Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Blurring The Line"

A couple of weeks ago, the Emmy Awards nominations were announced (Just Thinking­ – “Timeliness of Content” – D), and a reflexive babble arose concerning the “blurring of the line” between the comedies and the dramas. 

I did not write about that then – and I’m not sure why I am writing about it now, except that I just recently mentioned my preference (though not necessarily the audience’s) for the “Comedy of Ideas” which invariably derives from dramatic story premises rather than the purely comedic, and it led me to go back and think about what exactly is going on.  

My overall sense of the matter was that the line between comedy and drama has at in certain ways always been blurred, and that the current situation is just a question of an increasing degree.   

Has the line actually been blurred?  To me, it has simply been relocated.

When there was Taxi, there was Laverne and Shirley.  Shirley… I mean, surely – just kiddin’ around – the former series included more dramatic elements into its storytelling than the latter, whose most insightful determination was, "We will never let boys come between us.”   

Still, no one could categorically confuse Taxi with Hill Street Blues.  There may have been a variations in the comedic recipes, but you could easily tell the comedies from the dramas.  There were no murders in comedies.

To me, the issue of the “blurring of the categories” is an “Inside Baseball” concern.  The Emmy voting committees are having increasing difficulty determining where the nominatable contenders belong.  By “Inside Baseball”, I mean, for the majority of us – “Who cares?”

Concerning this controversy, wherein what might have previously been perceived as a drama, Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, is competing this year in the “Best Comedy” category – this is not at all a “vice versa” situation; you will never see The Big Bang Theory competing against Game of Thrones for “Best Drama” – what attracts me is less the “blurring the line” concern than the more interesting “Why is this happening?”

To me, the comedy/drama “blurring” is not in the categories.  It is in the fundamental natures of the series themselves.

(Sidelight:  In the Tony Awards, comedies and dramas are not segregated; they compete against each other in “Best Play.”  Many plays regularly intermix comedy and drama; there are big laughs in Virginia Woolf and dramatic interludes in the later Neil Simon comedies.  The only segregation in the Tonys is between “straight plays” and musicals, which are easy to distinguish, in that in “straight plays” nobody is singing.  At least not with an orchestra.  End of sidelight.)  

Only in television awards are there distinct “Comedy” and “Drama” categories.  Today that distinction, once as easily identifiable as the distinction between “straight plays” and musicals, appears less and less meaningful.   

The question I believe worth investigating here is…

How did that happen?

How did some “dramas” fall into the category of “Best Comedy”?  Now there are astute observers who believe they do not belong there.  It has been argued that shows like Orange Is The New Black and Girls are not comedies, and have therefore been mis-categorized.  It is my view that they haven’t.  For me, it is not an issue of categorization.  It is an issue of the ever-altering definition of “comedy.”

Which explanation for how comedy’s evolving definition should I tackle first?  I don’t know.  Lemme say, “In No Particular Order” and let comfortably off the hook.

There’s the “Cable Factor”, and now the “Streaming Factor” as well, wherein the business model for those outlets is not “audience size” but subscriptions, or buying cable (for its “Basic Cable” programming.) 

These new business models do not require a mass viewership.  And apparently, the audience drawn to (or who can afford) cable and Netflix is untroubled by a blending of drama and comedy that was never successful and still isn’t on the commercial networks, who now distinguish themselves from cable – I read this term for the first time today in the paper – by calling themselves “Legacy Networks”, by which they apparently mean, networks that programming that is nominated for very few Emmy Awards.

That’s the “Cable Factor”:  You do not require massive numbers to stay on the air.
And cable audiences are more comfortable with the swirling of comedic and dramatic ingredients.  What else is there?  Well, the yang to the audience’s yin are the content providers themselves – i.e., the writers.

As a result of the entertainment influences in their lives – combined with the influence of the world they live in – the new – younger –writers’ senses of humor has gotten increasingly layered, savvier, subtler and darker.  

This altered sensibility is inevitably reflected in their work, a sensibility in sync with the new, younger audience who were shaped by the same influences.  (As well as the older audience who have hungered for programming worthy of their intelligence who were formerly unchallenged by the networks’ lowest common denominator entertainment.)

Funny writers, liberated from outmoded formats – Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner originally wrote for the more confining joke-every-ten-second-infused situation comedies filmed in front of a live studio audience – crafted new, hybrid confections, where they could embrace a dramatic storytelling technique without abandoning their rich and nuanced senses of humor.  (Weiner cut his drama-writing teeth on The Sopranos, which itself could be considered a dark, omerta-driven meta-comedy.) 

I did not originally write about the “blurring of the line” between Emmy categories because it didn’t matter to me.   It did, however, seem interesting to examine the reasons this categorizational conundrum has occurred.

So that’s what I did today.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the circus and my fear, not of clowns, but of absolutely everything else.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

(If my query of yesterday factored in any way into your decision to discuss this, thank you. But I suspect you had already written this posting.)

It's a fair enough point. I remember years ago being astounded that BOSTON LEGAL was classed as a drama. I had always assumed it was a comedy. (And its creator, David Kelley, did a lot to blur that line in his various series.)

The distinction for the last few years - with the exception of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK - seems to be that dramas are one-hour shows and comedies are half-hour shows. If that's the case, then fine: make the lengths the categories. At least they, like the difference between plays and musicals (although: see NASHVILLE), are unambiguous. What offends me is the notion that shows might game the rules by choosing the category they think they have the best chance in rather than the category they were aiming at, if you see what I mean. That would be the equivalent of the heavyweight boxer taking diuretics in order to drop enough weight to compete in the middleweight category instead.

There are all sorts of unfairnesses in the categories as they're currently constructed - THE GOOD WIFE, doing 22 episodes a year on network television competing with cable/streaming shows that can take a year or more to write 13 episodes with fewer content restrictions.

If the awards are going to be fit for purpose, they're going to have to be remodeled, that much seems clear. But how?


PG said...

Comedies end with weddings....dramas, with funerals....