Fuzzy genres may lead to new TV categories

Even David E. Kelley doesn’t know what to call “Boston Legal.”

Is his ABC series a drama? The Producers Guild thinks so, nominating the show last Wednesday for its TV drama nod.

But maybe it’s a comedy. That’s how the Screen Actors Guild Awards classified “Boston Legal” on Thursday, handing stars James Spader, William Shatner and Candice Bergen noms in its TV laffer categories.

” ‘Boston Legal’ is a loopy beast,” Kelley told Daily Variety. “It doesn’t fit neatly in either category. We can be silly in one episode and then do a death-penalty story in the same hour.”

A new generation of TV dramedies — or comeramas — has left award shows wondering just how to honor these skeins.

Shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Monk,” “Entourage” and “Gilmore Girls” defy categorization. Are they dramas with a heavy dose of comedy? Or comedies that just look like dramas?

In the most publicized case, ABC’s darkly funny “Housewives” has been nominated as a comedy at both the Golden Globes and the Emmys, despite the show’s heavy moments — including a regular diet of backstabbing, adultery and murder.

Now, Kelley may follow in the “Housewives” footsteps and submit “Boston Legal” for consideration in Emmy’s comedy categories.

“We’ll all sit around and take a look at the episodes and assess whether they’re more comedic or dramatic,” he said. “We really don’t know at this point. (‘Boston Legal’) is not nearly as funny as some of the other fare out there, nor is it a real serious, dramatic show.”

But not so fast. The Academy of TV Arts & Sciences this winter may consider changing the definition of “comedy” to include only traditional sitcoms, forcing shows like “Legal” and “Housewives” to compete against other dramas.

“After last year’s Emmys were over, the question was raised whether or not there should be further restriction placed on eligibility in comedy series,” said ATAS awards senior VP John Leverence. “Were we allowing for ‘Desperate Housewives’ to be appropriately placed in comedy? It seemed so out of sync with the general trend in that category.”

A rule change would end the practice of allowing shows that straddle the comedy/drama divide to choose for themselves where they’d like to compete. But that still leaves several questions unresolved, such as whether single-camera series such as “The Office” or “My Name Is Earl” would still be allowed to compete against multicamera sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men” or “Will & Grace.”

The TV Academy’s awards committee will meet Jan. 19 and may consider the issue. Leverence said it’s unlikely the org would go for another option: creating a new dramedy category.

“The Academy board, I suspect, is not in the mood to bring in new categories,” he said.

The debate isn’t new. “Moonlighting” straddled the line in the late ’80s, while Kelley’s own one-hour “Ally McBeal” first broke through the kudos wall, winning the comedy series Emmy in 1999.

“It was controversial when we entered ‘Ally’ into the comedy category and won,” Kelley said. “Now ‘Boston Legal’ takes it a step further. We have a show nominated on both sides of the fence at the same time.”

This year’s Globe noms for comedy are a testament to the current state of affairs. None of the shows — “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Entourage,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Weeds” — is a traditional multicamera, laugh-track-blaring sitcom. “Housewives,” “Entourage” and “Weeds” could even be considered dramas.

Leverence said the problem has grown as more shows experiment and move away from the traditional boundaries of what makes a comedy or a drama.

“The edges between different genres are not as clear-cut as they might have been in another time on TV,” he said. “By having that kind of genre fuzziness, you have eligibility placement issues that come up.”

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