A new, fascinating genre of comedy has recently appeared. It is generally written by top Hollywood writers and stars top Hollywood actors. But, unlike most of what emerges from Tinseltown, it focuses not on the travails of the young, but of those in their 70s.
The first and most popular series in this genre was the Netflix show Grace and Frankie. Created by Marta Kauffman of Friends and starring the likes of Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen, it follows two women who form an unlikely friendship after their husbands “come out” as gay and announce that they are marrying one another. Grace and Frankie is a fascinating cultural product in its own right, but it takes a strong stomach: The premise is ridiculous, and most of the “jokes” focus on older peoples’ sexual activities. Basically, the writers play the “oh my God, I can’t believe grandma said that” angle—and play it hard. It gets tedious quickly, but that didn’t stop it from getting nominated for several awards (though this reveals more about the tastes of the graying Peter Pans who run Hollywood than it does about the show’s quality.)
This month Netflix came out with a much more promising offering. The Kominsky Method was created by Chuck Lorre (Dharma and Greg, Two and a Half Men) and stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. It follows an aging acting coach who once had minor success as an actor (Douglas’s character Kominsky) and his agent-cum-best friend (Arkin’s Newlander).
Newlander is a curmudgeonly character: a highly successful Hollywood agent whose beloved wife of forty years has just passed away. Kominsky is a seventy-something man-child, a brilliant acting coach with a string of failed marriages and a penchant for screwing up his finances. While the show suffers some of the same comedic drawbacks as Grace and Frankie, they are counterbalanced with realism and depth.
Ultimately, the show is a reflection on aging and death. Many shows consider these themes, but The Kominsky Method is interesting because it does this from the perspective of two people with no capacity for reflection on aging and death. This is not so much due to clever writing as it is to the fact that the writers themselves are reflected in the two main characters. The shows offers a fascinating window into the soul of secular, cultureless, immature baby boomers as they are forced to face the decay of their own bodies.
The results are rather tragic. Newlander’s relationship with his wife is shown to be both sweet and overly closed-off. Once she is gone, he has no more moorings in the world and soon contemplates suicide. Kominsky is obsessed with the physical aspects of his aging. As he begins to develop symptoms of potential prostate cancer, he becomes crushingly aware of how lonely he is and tries to start a relationship with one of his students, a divorcee.
The show’s younger generation also presents an interesting study. Newlander’s daughter is a forty-something drug addict, the product of her parents’ cloistered relationship. One gets the sense that their child was an inconvenience to their marriage, but Newlander cannot allow himself to recognize this. Kominsky’s daughter is trying to form a bond with her father by helping him manage his acting studio. But she ultimately ends up babysitting him—in order to establish herself as his daughter she must play at being his mother.
Kominsky’s students are portrayed as ridiculous and grotesque. Whatever modicum of wisdom the baby boomers in the show were imbued with in their childhoods, the younger generation entirely lacks. In one memorable scene, Kominsky asks a “transgressive” young student what growing up in a remarried family was like. He recoils when she replies that it was “pretty traditional” apart from the fact that she formed a sexual relationship with her step-brother. The Hollywood boomers are shown at every step of the way to be an immature generation utterly unable to process the world that they themselves have created.
The characters in The Kominsky Method are plucked from the most radical of the baby boomers. These are the reflections of aging Hollywood types who, although they shaped our popular culture, never quite managed to transmit the extremes of their own lifestyles to their peers. But that is not true of the younger generation. The most radical of the baby boomers look very much like the majority of those alive today between the ages of twenty and forty.
One cannot but wonder whether the young people portrayed are a crystal ball, allowing us to gaze upon the next generation of the population at large. If so, we should be worried. Broken marriages, insular, personalized relationships and adult immaturity apparently breed drug addiction, dysfunctional child-parent relationships, and even soft forms of incest.
If this new genre of comedy is a paean to an aging generation, it is a sad song they are singing. The pain and dysfunction portrayed may be overdubbed with a laugh track. But it is not a healthy laughter. Rather, it is a laughter tinged with fear, foreboding, and a sense of confusion and failure.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.