‘Atlanta,’ ‘Barry,’ & The Rise Of Unsettling Comedy

by Frank Martin

It’s strange how different genres of storytelling can evolve over time. Some genres are timeless, such as romance. A classic romance story can resonate with those who enjoy those emotions the same as a modern day romance story. Action and adventure are the same way. The special effects might have evolved, but the thrilling excitement is the same kind of feeling regardless of the decade. But some genres are topical in that they are a reflection of the growth of society. Horror is like this, and — ironically given they are opposites — so is comedy. And it seems right now, in terms of television, we have entered a certain golden age of “unsettling comedy.”

This kind of storytelling can best be reflected in two exemplary shows: Barry and Atlanta. The premises of these shows are very different. Barry is about an emotionally troubled hit man who seeks to better himself through an acting career. Atlanta, while it sometimes dive off into an anthology type style of social commentary, mainly focuses on a group of friends that are trying to help a fledgling rap star jumpstart his career. One thing the shows have in common, though, is the delivery of their comedy. Classically, it might have been described as “dry humor” or “black comedy,” but the shows’ atmospheres go deeper than that.

It’s not so much that the jokes are playing off of morbid content; it’s more like the shows are intending to create awkward and uncomfortable situations to unsettle its viewers. Horror does something similar, but where a scary story is meant to terrify, the situations in these shows are so absurd that you can’t help but laugh at them. It’s difficult to pinpoint a style of the past the best resembles this type of storytelling, which is why it feels like an evolution. Whether or not we will see other types of shows follow suit with these tones is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain: Barry and Atlanta are examples of some of the best of television right now, and it’s all thanks to this pioneering new type of comedy.

Barry airs Sundays on HBO. Atlanta airs Fridays on FX.

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