”) who’s dating with a very negative and detached attitude about it, to the point where she frets to her father about the kind of woman she’s becoming. That’s been the setup for a lot of so-so material about women and sex, but Waller-Bridge’s writing (she wrote all six episodes herself) takes the unusual step of including moments where Fleabag directly turns and speaks to the audience, not in the more familiar mockumentary style American comedy audiences have become familiar with, but in the middle of scenes. It could play as a gimmick, but it seems more conspiratorial in this context, as if Fleabag is confiding in the audience as she might in a friend. It builds the sense that she is compulsively disclosing — perhaps to avoid actually disclosing.
There’s not just cynicism and anger in this story; there’s also grief and a certain bafflement that unfolds over the first several episodes. If Fleabag begins as a collection of single-girl moments, patience through a few episodes reveals a fuller, sadder, more multidimensional story anchored by Waller-Bridge’s bracing honesty, inventive uses of jumbled time, and an abrupt editing style that reflects the off-balance state of mind in which Fleabag finds herself.
One blessing of shows that feel individual, that feel intentional, is that even when they’re uneven in quality, they reflect something that’s human. Fleabag, for instance, has a couple of side stories going on that may be a bit too clever for their own good, but particular when its focus is on Fleabag’s alternating avoidance and embrace of introspection, it’s riveting.
It’s hard to figure out how to market idiosyncrasies; that’s almost their nature. As with some of the best people you know, some of the best shows are certainly not to the taste of everyone. It is not the task of Atlanta to be Everybody Loves Raymond. Places like FX and Amazon that are built differently can, we might hope, support shows that are conceived differently. And all three of these projects, while they have lots of creative minds involved at various levels, seem to come from an identifiably human voice.
Somewhere around the time fans began to address show creators and writers by their first names (“Aaron” or “Joss”) or by pet names (“Darlton”), they began to expect to feel connected to the creative process in ways that aren’t always realistic. But with some shows, you do feel the intimacy between the creator-star and the creative result. Atlanta, One Mississippi and Fleabag are all impossible to imagine without their central figures — and that’s a strength.
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