Be honest: How often do you laugh watching “Girls”? “Nurse Jackie”? Even the more melancholy episodes of “Louie”?
One-hour series have made the leap, for reasons both pragmatic and cynical, to labeling themselves comedies. Yet a mental block lingers to considering programs that are at least as dramatic as they are funny “dramas,” simply because they occupy half the time.
Oddly, with so much of primetime having spun back to the medium’s infancy — seeing the return of quiz shows, hidden-camera shows, panel shows — this is one circle that hasn’t closed. Because early TV was full of half-hour dramas, including tightly constructed little Westerns like “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and cop/detective shows like “Dragnet” and “Peter Gunn.”
In terms of existing half-hours, the issue is clearly somewhat arbitrary, and distinctions a matter of degree. The best comedies have always woven in dramatic moments, including genre-defining gems like “All in the Family,” “MASH” and “Frasier.” In the ’80s, tweeners like “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” gave birth to the term “dramedy,” reflecting their hybrid nature.
Moreover, current series like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” don’t indulge in many “very special” episodes but still weave heart into the mirth.
Nevertheless, the marked shift toward single-camera half-hours — while the multi-camera sitcom has struggled to maintain its turf — has further blurred the line, resulting in more programs that feel at least as tilted toward drama as comedy, especially in the premium tiers.
In terms of awards, migrating hours to the “comedy” designation didn’t happen by accident. First “Ally McBeal” moved over to win the Emmy, followed a few years later by “Desperate Housewives,” which — eyeing a dramatic field teeming with heavyweight contenders — also labeled itself a comedy.
The trend has continued, abetted by the latitude the TV Academy allows producers to decide where they think their show fits and, more significantly, the most advantageous way to submit it. Thus, “Orange Is the New Black” will vie for the Emmy in comedy (after submitting as a drama for the Golden Globes), sparing Netflix a Sophie’s choice between that hour and “House of Cards.”
As for creating half-hour drama, reality shows have essentially raced ahead of their scripted brethren, as basic cable nets like Investigation Discovery dabble in mini-dramas — shows that detail a true crime in half the time a network procedural would devote to it.
If anything, there’s a potential value in economy — especially in an age where viewers enjoy such a surplus of options, and three-minute YouTube videos serve as comedy “content.” Even if the half-hour drama might face an uphill climb generating awards recognition in the current climate, commercially there’s something to be said for the haiku-like appeal of those old Westerns (some of which, if you watch Me-TV, still hold up surprisingly well) in a truncated package.
Some sitcom veterans do draw a distinction between traditional comedy and award-nominated shows like “Girls,” “United States of Tara” and “Enlightened” — series that might explore the absurd and uncomfortable, but, despite their half-hour package, seldom evoke laughs.
Granted, a writer who plied his trade in drama as well as comedy once wrote “What’s in a name?,” and the hard-to-pin-down nature of such shows helps explain their appeal, in the same way dramas like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “Justified” can be flat-out funny.
But as long as series have to stand up and declare a category — comedy or drama — if you’re enjoying a half-hour show and don’t so much as crack a smile, guess what? You might just be watching the latter.