The 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards are just over a month away, and with it will come breathless analysis over who will win the various trophies that will be bestowed upon the winners that night. Handicapping those races is all fine and well, and will certainly be something we here at Zap2it do over the course of the next five weeks. But the Emmys are also a time to reflect upon television as a whole, irrespective of which shows carry the night. In some ways, the winners are a paler reflection of a year’s worth of television than what is (or isn’t) included in the first place.
In starting off our prognostication, it’s helpful to ask a question that has become increasingly difficult over the past few years: What makes a show a “drama,” and what makes it a “comedy?” After all, even the most solemn of shows often crack a joke or two to leaven the show’s austere weight, and plenty of laugh-producing shows feature scenes or storylines full of pathos. Still, it’s been fairly easily, historically speaking, to delineate between the two when it came to Emmy nominations: dramas were hour-long programs, and comedies were half-hour programs. There were exceptions to the rule, of course: “Love, American Style” got a nod for best comedy in 1971, and “Ally McBeal” won the award in 1999. But overall this binary held true and held fast.
Fast forward to 2013, and the picture is much more muddled. And it’s truly confusing on the comedy end of things, even though one could argue on any given week that “Breaking Bad,” “Game Of Thrones” or “Mad Men” might be the funniest show that airs. (Pete Campbell’s recent line “Not great, Bob!” doesn’t factor into that show’s 2013 nominations, but is an excellent example of how that supposedly staid show brings the funny.)
It doesn’t seem strange to people that dramas contain comedy. But it’s utterly perplexing to some that certain comedies don’t actually have to produce laughs in order to be a successful program. Part of this has to do with the type of humor a show like “Girls,” “Louie,” or “Enlightened” produces, which isn’t so much about over laughter as cringe-worthy sociological observation. But a larger part has to do with the fact that the word “comedy” is a label placed externally upon these latter shows, a word that both confuses the show’s intent as well as its reception.
What shows like “Girls,” “Louie,” and “Enlightened” should be called is a matter of debate that extends far beyond the Emmys. But for now, the Emmys only have three genres of scripted programming: drama, comedy, and variety. (The awards have a miniseries/movie field that conflates drama and comedy, but let’s exclude that for now. We’ll have plenty of time to get into that in coming weeks.) There are no allowances for programs that take the half-hour format and turn it into a painful analysis of millennial youth, the desire for connection in an increasingly isolated world, or the connection between corporeal desires and spiritual affirmation. Yet “Girls” and “Louie” find themselves up for outstanding comedy series, with leads Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. also getting lead acting nominations. On top of that, Laura Dern‘s performance yielded her a nomination for best actress in a comedy alongside Dunham, even though “Enlightened” itself did not receive a nomination.
The question is less about should these shows be honored (spoiler alert: yes), but how their inclusion speaks to the current tension that comes from binary drama/comedy nominations. It’s fantastic that there’s room for both “Modern Family” and “Girls” to share nominations, but how on earth is anyone supposed to judge these two shows in relation to one another in a meaningful fashion? This isn’t about which show is objectively better, since objectivity has little if anything to do with which shows get nominated or omitted. It’s about owning up to the fact that these shows are attempting two wildly different things, and trying to decide which better achieved its objectives is like trying to decide whether a chef did a better job at preparing a meal than a farmer did in harvesting the ingredients that ultimately made it into that dish. Yes, both jobs have a connection with food, just as “Modern Family” and “Girls” both air initially on television stations. But really, the connection ends there, and ranking the two does both a disservice.
In the works of William Shakespeare, there are two overriding binaries that classify most of his plays: comedies and tragedies. But there’s also a smaller, yet fascinating, subset that often gets overlooked: the so-called “problem plays.” Problem plays got their names in the late 19th century by critic F.S. Boas, who used contemporary modes of drama to recast certain Shakespearean plays that didn’t sit easily in either the comedic or tragic category. Plays such as “All’s Well That End Well” don’t really end particularly well, and evoke various conflicting moods as the action unfolds. Shows such as “Girls” and “Enlightened” really are the modern-day problem plays, providing compelling entertainment that defies easy classification. Indeed, so much of the confusion surrounding these shows stems not from the quality onscreen but the etymological confusion that surround it. There are still a majority of viewers (and Emmy voters) that can’t circle the square when a 30-minute program goes dark, weird, or intensely personal.
Such “problem play programming” isn’t exclusive to shows such as the ones described above. Some of the best episodes of shows like “Community” are ones that eschew overt laughs in favor of more serious character analysis. Episodes like “Mixology Certification” and “Remedial Chaos Theory” are among the series’ highlights, yet still encountered resistance from viewers that couldn’t lock onto the more serious approaches those episodes took. For every show like “The Big Bang Theory,” which provides a steady dose of the same brand of comedy each week, there’s a show like “Wilfred,” for which laughter is often beside the point.
All of this leads to the ultimate question: Where does the “problem” in “problem play programming” really lie — onscreen or off? The tension and dissonance that comes from having so many disparate shows in the outstanding comedy category simultaneously suggests the breadth of current programming while also demonstrates the inadequate vocabulary to describe what these individual shows achieve. Was Hannah Horvath’s descent into OCD madness compelling? Absolutely. Comedic? Not remotely. It’s doubtful Dunham will submit any of that show’s late Season 2 episodes for consideration, but that speaks to how absurd her inclusion in this category is. The Hannah in “I Get Ideas” is different from the one in “One Man’s Trash,” which are both different from the one in “On All Fours.” A single episode submission doesn’t do remote justice to the complexity of that character, whereas any nomination from any actor from “Modern Family” represents the potential apex of that cha
racter’s singular appeal.
Again, it’s worth noting: This is not about placing “Girls” above “Modern Family.” It’s about placing a crowbar between these two shows and recognizing that pitting them against each other is slightly insane. If it were easy to do what “Modern Family” does, everyone would do it. That show wins year after year in part because there’s no problem in identifying what type of program it is, because there’s no problem in identifying from what tradition it derives. Its antecedents are clearly marked, and sit alongside “Modern Family” in the history of the Emmys. Voters know what type of show it is, and reward its solid execution on an annual basis.
On the flip side, problem play programming takes parts of the medium’s history, but also infuses them with new sensibilities and aspects of other culture to forge something new. These shows are exciting to watch, often maddening to unpack, and aren’t a threat to traditional programming so much as an exciting addition to it. But since there aren’t additional categories into which we can place these shows, we have the current mixed bag of worthy nominees that often bear little if any resemblance to one another.
So when you see articles in the next few weeks wondering why “Girls” is considered a comedy, think about why we have to think of it as a “comedy” in the first place. The problem lies not with the show, but in the reductive way we still categorize programming. Television is too good in 2013 to place things into two buckets. And while it might be a long time before the Emmys catch up to this way of thinking, that doesn’t mean we have to be as slow about recognizing the landscape’s tonal diversity. That transforms us from part of the problem to part of the solution.