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From ‘Russian Doll’ to ‘Vida’: Exploring the Blurry Genre Lines of Peak TV

Just as in those 1970s-era Reese’s peanut-butter cups commercials — “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!” “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” — comedy and drama are commingling more than ever in the age of peak TV. But such blurring of lines can cause complications when it comes to pitching and marketing series, let alone competing in more traditionally defined Emmy categories.

Streaming service Amazon used to divide its development teams into half-hour and hour-long format groups, rather than by genre. This is how comedy co-heads Ryan Andolina and Gina Kwon came to develop the dramatic “Homecoming,” a multi time-period thriller about an experimental treatment program for soldiers with PTSD, based on Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz’s podcast of the same name.

“We thought tackling this tone in 30 minutes was super groundbreaking and wanted to hopefully inspire more creators to make half-hour dramas,” Kwon says.

Adds Andolina: “Half-hour shows now can encompass the full range of human emotion, and feel very satisfying on a deeper level, whether it’s drama or comedy or some mix of both.”

However, “Homecoming” is still a bit of an outlier. It is significantly more common for half-hour shows to dabble in dark subject matter — even death, such as with Netflix’s “Dead to Me” and “Russian Doll,” as well as Amazon’s “Forever” — but still lean toward the more traditional format labeling of “comedy.”

Forever” co-creator Alan Yang admits his biggest concern was not the format but the marketing — that it might give away too much of the “twist” that the show was set post-death.

“The first three episodes are all part of the premise of the show,” he says. “If you have a tagline or poster that gives it all away, you’re kind of ruining the enjoyment of the thing.”

Balancing tone is really the responsibility of show creators, but those creators need to be able to rely on a strong partnership with their studios and networks in order to feel comfortable that their complicated series will be sold properly to audiences.

For “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna, whose musical show was originally developed at premium cabler Showtime but ended up airing four seasons on the CW, the tone was always meant to be “more overtly comedic and joyful [with] more silliness to it,” even though it often tapped into stories of mental-health issues and even a suicide attempt. But breaking out of the usual comedy format on broadcast often meant having to “explain to people we were still a comedy,” McKenna says. Although cable half-hour shows in that genre “can be 35, 36, 37, 38 minutes,” she points out, “a CW hour is 42 minutes,” plus commercials.

Genre-bending series, often casually referred to as dramedies, have been around since at least “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” on NBC in the late 1980s, but comedy series dealing in more serious subjects have multiplied in the streaming era.

Multicam veteran Liz Feldman, creator and showrunner of “Dead to Me,” which is centered on two women who meet in a bereavement support group, says her twisty-turny dark comedy couldn’t have been made in its current form a decade ago.

“Either I would have to have made it an hour-long drama with some comedy, or I would have to have lightened it up by 1,000% to make it fit more into a network mold,” she says.

Jane Wiseman, Netflix’s vice president of originals, says she never saw “Dead to Me” as a drama due to its comedic undertones, but she acknowledges the fine line that can shift a show’s genre classification. She says Netflix’s “Maniac,” the 2018 Cary Fukunaga-directed limited series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, was originally pitched to the Netflix comedy team because it was based on a half-hour format.

“We really went back and forth over whether it was a drama or a comedy,” she says, noting the show was marketed more as a drama due to its heavy themes of addiction, loss and emotional/mental issues, but “our audience told us it was a comedy. People who love comedy loved ‘Maniac.’ That’s the best example of a show that could have gone either way.”

Netflix’s hour-long prison series “Orange Is the New Black” started out calling itself a comedy — and even submitted for and won a few Emmys in that genre. Although the show never dabbled in setup-joke structure, lines of dialogue were crafted to make viewers laugh, and characters’ deliveries further lightened the tone. But eventually the show leaned into its more serious setting, perhaps partially because the Television Academy set a rule that determined half-hour series would automatically be deemed comedies and hour-longs as dramas. This year, the Academy clarified that rule to allow shows to only switch genres/categories once in their history.

Similarly, Amazon’s intelligence dramedy “Patriot,” created by Steve Conrad, has competed for awards in both comedy and drama: During its first season the Critics Choice Awards nominated it for comedy series, but the Television Academy has insisted it compete in drama for the Emmys. Conrad says he learned to avoid genre labels early in his career when working on the 1993 film “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” with actor Robert Duvall.

“I made the mistake of complimenting him on how well he did comedy in ‘MASH’ and he bristled at that,” Conrad says. “He went on to say, ‘I don’t do comedy. I just act like a human and if what I do makes you laugh, that’s fine.’ I learned that the hard way by trying to put him in a box and years later I think I understand what his resistance was.”

Hence, Starz’s “Vida,” which programming president Carmi Zlotnik considers “51% comedy to 49% drama,” competes in the comedy category, despite many critics praising it as a half-hour drama. The show from Tanya Saracho follows two Mexican-American sisters as they struggle to build a business and are seen as gentrifiers in their East Los Angeles neighborhood.

“Preconceptions are because it’s a half-hour, that’s the place that it fits,” he says. But “it’s not like that defines the show; the show defines itself. Our perspective has always been [to] let something be what it needs to be. Don’t try to pre-determine by format or by label.”

With more freedom and flexibility at these newer platforms to tell stories, Zlotnik adds that it is more important to consider what is best for the show itself than what might be expected.

“If you’ve got a lot of plot, then you might have to be an hour,” he says, “but if you’re focusing on character and not plot, then you might be better served to shrink something down to a half-hour.”

Similarly, “Russian Doll” co-creator Leslye Headland believes that the deciding factor between comedy and drama can be reductive if looking at it from a format standpoint. “The time limit is not really denoting whether something is comedy or drama,” she says.

“Russian Doll,” in which the protagonist Nadia (played by co-creator Natasha Lyonne) dies over and over again, was “always going to be driven by character-driven themes,” Headland says. “I didn’t want to come up with side plots involving C and D characters. I wanted to really focus on this one character of Nadia. You’re looking at the world through their eyes and their experiences. To me, that’s the deciding factor between half-hour and hour-long, as opposed to comedy and drama.”

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