The comedy of misery is big right now.
Half-hour comedies once consigned to pratfalls and laugh tracks have entered terrain formerly reserved for the tragic. When these experiments work, as they do in FX's "Louie," you have something new and rather audacious.
Two tragicomic series debut tonight. One had me laughing out loud from the start; the other left me feeling more miserable than amused.
Acclaimed in Britain, the comedy "Fleabag" (TV-MA) begins streaming its six-episode season on Amazon Prime.
Assured and audacious from the beginning, "Fleabag" stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the title role. She's a young woman careening through a life of bad choices and sad situations, not all of them of her own making. Let's just say she's got issues with impulse control.
The series has a central narrative hook. Fleabag often stares at the camera mid-scene, breaking the so-called fourth wall, and tells the audience her real feelings about the situation at hand.
And it's no secret that her "true" feelings are often hilariously at odds with what she's saying to other characters. In a less capable actress, this would seem gimmicky, but Waller-Bridge pulls it off.
This being a 21st-century tale of a single woman in the city, much of "Fleabag" revolves around the pursuit of sex in ways that seem to preclude real intimacy or happiness.
"Fleabag" plays nearly all sex scenes for awkward laughs, and humor doesn't come much more uncomfortable than the scene where she reacts to a news clip of President Obama in a manner that sends her boyfriend packing.
Not to give too much away, but in between moments of absurd humor we discover more about the downward trajectory of Fleabag's life and learn why she has become so personally and professionally isolated. Not to mention dead broke. Look for Olivia Colman as her rather brittle and passive-aggressive stepmother.
Colman is on a real tear of late, having starred in "Broadchurch," "The Night Manager," the weird little comedy "Flowers," streaming on NBC's comedy service Seeso, and now "Fleabag," one of the better comedies to hit both sides of the Atlantic.
On a similar note, HBO launches the six-episode comedy "High Maintenance" (11 p.m., TV-MA).
This meandering series follows an overlapping collection of New Yorkers and their ragged lives and addictions. Ben Sinclair stars as an unnamed pot dealer who delivers his goods to an eclectic clientele.
The series' sprawling cast offers plenty of opportunities for winning performances, particularly since so many characters appear to be playing a role, dissembling in plain sight and "acting" for themselves and others.
From moments of intimacy to soul-baring confessions at recovery centers, you never know when any moment is genuine or a joke, an improv bit or merely fodder for social media.
It's an interesting, even horrifying, contemplation of contemporary discourse. At the same time, the ratio of unhappiness and discomfort to comedy may be too high for many viewers.
As in "Fleabag," sex is central to the story, but it is played here for boundary-pushing explicitness at the expense of humor.
Tonight's other highlights
- The gang returns on the third season premiere of "Z Nation" (8 p.m., Syfy, TV-14).
- Aspiring illusionists audition on "Penn & Teller: Fool Us" (9 p.m., CW, TV-PG).
- "Art in the 21st Century" (PBS, TV-PG, check local listings) enters its eighth season in Chicago (9 p.m.) and Mexico City (10 p.m.).
- "Mysteries at the Museum" (9 p.m., Travel, TV-PG) enters its 11th season.
- A serial killer targets Danny on "Blue Bloods" (10 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).
- Corporate war looms on the season finale of "Dark Matter" (10 p.m., Syfy, TV-14).
- Joni faces questioning on "Quarry" (10 p.m., Cinemax, TV-MA).
An aspiring rapper (Eminem) overcomes grim surroundings in the 2002 autobiographical drama "8 Mile" (8:55 p.m., MTV), co-starring Kim Basinger and Brittany Murphy.
Julie Chen hosts "Big Brother" (8 p.m., CBS) ... National Finals on "American Ninja Warrior" (8 p.m., NBC, r, TV-PG) ... A winner emerges on "MasterChef" (8 p.m., Fox, r, TV-14) ... Wedding bands on "Last Man Standing" (8 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG) ... Dean Cain hosts "Masters of Illusion" (8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., CW, r, TV-14) ... Stand-up dreams on "Dr. Ken" (8:30 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG).
Blown cover on "Hawaii Five-0" (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) ... A new take on the ice cream cone on "Shark Tank" (9 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG) ... "Dateline" (10 p.m., NBC) ... "20/20" (10 p.m., ABC).
Jimmy Fallon welcomes Miley Cyrus on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Jeffrey Tambor, Corey Stoll, Hailee Steinfeld and Nate Morton visit "Late Night With Seth Meyers" (12:35 a.m., NBC, r) ... Matt Damon and Keegan-Michael Key appear on "The Late Late Show With James Corden" (12:35 a.m., CBS, r).