Serious halfhours avoid Emmy drama race

Dark-themed demis sell themseves as comedies

Emmy contender “Nurse Jackie” features a deadpan RN who snorts amphetamines to get through her ER shift.

That’s Emmy comedy contender “Nurse Jackie,” by the way, not Emmy drama contender.

Half-hour series almost never test themselves against other dramas come Emmy time, even though the dark material of some top-flight skeins — the above-mentioned drug use, plus male prostitution on “Hung,” mental illness on “United States of Tara” and more — hardly seems chuckle-filled.

“I look at ‘Nurse Jackie,’ and I’m more concerned, worried and involved in the drama than I am laughing,” says Entertainment Weekly editor-at-large Ken Tucker. “I certainly think it qualifies as more of a drama. The same is true of ‘Hung.’ Even ‘Bored to Death’ on HBO is played for a lot of laughs, but Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson play those parts as if they were very well-written dramatic roles.”

Entering a darker half-hour show into the Emmy comedy category can be a strategic move.

“There is some gaming of the awards in that a lot of the half-hour hybrid shows that have sprung up especially on cable aren’t really comedies,” says Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan. “They will have a better chance of getting an award if they get submitted in comedy because drama categories are jam-packed.”

Says Tucker: “When you go up against ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Dexter,’ ‘House,’ ‘Lost’ or ‘Mad Men,’ the odds are stacked against these (half-hour) shows.”

The half-hour drama “In Treatment” has grabbed Emmys for its actors, but not the show itself. Tucker points out that “Dragnet” was the last half-hour show to win an Emmy for best drama.

Showrunners from black-humor-tinged programs insist their comedy category entries are not an issue of awards strategy. They’re just creating comedy with a different tone.

“We know that we defy the definitions (of drama and comedy) as people have come to recognize them,” says “Nurse Jackie” co-creator Liz Brixius. “A lot of our humor is laced with tragedy. We don’t do set-up/payoff. We’re not jokey.”

“The unspoken thing is that TV comedies have been equated with lesser consequences,” adds “Hung” co-creator Colette Burson. “That’s something that we try to fight against. The stakes are actually very high for the people who are involved, but it’s also funny.”

Not everyone thinks that half-hours would be shut out in drama.

“The length is not a final determination, and the Emmy voters have not held it against a program,” says TV Acad awards honcho John Leverence, citing hourlongs that crossed over to be nominated for comedy: “Ugly Betty” (2007) and “Desperate Housewives” (2005). “If there is flexibility on that one-way street, there will probably be an equivalent flexibility on the comedy one-way street.

“In all fairness, ‘Nurse Jackie’ would have dual eligibility. You could argue for it being a drama as well as a comedy. Every time you would argue one side, the other arguments would come back to bite you.”

With this much fluidity in tone, maybe Emmy voters will just need to be more open-minded — unless the Acad suddenly decides to add a third category for dramedies.

“The more ambitious television is, the harder it is for it to fit neatly into particular categories,” says Ryan. “I don’t know that we need categories. I guess it just increases the number of people on the red carpet wearing fancy dresses.”

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