It's time for the Emmys to introduce a dramedy category
How are voters supposed to judge laugh-out-loud series against darkly comedic dramas all in the same race?
"That's a comedy?!" The truest and most meta Emmy-worthy joke is how often that question is asked — or, more accurately, shouted at the TV — whenever a seemingly dramatic show is nominated for Outstanding Comedy. And when an actor or actress wins the statue for a dark, serious role over performers who made you laugh for 30 minutes straight, it only further alienates the general viewing public that has come to care less and less about the Emmys' dated eligibility rules. Are shows/actors simply being submitted in the wrong categories? Or is it time for the TV Academy to finally introduce a dramedy category?
Historically, comedies and dramas were completely separate mediums. Comedies were literally filmed differently than dramas, using multi-camera setups in front of live studio audiences. The comedy was situational, jokes came fast and loose, and viewers were only there for the yucks. But as the genre evolved past those rigid parameters — to include things usually reserved for dramas, like single-camera setups, more serialized plots, longer running times, etc. — so, too, has the way the Academy judges it. Where there was once the occasional M*A*S*H, the lines have now blurred to the point that almost more shows are some sort of hybrid than not. But the TV Academy hasn't evolved along with this trend: A spokesperson for the organization recently told EW that they "have no current plans to add a dramedy category" to the Emmys, but the group "is always reviewing and discussing categories in relation to how television is evolving." Well, the time to act on those discussions is now — or actually, a few years overdue.
Amy Poehler's seven-season run as Leslie Knope in NBC's brilliant mockumentary sitcom Parks and Recreation was never awarded an Emmy. Yes, that was in large part due to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' history-making run in the Outstanding Lead Comedy Actress category with six consecutive wins for Veep, but also because Poehler lost in 2010 to Edie Falco for her role as a nurse battling drug addiction and a crumbling healthcare system on Showtime's Nurse Jackie. The year prior, voters awarded Toni Collette's portrayal of a mother coping with dissociative identity disorder in United States of Tara over Tina Fey's satirical send-up of working in sketch comedy on 30 Rock.
Over in the Lead Actor in a Comedy category, Tony Shalhoub crushed the competition in the Lead Actor in a Comedy category for years for Monk, a show that is best described as a police procedural (read: drama...with comedic tones). How does Ted Danson's broad-comedy performance on The Good Place never win an Emmy? Because darker, more serious dramedies like Master of None, Atlanta, Transparent, and Barry dominate the conversation. In the Outstanding Comedy category, Fleabag and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are worthy shows, yes, but are they better overall comedies than Veep or Curb Your Enthusiasm? When you think back to Orange Is the New Black, do you remember how much it made you laugh or how it continuously broke your heart as the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary suffered from the corrupt prison system? And yet all of that Netflix series' nominations and wins come in the comedy category. When Patricia Heaton's consistently hilarious performance on sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond lost out to Felicity Huffman for her darker turn on Desperate Housewives in 2005 (the same year the ABC series won Favorite New TV Drama at the People's Choice Awards), it was clear some rules needed to change.
And the Emmys have updated rules in recent years, so there is a precedent for evolution within the awards show. After Orange Is the New Black swapped categories, the Academy ruled that shows would only be allowed to change categories once, and they're locked in after that. Then in 2015, the Academy introduced a new rule that put time limits on series to attempt to solve this very same comedy vs. drama problem; they decided if episodes are 30 minutes or shorter it's a comedy, while episodes over 30 minutes are automatically dramas. But producers may formally petition a panel to swap their show into the opposite category — Orange Is the New Black may not have been successful in that regard but others have been. And for this year's race, the Emmys doubled down on fixating on episode length, tweaking the runtime rule to further clarify what shows are half-hour (21-40 minutes) vs. hour-long (41-75 minutes) — though shows may petition the Academy to be in the other category if runtimes don't align with the genre. (All of best comedy nominee The Flight Attendant's eight episodes clock in at 41-minutes or longer.) But is the length of an episode truly the best way to delineate between the two categories?
The issue then becomes how to judge whether a show is a comedy, drama, or dramedy. If the TV Academy ever decides to adapt the Emmys' increasingly dated format to include a new dramedy category, there would need to be strict guidelines to cover any gray areas so there's no question about where a show would fall. Half-hour vs. hour runtimes have nothing to do with genre anymore. Does it matter if it's multi-camera or single-camera? Eh, that differentiation is becoming more unclear in recent years too (just look at AMC's hybrid Kevin Can F**K Himself). Does it boil down to simple data like joke-per-episode counts? That isn't as clear either. What really matters when it comes to judging comedy versus drama versus dramedy is more subjective, like the plot, tone, and overall feeling it gives viewers. Less easy to judge, sure, but it makes a world of difference, especially in the Emmys race.
Last week's 2021 Emmy nominations once again highlighted the need for a dramedy category based on those parameters, as the dark, serious — sure, sometimes funny — HBO Max murder mystery The Flight Attendant is somehow up for the same award as the light, heartwarming soccer (er, football) comedy Ted Lasso. William H. Macy is once again being celebrated with a nomination for his dark, gritty performance as an alcoholic absentee father in Shameless in the same category as Anthony Anderson, who turns in laugh-out-loud episodes week-in and week-out for Black-ish, one of the last true sitcoms left in the field. And don't even get us started on all the snubs in the comedy category (Girls5eva 5eva). How are voters supposed to fairly judge who will emerge victorious when the decision is based on completely different criteria for each nominee? Especially since voters tend to favor darker, more dramatic material over lighter comedic fare due to the false notion that drama is somehow harder to do than comedy.
In recent weeks, Hacks has shot to the top of experts' predictions, with odds increasing for it to walk away victorious on Emmys night, both in the Outstanding Comedy category as well as the acting nods. But just as much as Jean Smart makes you laugh as legendary stand-up comic Deborah Vance on the searing HBO Max series, things get about as dark as they can as the story gets into suicide, sexism, ageism, and mental health issues. When it comes to the idea of introducing a dramedy category, however, Hacks co-creator Paul W. Downs has mixed feelings because of all the ambiguity currently in the genre.
"There are so many different types of comedy, which is interesting because when you think about dramas, dramas are dramas; some may be grittier or more violent than others," Downs recently told EW. "But in comedy, they cover such a broad spectrum. That's sort of been the case already with Veep and Master of None, even Fleabag. They all feel very different than, say, Modern Family. It would be hard to categorize that specific [dramedy] category. There are ones that feel both dramatic and comedic. And then we'd be up against Succession, which also has comedy and drama."
The road to creating a dramedy category certainly won't be easy, and we don't have all the answers right now. But we're in the golden age of TV, and there are more shows and performances worthy of awards than ever before that are stuck conforming to old rules made decades ago when the medium was wholly different. If the TV Academy can create clear enough guidelines to judge where a series lands, we'll start to see justice being served to worthy winners across all categories. But for now, all these comedies and dramedies are left to duke it out in the same race. And when that happens, no one wins.
Additional reporting by Lynette Rice.