How We Distinguish Between Comic and Dramatic Television
November 6th, 2009
Mirror, mirror, on the wall – which television “comedy” is the least comic of them all?
There’s been some great back and forth on Twitter as of late surrounding the rankings of the best comedies currently on television, which is something that always brings out some controversial opinions. While I offered a very tentative ranking done without any sort of indepth scientific analysis on Twitter, I’m resistant to posting a more detailed list (like Jace at Televisionary, for example): I feel like there’s so many different categories of comedies on the air (long-running favourites which are very familiar, series which have improved so greatly that the relativity is almost blinding, and shows that are new and just finding themselves) that to rank them feels false.
However, I do think there’s something to be said for the fact that how we as critics (and viewers in general) individually define comedy is somewhat different from how the networks might define comedy. Genre definition in television is always a little bit slippery, especially when the oft-labeled “dramedy” exists, as has been demonstrated yearly at the Emmys when shows that walk the fine line are slotted into either category seemingly at random. Gilmore Girls is perhaps the most famous example, where Lauren Graham was submitting dramatic performances in a comedy category that perhaps fit the show in general but seemed to be out of place with the show’s highlights. The issue was never resolved (it was never nominated for Emmys outside of craft categories, despite the amazing work of Kelly Bishop/Graham), and right now there is perhaps more than ever before the sense that comedy and drama just aren’t clear divisions.
I was discussing the return of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (returning alongside United States of Tara on March 22nd) with Maureen Ryan, and in particular I noted that I actively refuse to call Nurse Jackie a comedy. Mo, however, correctly noted that disqualifying Nurse Jackie calls into question a whole lot of cable “comedies,” and that this is a can of worms she (quite logically) doesn’t want to open.
I, apparently, like worms, so let’s dig into just why I refuse to accept certain shows as “comedy” in good conscience (and how my refusal is indicative of the role personal opinion plays in such classifications).
It’s interesting to note that cable and networks have very different definitions of these terms. On cable, if your show is an hour long it is unquestionably a drama, and if it’s a half-hour long it is unquestionably a comedy. It’s a really bizarre definition when you consider, for example, Showtime’s crop of half-hour comedies debuting in the new year. While Tracey Ullman’s sketch comedy series is no doubt comedy, the other three (Jackie, Tara and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which returns in January with Ullman) are, I would argue, not. Jackie focuses on a woman whose drug addiction and adultery challenge her ability to be both a mother and a nurse, Tara focuses on a family being torn apart by a disorder caused by an unknown tragedy in the protagonist’s past, and Diary often eschews the glamorous side of prostitution for its emotional impact on the woman behind Belle. If I had to get to what was at the heart of each of these shows, I’d argue they’re all kind of tragic and sad, and as a result would easily classify them as funny dramas before I classify them as dramatic comedies.
However, on network television, the hour-long dramedy confuses this classification entirely, and to the point of outright incomprehension. Grey’s Anatomy, which is a medical procedural that on occasion likes to use quirky music to indicate a comic element to its stories, and Desperate Housewives, which is a television soap opera that uses quirky comedy to lighten things up, are both classified as dramedies, but then they get classified for the Emmys the former is a drama and the latter is a comedy. A lot of this has to do with how the show is being sold rather than the content of the show itself: Grey’s has always been sold on its romance elements and large-scale medical emergencies, while Housewives used an initial murder to introduce us to neurotic caricatures that over time have become more full-formed but just as “scandalous” in their kooky ways.
As such, with no clear sense of division, a lot of how a drama or comedy is classified comes down to personal response, which I’d argue comes from one of two places. The first is through some sort of broad comparative analysis that no regular viewer (and no real sane TV critic) would ever bother undertaking. For example’s sake, though, let’s take Weeds. While it has a similar “female protagonist trapped in complex interpersonal struggle” narrative as some of Showtime’s other comedies, it also has Doug, Andy, and a lot of broad comic elements (like, you know, the pot) that give it a zanier vibe than the more realistic and grounded comedies that have premiered more recently. As such, I’d be more like to call it a comedy than any of Showtime’s other series, although this is based entirely on my own attempts at objective analysis that are inevitably going to be influenced by subjective opinion of the series involved.
This leads me to conclude that the most definitive sense of whether a show is a comedy or a drama is, in fact, a subjective value: how a drama or a comedy is classified comes down to which element of the show you believe is strongest. Todd VanDerWerff noted that he didn’t include Glee in his list of favourite comedies on television not because it didn’t make the cut (which, considering that he and I share a disappointment over the show’s inconsistency, would probably be true either way) but because the elements he likes about the show are tragic and dramatic in nature to the point where he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it a comedy. However, fans of the show (the dreaded Gleeks) think that the show is downright hilarious, and the fact that its success has been largely attributed to the music and not the pathos I think this it is pretty commonly considered a comedy.
I’d argue that this is what creates the real confusion, more than any sort of Emmy classification or arbitrary cable distinctions. For instance, I won’t argue that Mo is wrong to suggest that Nurse Jackie is a comedy, because its most noteworthy (I don’t count Edie Falco being a great actress, we knew that already) and successful elements are comic in nature. Merritt Wever’s performance as Zoey is the standout element of the series, and Eve Best’s Dr. O’Hara is equally as hilarious when the show wants her to be. In these two characters, there are elements of a great comedy, but the show doesn’t seem to want to head in that direction, and as such I don’t feel comfortable calling it what Showtime wants me to. And, not helping its case, its most broadly comic element was what I felt was an absolutely awful misuse of Anna Deavere Smith as the hospital administrator, giving her Prop Comedy (the Taser) and Baby Comedy (the…baby) that never fit with the aesthetic of the show in the least. However, depending on how people fit the show into their schedule (whether as a chance to investigate the human condition or as a chance to spend some time with some enjoyable character for a half hour a week), its classification is almost frighteningly (if logically) malleable.
This creates scenarios like my illogical belief that Entourage is more interesting as a drama than a comedy (which is simply never going to happen), or Todd and I’s shared belief that the value to Glee is less in Sue Sylvester or traditional musical comedy and more about the show’s message about small town life or high school existence. We see what we want to see in shows that walk across this fine line, and as such our different comedy lists are different not only in how much we like certain shows but in which ones we believe are comedies (and for that matter, what type of comedy we prefer within those shows which ARE unquestionably comedies, which is a whole other issue).
And now, to put my money where my mouth is, and to return to the indirect challenge from Mo: here’s how I’d rank the Showtime/HBO “Comedies” in order of Most Comedic to Least Comedic - this is to classify in terms of comedy/drama division, not in terms of quality/”funniest,” but as noted my subjective analysis has to play a role here.
- Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- Flight of the Conchords
- Eastbound and Down
- Bored to Death
- NOTE: I consider this my comedy dividing line – the Nancy Botwin Diagonal, if we graphed it. Everything after it I’d consider a drama, everything before a comedy.
- Secret Diary of a Call Girl
- Nurse Jackie
- How to Make it in America
- United States of Tara
Important Note about this list: it is entirely possible for individual episodes to move on the list (to different sides of the Nancy Botwin Diagonal) in individual episodes, although the rankings here suggest their aggregate position based on about ten minutes of contemplation.