Some of TV's biggest giggles come from its most serious skeins
Watching TV is seldom a communal experience. So it’s always interesting in the spring — when networks and studios mount panels to promote their shows for Emmy awards consideration — to hear an unexpected sound during screenings of some of our finest dramas: Laughter.
It’s not new, naturally, but labels can have a way of muddling conversations, so it’s worth noting: Many dramas are flat-out funny. At the same time, a new breed of half-hour has sprung up that is, oftentimes, more dramatic than amusing.
Actually, the abundance of humor in what are generally referred to as “dramas” is a testament to the richness and diversity of the current TV landscape. And while awards like the Emmys can perhaps be forgiven for adhering to old labels, any avid viewer would recognize it’s difficult to neatly categorize such fare into a couple of columns.
Sure, we might lump “Nurse Jackie” and “Girls” into contention alongside sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” but it’s not unusual in an ordinary week to derive more chuckles from John Slattery’s half-pickled asides on “Mad Men,” the mutterings of lawyers and judges on “The Good Wife,” or even the dark humor and acerbic dialogue in violence-laced fare like “Justified” (consider Timothy Olyphant’s banter with guest Patton Oswalt), “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones.”
The term “dramedy” was coined roughly 25 years ago, back when NBC struggled to characterize “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” series creator Jay Tarses’ bittersweet half-hour starring Blair Brown. Yet in the intervening years, the label has principally been applied to hourlongs, and if such hybrids are prevalent these days, efforts to reclassify them have been sporadic at best.
Dramatic producers incorporate comedy for all the obvious reasons, which include tapping every available device in their storytelling toolbox. In the modern era, give some credit to producer Steven Bochco, whose ensemble dramas — beginning with “Hill Street Blues” and continuing into “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue” — capitalized on their large casts to regularly offset brooding elements with disarming humor.
Although the award process has become somewhat jumbled in recent years — witness “Ally McBeal” and “Desperate Housewives,” both hours, competing for top comedy honors — such overt crossover efforts remain rare. As such, “Breaking Bad” as a series will never be rewarded specifically for its bouts of hilarious absurdity, although that has surely contributed to the trophies collected by stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul — just as Peter Dinklage’s droll commentary enlivens “Thrones” and the Dowager Countess’ sharp putdowns (as peerlessly delivered by Maggie Smith) remain among the best reasons to visit “Downton Abbey.”
It’s no accident all of the aforementioned performers have won Emmys, even if the program among last year’s contenders that incorporated the least amount of comedy — it’s not easy to squeeze much humor out of Homeland — nabbed the top prize.
There are various ways to look at all this. For some, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and others, a mild nuisance or mere footnote. Either way, for those fixated on flaws in the existing system, laughter might be the best medicine.