Fleabag’s second season opens with an awkward family dinner that spirals into bloody chaos after a botched miscarriage confession. In Dead To Me, two middle-aged women bond over separate murders they’ve committed. Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia gets stuck in a time-loop on her 36th birthday, finding increasingly brutal ways to end her life in order to restart her cyclic timeline in Netflix’s Russian Doll.
Death, tragedy, trauma — each of these shows approach it differently but somehow, they all do it with comedy. Even more impressive? They all do it while centering the experiences of their female stars.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, TV ushered in a different kind of Golden Era. The next decade of storytelling on the small screen would be dominated by tortured male protagonists behaving badly. They were high school chemistry teachers turned drug kingpins, womanizing ad execs, serial killers with their own morally ambiguous codes, and mobsters in need of therapy. Tony Soprano may have been the first of these brooding anti-heroes, lording over his New Jersey crime empire with an iron fist and, at times, a conveniently placed staple gun, on HBO’s critically acclaimed drama, but he wouldn’t be the last of his ilk.
Instead, the success of The Sopranos led to an influx of TV shows that traded in the same trope: bad men behaving badly. These shows won Emmys, they catapulted to the top of the ratings, they cemented cable networks’ place atop the hierarchy of narrative TV — but they were also grave affairs, preferring a more sobering style of storytelling that leaned on extreme violence, ethical conundrums, and corrupt motives to give them an air of gravitas they knew would strike a chord with awards show voting bodies. These were serious shows about men doing seriously awful things that rarely had time to suss out the complicated character arcs of their supporting female cast.
Which was fine back when audiences were told only “likable” women could succeed on TV. Fortunately, a new crop of women-centered dramedies has arrived that have taken the idea that only men can misbehave and they’re putting it through the proverbial meat grinder.
But, instead of delivering dour character studies set to the backdrop of gritty crime thrillers and politically charged fantasy series, these genre-bending shows are toeing the line, existing in the same in-between spaces that women have historically occupied. They teeter between comedy and drama, balancing and employing both motifs to give us a different kind of anti-hero — one that’s female, yes, but also infinitely more relatable, often incredibly sympathetic, and more illuminative when it comes to the complexity of the human condition.
There are a couple of reasons why women seem to be running the dramedy game. The first is just basic necessity. For decades, prestige dramas put male characters on an unreachable pedestal, at least during awards season. Testosterone-fueled sagas that dabbled in Machiavellian dynamics between crooked cops, oppressed gangsters, grizzled lawmen, Western outlaws, and scheming politicians were the stories lauded by critics, held up as shining examples of what the Peak TV era could accomplish now that streaming had come along. Women could be funny, or they could be put-upon centerpieces within those sagas, but they could rarely be both. And men? Well, murdering the girlfriend of your strung-out, meth-dealing business partner and negotiating hostile takeovers of world governments while pushing journalists into oncoming subway trains didn’t leave much room for them to set up a punch-line. The only way for female characters and the actresses who played them on TV, to get recognized was to start carving out their own niche — one that took very real stakes and approached them with the kind of bleak, black humor that felt authentic.
Jenji Kohan did it well, first with Weeds (the female-fronted Breaking Bad predecessor that should’ve gotten more hype), then with her prison dramedy, Orange Is The New Black. Her ability to inject comedy into a story that touched on everything from the prison industrial system to police violence and racism felt revolutionary — so much so that awards shows struggled to categorize the kind of narrative she was weaving. Was it comedy? Was it drama?
The answer, especially when we’re talking about the complex, often messy experiences lived by women today, is clearly, “both.”
In Ancient Greece, the tragicomedy delivered catharsis to audiences by having them witness suffering but then alleviating it with humor. In these female-fronted modern dramedies, writers often like to reverse that formula, masking trauma behind the thin veil of comedy before shattering that lighter illusion with a dramatic gut punch. Fleabag does this well, drowning its main character in self-deprecating humor and distracting witticism before eventually forcing her to face down the suffocating anxiety and depression that’s been fueling the worst of her habits. In Issa Rae’s Insecure, we see the show’s main character rap poetic to her bathroom mirror, airing out the daily grievances about the casual racism and unhealthy relationships she’s struggling under at work and at home. In Russian Doll, Lyonne’s Nadia is insulting and apathetic to those in her inner circle in an effort to distance herself from human connection but when she’s trapped in a comical time loop that begins and ends with her death each day, she has to dig deeper to un-nest the trauma she’s been clinging to for so long. In NBC’s Good Girls, three mothers hilariously upend their static familial routine to launch a money-laundering operation that brings out the best (and worst) in their relationships with each other, asking them where they really find fulfillment — not where society’s told them they should.
There’s self-awareness, a detached sarcasm that characterizes so many of these characters’ approaches to the issues they’re facing on-screen — one that feels uniquely feminine. After all, women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression but science has also shown that women use more mirror neurons when processing emotions — basically, women are better equipped to understand, empathize, and confront their own emotions and the emotions of others. And, if we’re constantly processing our own trauma, and the trauma of others in an effort to be more compassionate, what better way to deal with that than with humor — however dark and unexpected and, sometimes, inappropriate.
That’s not to say there aren’t any good male-fronted dramedies on TV, or that male characters are confined to more serious, more traditional anti-hero molds — but right now, it’s the women who seem to be embracing, challenging, and experimenting with the boundaries of storytelling within this misunderstood genre. Dramedy is giving us a way to relay a feminine experience that feels more genuine, more true to real life and it’s giving female creatives the opportunity to tell the kind of stories that used to be passed on and tossed out when TV believed words like “adversity” and “hardship” could only serve as labels for the arcs of tortured male anti-heroes.
In reality, the darkest parts of the human experience are often accompanied by and dealt with through humor. The women ruling TV right now get that.