'Better Things,' 'One Mississippi' ride TV's dark comedy wave

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Los Angeles (CNN)Comedian Tig Notaro's new autobiographical Amazon series, "One Mississippi," is labeled "a traumedy." That's a good description of not just her show, but the recent strain of dark, deeply personal TV comedy in which laughs take a back seat to damaged characters and awkward moments.

Four programs fitting that general description -- FX's "Atlanta" and "Better Things," and Amazon's "One Mississippi" and "Fleabag" -- premiere over the next two weeks, and all of them are quite good. They join a roster of shows that have caught the attention of critics, including "Louie," "Transparent," "You're the Worst" and "Master of None."
Few of these series, old or new, possess the sort of broad qualities that will appeal to everybody. Most of them, in fact, have an independent-film, British-TV sensibility -- in the case of the Amazon shows, telling a serialized story over a mere six episodes.
    Unlike network shows that still tend to cast a wider net -- think "The Big Bang Theory" or "Modern Family" -- it's clear they're not intended to be big commercial hits. But each of them has the potential to become somebody's favorite new show, which, for subscription TV, can be half the battle.
    The nature of these cable and streaming series has sparked some debate as to whether they're different enough that they actually represent a completely separate genre from network sitcoms. One producer described such shows to Variety as "a different beast altogether."
    Notably, comic Louis C.K. is a producer on two of the shows, FX's "Better Things" and Amazon's "One Mississippi." The comic has become the sort of crown (or clown) prince of bleak half-hours, including his much-lauded FX show "Louie," a well deserved critical darling with a rather meager ratings portfolio.
    The other series are spiritual kin as well, with the star in each case serving as the producer: "Atlanta," a wonderfully droll effort from "Community's" Donald Glover; and "Fleabag," a British import that introduces Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a major talent.
    Here's a quick breakdown:
    Atlanta (Sept. 6, 10 p.m.): Dealing with issues of class and race, this absorbing new series offers a look at the struggle to make ends meet through the eyes of Glover's character, Earn, who is trying to support his child. He has a complicated relationship with the kid's mother (Zazie Beetz), who continues to date other people, even though she's still sleeping with him.
    Languishing in a dead-end job, Earn begins pursuing a way out by trying to advance the musical career of his cousin (Brian Tyree Henry), a budding rapper. But there's more than a little desperation baked into the arrangement.
    Earn's financial troubles are a constant through the previewed episodes, including a hilarious exchange in a fast-food restaurant when he tries to order a children's meal without a child.
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    Better Things (Sept. 8, 10 p.m.): This is in essence the female flip side of "Louie," with C.K.'s collaborator and sometimes co-star Pamela Adlon starring as Sam Fox, a one-time child star, single mom and actress trying to support three not-especially-helpful children.
    While many of the gags are Hollywood-specific, more of them are designed to be universal. For starters, Sam is so fatigued that the idea of having sex seems completely foreign to her, and at one point she escapes to the relative solitude of her car to grab a little sleep.
    "Better Things" doesn't cover much new ground, but it's nevertheless a clever look at one woman's struggles on the fringes of Hollywood.
    One Mississippi (Sept. 9): Notaro essentially plays herself in this bleak, understated series, coming back to the South to be there when her mother dies.
    Hanging around to sort out mom's affairs, she interacts stiffly and uncomfortably with her buttoned-up stepfather (a wonderful John Rothman), while learning secrets about her mother's past. Being home also means grappling with scars both physical and emotional -- from cancer and having been molested as a child.
    Viewers are occasionally allowed glimpses of Notaro's fantasies, which can be pretty funny, in a show that otherwise makes "Louie" seem relatively upbeat.
    Fleabag (Sept. 16): Despite sporting the worst title of the bunch, this British import might be the most distinctive and intriguing entry among them. That's in part because the serialized program uses flashbacks to gradually reveal an underlying mystery that runs through its six-episode season, pulling the audience along with it.
    Waller-Bridge stars as a mercurial café owner who keeps breaking up with the same boyfriend, tends to hop from one bed partner to the next and clearly is terribly unsettled by something from her past, involving the death of a close friend.
    At times, the protagonist feels like all four characters in "Girls" rolled into one. She regularly breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and casting knowing glances toward the screen. But the humor that arises from that device barely masks her deep pain.
    Taken together, it's an impressive quartet. Perhaps that's why so many critics are hailing TV comedy's creative renaissance, even if there's not a whole lot in these shows to smile about, much less laugh.