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.
12 responses to “Screw Dramedy: How We Distinguish Between Comic and Dramatic Television”
Excellent list. I kept wanting to make a list of my own, but I kept agreeing with yours.
How to describe NBC’s Chuck, then. Network, but 1 hr, yet unquestionably funny. Still, drama (with tons of romance), and “action” throughout.
If it comes down to personal response, as you said, then my answer would have to be – all of the above.
I’d argue Chuck’s a comedy that, when it enters into its serialized stories, introduces dramatic elements. While there is an emotional core to the comedy, if you were to pick a prototypical episode of Chuck it would be funny and silly before it was dramatic. As such, comedy (albeit one very capable of impressing dramatically when it sees fit).
I don’t want to break out the academic hat here, but since I wrote a book on this topic, I can’t help myself! I think you’ve touched on the key element of how genre functions on TV: what we call things is more important than what things are in some “intrinsic” sense. The marketing, scheduling, channel branding, critical discourse, and viewer commentary all work to define a show’s genre in ways that seem to confound an internal sense of narrative or tone.
For me, the troubling example was Ally McBeal, a show that wanted to be both comedy & drama but instead of creating an interesting balance between the two, it swung wildly between serious and comedic tones. But for the Emmys, it was a comedy; for Fox, it was treated more like a drama. (Northern Exposure is an earlier example that was similarly confounding to many, but I found it more organically unified.)
The other element that is crucial on TV is the show’s length – it’s hard to think of any show since the 1950s/60s (Dragnet, Twilight Zone) that’s clearly a 30 minute drama, while over the last decade we’ve seen more 60 minute shows that skew comedic (and get classified as such by awards). But it’s pretty ridiculous that a show like Ally or Desperate Housewives is compared to a 30-minute comedy like 30 Rock which is all about jokes & pace over plot & character – completely different modes of storytelling and structure.
I won’t lie and suggest that my own academic hat wasn’t on a bit here as well, so to add your own hat to the ring is never unwelcome around these parts.
One of the questions I have to be curious about is what keeps 30-minute dramas from existing: is it just the vicious cycle of network disinterest leading to writer wariness leading to a lack of scripts leading to network ignorance, or are there actually some 30-minute drama scripts out there that, when given network notes and taken to series, are altered in order to at least vaguely enter into the comic realm?
What about In Treatment?
It’s a 30 (even less) minute drama.
Also, it seems HBO is developing T, a new 30 minute drama about “the gender transformation of a woman into a man”. (Variety).
…I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.
However, I do know why I didn’t: its unique structure means that it has five different types of episodes, which means that in some ways it becomes five different shows in one. It creates a collective experience very different from any other show on television, which is why classifying alongside other one-hour dramas (yet alone other half-hour series) seems problematic.
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This is a great list, although I would still put “Hung” above the dividing line, and in fact place it just below “Bored to Death” in terms of laughs. I see “Hung” as more of a comedy, but mainly because I think anything Thomas Jane says in his voiceover is funny because of his excellent delivery, and any scene with Jane Adams and him is top-notch in terms of either awkward or laugh-out-loud funny.
As far as “How to Make It in America” (per your Tweet this morning) I’d also put it below, making it more of a light-hearted drama than a “dramedy”.
I laugh a lot at Hung a lot too, but I think its actual narrative is almost entirely dramatic: the overbearing presence of the recession keeps things heavily grounded in reality, and while there is plenty of awkwardness it’s ultimately played for character development more than cheap gags.
In other words, it’s not that I don’t laugh at the shows below the diagonal: rather, that’s just not their “purpose” at the end of the day.
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Surprised that no one has suggested that the later years of M*A*S*H are hard to classify along this comedy/dramedy/drama paradigm. While earlier seasons portrayed an all out comedy with the occasional dramatic moment, like the time Trapper was going to adopt the Korean kid, the later season subverted this and added comic relief to what were essentially dramatic stories. The fight over the laugh track, given the conversation today about its inclusion bringing a self-awareness of the form which you almost never see in a drama, further serves to blur this line.
And I would also submit that while M*A*S*H was far from the first sitcom to tackle serious storylines, it was likely the first whose entire format was subverted into being essentially a drama halfway through, or probably a dramedy depending upon the strict definition of the term. But as Jason mentions above, what we classify a show as is more important than what it actually is, at least in this context.
Yet the series and its actors (and writing probably) were always nominated in the comedy category at the Emmys. So were someone going to do a sort of historical comparison using the shows you have cited above, M*A*S*H would seem like a good place to start.