When Tracy Letts debuted Superior Donuts at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2008, it represented an abrupt turn for the playwright behind such intense theatrical works as August: Osage County, Killer Joe, and Bug. Reviewing the play’s Broadway run for The New York Times a year later, critic Charles Isherwood wrote:
“Superior Donuts,” a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.
Don’t construe the sitcom comparison as a simple sneer. Who doesn’t like to spend the occasional evening, clicker in hand, with a few episodes of a beloved old favorite? The style and setting of Mr. Letts’s new play strongly evoke Norman Lear’s groundbreaking shows of the 1970s, which mixed smart jokes and social commentary in satisfying proportions.
It was a prescient observation: Nearly a decade later, Superior Donuts has become that exact type of sitcom, one that mixes smart(ish) jokes and social commentary in satisfying(ish) proportions. (The show premiered last night, and moves to its regular time, Mondays at 9 Eastern, on February 6.) Developed for TV by Bob Daily and former Community producers (and Greendale Human Being namesakes) Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, it’s the story of a city’s changing face, centered on the relationship between set-in-his-ways donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch) and the shop’s lone, enterprising employee, Franco Wicks (Jermaine Fowler). Arthur’s a baby-boomer immigrant who escaped communist Poland; Franco’s a black millennial whose Chicago neighborhood, Uptown, was long neglected by the people of Chicago, but is now seeing an increase in property values and Starbucks openings. The pair strikes an uneasy, but expedited-for-TV alliance, the type in which Franco introduces sriracha to Arthur’s signature glaze recipe, and Arthur chafes against the change, until he runs out of cons to compete with the pros of Franco’s inventive streak. As would be the case in one of those vintage comedies, there’s just no arguing with the long line of trend-chasers attracted by Superior Donuts’ spicy new treat.
Superior Donuts is itself part of a trend, one that’s injecting contemporary talking points into primetime comedy the way Franco updates Arthur’s tried-and-true breakfast pastries. Like Isherwood wrote about Letts’ play, it’s not a new idea: This was the method Norman Lear and other writers and producers staked their name to 40-plus years ago, dramatizing conversations that were happening on the other side of the TV screen with opinionated surrogates like Archie Bunker, Maude Findlay, Fred Sanford, and Ann Romano. Unlike their predecessors, today’s topical comedies aren’t all “taped in front of a live studio audience” affairs. There’s Superior Donuts, The Carmichael Show, Mom, and Netflix’s One Day At A Time remake, but there’s also the single-camera spawn of Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Louie, like You’re The Worst, Transparent, or Better Things. (The overlooked link in this evolutionary chain: Mike White and Laura Dern’s soulful activist parable Enlightened.) Arguably, the modern-day champ of mixing laughs with issues that people face in the real world is neither real, nor a person: It’s BoJack Horseman, the equine star of an eponymous animated Netflix series in which silly animal puns and soul-dredging character studies are given equal weight.
The biography of BoJack Horseman’s protagonist also points to why this type of programming was so rare in recent years. BoJack is the former star of Horsin’ Around, a show-within-a-show that harkens back to the type of sitcom treacle that inspired Seinfeld’s infamous “No hugging, no learning” motto. While shows like Full House (an obvious Horsin’ Around inspiration) could always be counted on to make their audiences “Aww” at a third-act moral, the morals that involved pressing matters of grave importance were reserved for special occasions. “Very special” occasions, that is—like when Uncle Ned dropped by the Keaton house for a few drinks
or when Cherie hid inside the old refrigerator
or when Arnold and Dudley went up to Gordon Jump’s apartment.
These were “very special episodes” of Family Ties, Punky Brewster, and Diff’rent Strokes, a term proliferated by advertising and a style born from the diluted legacy of the topical sitcom. The subjects of solemn, out-of-character bookends and stern on-air promotions (“Next… an important Mr. Belvedere”), very special episodes were a regular part of any sitcom’s season, especially if the adults on that sitcom were outnumbered by adorable, catchphrase-slinging moppets. If Full House writers came up with a script about eating disorders, if the Family Matters writers had some thoughts on gun control, if Blossom did practically anything on Blossom, it was a very special episode.
