Earlier this morning I posted about the broadcast networks’ hopes to solve the problem of their not winning enough Emmys, by any means short of actually making better shows. (Let’s not get crazy here!) Now let’s take a minute to look at an Emmy problem that actually might need fixing. Namely: does it still do any good to have separate categories for comedy and drama?
The more TV matures as a medium—yes, I used “TV” and “mature” in a sentence—the more categorization becomes a problem at the Emmys. Is Glee a drama or a comedy? (The hourlong show was submitted in comedy, but you could easily argue it the other way.) Should Edie Falco have won a best comedy actress Emmy for an often-dramatic role in Nurse Jackie? I argued yes—because acting, even in comedy, is about more than number of yuks generated. But regardless, it’s clear that increasingly, very different kinds of shows and performances are being put up against each other, because of a category system that made a lot more sense in the 1960s.
The fact is, some of TV’s best “dramas” (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, shows like The Sopranos before them) can be on any given week the funniest shows on TV. Some of TV’s best “comedies” (Party Down, The Office—and, going much further back, shows like Sports Night and M*A*S*H) are as good as they are precisely because they have a real core of drama. Other shows, like Glee and Rescue Me, don’t so much blend comedy and drama as they mash them up against one another like the flavors in Neapolitan ice cream.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Not just in TV but in most creative arts, much of the best work occurs in the brackish boundaries between genres. Movie audiences—or at least the audiences for movies that rake in awards—are accustomed to dark comedies and dramas with heavily comic elements. (Sideways may have been a comedy, for instance, but if so it was also an awfully sad one.) And if there’s a single hallmark of good TV in the past decade or so—especially in the pathbreaking shows on cable—it’s been the willingness to transgress the arbitrary boundaries of comedy and drama. (That’s pretty much the definition, for instance, of any “comedy” on Showtime.)
The problem is that these shows end up shoehorned into ill-fitting categories in which they can’t really compete. A show like Nurse Jackie is hobbled in the Best Comedy category because it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a sitcom. (Conversely, in the actress category, you end up with a fine comic actress like Amy Poehler having to compete against Edie freaking Falco.) But put Nurse Jackie in the drama category, and it would suffer from being too, well, comedic, and only having a half-hour to develop its stories.
One solution could be to create some kind of third “dramedy” category—though I suspect that could just make definitions even murkier, and it’s not as if the Emmys need to get even more bloated. But I also wonder whether we should just get rid of the comedy and drama distinction—which in TV’s outmoded taxonomy gets oversimplified into “jokes” and “no jokes”—and just reward good writing, acting and directing, period.
I’ll admit that I don’t have an ideal solution as to how to do this. The Oscars don’t distinguish comedies from dramas, but in practice that ends up meaning that it largely ignores comedies. Ellen Gray at the Philadelphia Inquirer has perhaps a better idea—replacing comedy and drama with half-hour and hourlong categories. That wouldn’t solve the Edie Falco issue, but it might at least rationalize the competition a little more, since arguably the best point of comparison is not the tears-to-laughs ratio but the story structure of longer and shorter shows.
I’d love to hear other suggestions, though, because one way or another, there’s a disconnect between the way we categorize great TV and the way people actually make great TV.