Comedies cannot escape from suffering, and some of us cannot escape from suffering through them. The recent and bleakest trend in the stand-up comic-led sitcom is the show embracing the utter depression of its creator’s life so as to be confused with dramas about alcoholic fathers. Gameface’s culprit is Roisin Conaty, who plays a wine-drunk, Amy Schumer first draft named Marcella. Marcella is an office temp and an actress who gigs as children’s party princesses. That Disney dream is quickly shattered by her drunkenness, as she’s a perpetual mess and the kind of person who only has friends because they’ve known her so long they feel responsible for her. It’s the same disenchanted aimlessness of a twentysomething’s comedy, but sadder, heavier, and less cute now that it’s in its thirties.
The two episodes (of the six-episode season) made available to press, “Hero, Warrior, Fireman, Liar” and “Wild”, are rough and unenjoyable, filled with the kind of humor most often found printed on novelty bachelorette items, though without the trashy esprit. Large swaths of the running time are taken up by strange pop culture references, like the first episode’s insistence that someone watching Friends for the first time in the 2017 is the height of hilarity or the second’s use of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to send an urbanite camping. Over-seasoned with desperation for the BoJack crowd, the show fails to find laughs or pathos in the early going.
In fact, Gameface barely manages to stumble into a single amusing situation, and then only once—briefly. A joke where the Marcella exploits her co-workers’ assumption that she tried to commit suicide is a prime situation for dark humor, but it ends up feeling allegorical for the series at large and the comedy landscape as a whole. When displaying your anxiety and fear so openly is the current vogue, will some comedies eventually forget the jokes and lean so heavily into the trend that they destroy themselves? The answer is “Yes,” and Gameface is one of the perpetrators.
While there are time-based on-screen titles and an editor who’s clearly an Edgar Wright fan to add a hint of visual interest to the otherwise simple single-camera format, there isn’t enough edge or humor to please as a comedy, nor enough character depth or plot to compel as a dramedy. It’s like the show understands that people want their comedy rooted in the sadness, anxiety and insecurity that causes us to seek humor as a coping mechanism, but doesn’t quite understand how the two relate to one another.
But perhaps this tragedy simply hasn’t had enough time to ferment into comedy. There are decent characters, at least in description. Marcella’s ex, who married someone that looks and acts like her, comes back into her life when his mom dies, and she has a dreamy driving instructor who is always ready to put up with her shit, yet Marcella (and Conaty) fails to find humor in either, merely pointing and nodding as if to say “You know what I’m talking about, ladies.”
There’s certainly fantasy-fulfilling potential in both these situations (and ripe for the undermining, too), but there’s nothing in the initial episodes to indicate it’s coming down the pike. The acid needed to cut through the flabby woe-is-me plotting isn’t there. Instead, there’s a shocking amount of bullheaded earnestness in its delivery, even during jokes as outlandish as a drunken pegging proposal, that reinforces how seriously Gameface takes itself. This makes it feel like open mic night, where the nastiness comes not from a place of genuine critique or analysis, but from a desire to be accepted. These jokes come from my heart and talk about what’s REAL, don’t you get it?
Gross-out comedies can be vital sources of empowerment (like this year’s great film Girls Trip), but when they’re saddled with morose attempts at introspection—often in a sleepy two-shot back-and-forth with a therapist—the motor sputters and dies. These long monologues that suggest the show’s origins as an adaptation of Conaty’s one-woman comedy act probably slay on stage, but stagnate—like the rest of the series—without the kineticism of the form behind the words. The antithetical relationship between silly jokes and rigid, stereotypical sitcom trappings hints at a show trying to find its voice. With the death and depression, the sex gags, and the sluggishness with which it all moves, Gameface has a lot of soul-searching to do.
Gameface is now available on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.