But as the winds of primetime comedy shifted from Reagan-years earnestness to grunge-era irony, very special episodes became the frequent (and not entirely undeserved) target of ridicule. The pop-culture-addled smartasses of Friends were doing it in their very first season: In “The One Where Underdog Gets Away,” Joey frets about becoming the inadvertent face of a public-health campaign. “Set another place for Thanksgiving. My entire family thinks I have VD.” Replies Chandler: “Tonight, on a very special Blossom.” By the time Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s animated sci-fi comedy Clone High debuted in 2002, the concept of very special episodes had gained enough comedic currency that every episode began with some variation of “Tonight on a very special Clone High.”
Sitcoms didn’t stop getting serious on occasion, but they stopped getting serious in the jarring fashion of the very special episode. The irony of Seinfeld and the insult comedy of Everybody Loves Raymond curdled into the glibness of Two And Half Men and its ilk, but those types of shows never forced a studio audience to cut tension by laughing at the jokes sprinkled throughout a child molestation plot. Without the studio audience, a single-camera comedy like Scrubs was freer to explore such emotional territory, its life-or-death stakes making the medical sitcom a precursor to the type of show critic Matt Zoller Seitz has termed a “comedy in theory.” In his Vulture essay “How Comedy Usurped Drama As The TV Genre Of Our Time,” Seitz defines the term through the example of You’re The Worst:
It runs 30 minutes (minus ads) and boasts eccentric, energetic characters. But it’s not consistently light, and it shows no interest in being lovable or comforting. Sometimes it’s ha-ha funny. Sometimes it’s funny-strange. Other times it’s defiantly not funny. When the characters are at their, well, worst, you want to avert your eyes, because what they’re going through seems so mortifyingly personal and because creator Stephen Falk and his writers show their travails in the most unexpected, even alienating manner.
But I’d argue that You’re The Worst—along with some of the shows cited above—belongs to an additional category of comedy in theory. Because You’re The Worst does all of the things Seitz says it does, while also delving into long-form explorations of the sort of material that would’ve been the basis for a very special episode two or three decades ago. If the original Superior Donuts was like an extended episode of a ’70s sitcom, then the take on gentrification within CBS’ Superior Donuts—or BoJack Horseman’s angle on mental health or Mom’s treatment of substance abuse or Transparent’s views on identity—is like a series-long very special episode. In reclaiming this type of TV-making from the past (and making a few improvements), these shows have rehabbed yesterday’s laughingstock into the defining spirit of today’s TV comedy. They might sometimes be comedies in theory, but they are always very special sitcoms.
Because it’s not just the lectures or the tonal clashes that sullied the reputation of the very special episode. It’s also the drive-by indifference to “very special” subject matter. Take Mr. Belvedere for example, which in 1986 acknowledged the AIDS epidemic at a time when the president of the United States was still keeping mum about the disease. Admittedly, it was a bold move for a family sitcom about a fussy butler living with a decidedly unfussy family. But that episode, “Wesley’s Friend,” marks the only appearance of the titular HIV-positive character. Young Danny enters the lives of the Owens family, helps youngest son Wesley learn some valuable lessons about friendship and tolerance, and disappears forever.
It’s here where the improvements of the very important sitcoms are most keenly felt. Let’s take it back to that defining comedy in theory, You’re The Worst. In the show’s first season, it introduced unemployed roommate Edgar as a PTSD-stricken Iraq War veteran and recovering addict—and the dewy-eyed ray of hope beaming within a surprisingly warm half-hour. Edgar’s struggles have since been the basis of entire You’re The Worst episodes—most notably in the wrenching season-three entry, “Twenty-Two”—but the important thing is that these biographical details inform the character and the show even when they’re not center stage.
And when the blisteringly funny rom-com opened up an ongoing story about the female half of its central couple, Gretchen, and her clinical depression, it didn’t feel like a 180. It felt like a natural continuation of the types of stories You’re The Worst had told about Edgar, producing a stunning standalone episode that spoke to both Gretchen’s personal journey and the show’s explorations of growing up and settling down. By investing in these topics, rather than bringing them up once and never again, You’re The Worst created unique expectations for itself. Viewers watching the third season in 2016 (or catching up on streaming now) know it’s the type of show where a character can lose a father or terminate a pregnancy and those experiences and decisions will not only have weight and impact in the moment, but for the remainder of the series.
It’s satisfying to see the new One Day At A Time do the same in a single season of multi-camera comedy. The Netflix reimagining arrives with a Lear pedigree, and while it gives some topics a one-episode-at-a-time approach—mental-health stigmas, the sad state of Veterans Affairs, online pornography—others are artfully threaded through the fabric of the first 13 episodes. These standalone and season-long arcs even play off of one another in inspired fashion: The military service of single mom Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado) is never far from One Day At A Time’s mind, but it’s at the fore of season one’s formal triumph, “Hold Please,” in which Penelope attempts to call the VA, but instead gets tangled up in red tape and slapstick chaos.
“Hold Please” takes a staple of the multi-cam diet—the bottle episode—and ramps up its “very special” metabolism. It’s not just The One Where Penelope Calls The VA. It’s also The One Where Alex Tries To Swipe His Mom’s Pills and The One Where Elena Inadvertently Comes Out To Her Brother. Running six minutes longer than the standard broadcast or cable sitcom, the episode has enough time to a) go beyond lip service to the serious stuff, and b) meld it with well-written, well-delivered gags about street festivals, chintzy plastic swords, and yacht rock. And just as Penelope’s veteran status feeds into “Hold Please,” her daughter Elena’s sexual identity feeds out into the remainder of the season. It’s a fulcrum for a show that feels simultaneously of-the-past (bright lights, stage-bound, studio audience) and of-the-moment (predominantly Latinx cast, produced for a streaming service, hopefully irritating internet trolls and President Trump through its mere existence).
Compared to One Day At A Time, the first three episodes of Superior Donuts are no great shakes. Jermaine Fowler is a magnetic presence; it’s a treat to watch Judd Hirsch and Katey Sagal work the multi-camera stage again; and the show’s primary setting has a pleasant hangout vibe. But among the new breed of Very Special Sitcoms, it feels the most beholden to the mockable qualities of the very special episode. Its teachable moments have a saccharine aftertaste; when its characters cite statistics about gun violence, it feels less like organic conversation and more like someone excerpting a TED Talk. Frequent mentions that Arthur is a widower seem to build toward a deeper dive on that subject, but otherwise the dialogue skims across the surface of that particular detail.
The vintage sitcom Superior Donuts most resembles isn’t anything from the Lear stable, but rather Chico And The Man, the NBC sitcom that cast Jack Albertson and Freddie Prinze as the Arthur and Franco of an East L.A. garage for three seasons in the 1970s. (And continued for a fourth following Prinze’s 1977 suicide.) That show was created by James Komack, who was also a producer on Welcome Back, Kotter, a show whose depiction of an unorthodox educator working with his alma mater’s worst students (once being one of those worst students himself) helped lay the groundwork for the transition between the socially conscious sitcoms of the ’70s and their kid-centric, very special episode ’80s counterparts. The road from Bunker family debates to Tanner family group hugs runs through Mr. Kotter encouraging Epstein to quit smoking with a story about potato knish.
At times, Superior Donuts feels too caught between multiple schools of sitcom-making. It’s today’s very special sitcom, yesterday’s topical sitcom, and a CBS sitcom of the 2010s all at the same time. It’ll play strangely with its new timeslot partner, 2 Broke Girls, which finds a similarly diverse cast interacting in an eatery that’s seen better days—but practices a comedy of offense that’s also past its prime. (The show has done some evolving since its 2011 debut, but it’s always going to have one foot planted in that long ago autumn when the broadcast networks gave Whitney Cummings two sitcoms.) Superior Donuts isn’t afraid to stick its finger in the socket every now and again, but given its setting and subject matter, there’s a lot more charge in that socket, like the punchlines about police brutality and body cameras prominently featured in CBS promos for the show. It’s just figuring out how to balance these parts of itself. Judd Hirsch’s Arthur sums it up quite nicely at one point: “You got potential, but there’s a hell of a lot you don’t know yet.”