A struggling entertainer pushing against societal and familial expectations. A washed up politician fighting clinging to electoral viability. A drug abusing software developer forced to constantly relive the day of her death while processing her mother’s death and a family history of mental illness. A reformed sex addict, who’s ALSO processing her mother’s death while she simultaneously falls in love with a priest. Ladies and gentleman, come Sunday, these four performances will be duking it out to take home the Emmy award for…Best Actress in a Comedy Series?
We’ll have to wait a few days to find out which of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan, Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne, and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (in addition to dark horses Christina Applegate of Dead to Me and Catherine O’Hara of Schitt’s Creek) end up going home with a golden statuette, but it’s not too early to start declaring some winners and losers already. Winner number one: Streaming platforms, who, according to my cursory research, make up the majority of an acting ballot for the first time ever (Maisel and Fleabag are both on Amazon Prime, Russian Doll and Dead to Me on Netflix). Loser number one: The network channels, who failed to notch a nominee in this category for the first time since 2013. Winner number two: The female auteur, as both Waller-Bridge and Lyonne created, wrote most of, and in Lyonne’s case, directed some of their respective shows. Loser number two: the traditional multi-cam sitcom, a format that was completely shut out from the major comedy nominations this year.
I wouldn’t necessarily call these superlatives shocking: network TV’s clout began to wane once cable channels started airing original content in the 90s, and the multi-cam format has been falling out of vogue since the at least the late 2000s. But the Best Actress in a Comedy Series category is a fascinating microcosm of the direction the TV comedy has moved in the past decade, and the way critics and audience members think about the genre as a whole.
The old adage says that comedy is tragedy plus timing, and the comedians of today seem to have really taken that to heart. Search for a review or thinkpiece on Fleabag, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t mention “grief” somewhere in the headline or one of the first paragraphs. Similarly, Russian Doll’s finale has been described as a “gut punch,” and a piece on Barry (Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s Emmy nominated HBO comedy about a hitman who catches the acting bug) launches into a discussion of the “banality of evil,” a term first coined by Hannah Arendt to explain the actions of Adolf Eichmann, one of the primary organizers of the Holocaust. Comedies aren’t designed to just make you laugh anymore — they’re designed to make you laugh, cry, gasp, and process your childhood trauma — and the Emmy nominations reflect that new expectation.
Even Veep, arguably one of the most traditional comedies nominated this year and an Emmy-winning powerhouse, focuses on acid tongued politicos trying to keep the ego and career prospects of a self-involved has-been afloat. Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer is spoiled, selfish, and completely unsympathetic — she makes life a living hell for her staff and isn’t afraid to compromise on her principals to claw her way back to the Oval Office, even when it seems apparent that most of the country is sick of her. Nowadays, we’re either asked to share in our comedic leads’ pain, or mock them for their irreversible personal failings.
TV comedies have been exploring the darker side of the human condition since at least M*A*S*H, a beloved series that took place in the hi-larious setting of the Korean War and opened each episode with a song called “Suicide is Painless” — and a few 2000s series like Desperate Housewives, Weeds, and Nurse Jackie combined comedy and drama to general acclaim. But the story of the 2000s sitcom is more likely to be told in the context of the rise of mockumentary and single cam shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock,, as well as the resilience of traditional multi-cam series like Everybody Loves Raymond, The Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men. By my estimation, the rise of the modern dramedy can be marked as starting in 2010, the year Louie first aired on FX and gave the world a taste of a different kind of comedian-lead sitcom. Instead of a witty, detached observer of human foibles like Jerry Seinfeld or a beleaguered yet beloved everyman like Ray Romano, Louis CK cast himself as an unsatisfied, awkward schlub searching for meaning in a cruel and uncaring world, pushing the sitcom format to the darkest possible thematic corners. This kind of dark dramedy started to become a house style for FX, which launched downbeat sitcoms like You’re the Worst, Married, Better Things, and Atlanta in the preceding decade. These shows were and are funny, sure, but they also tackled heavy subject matter like mental illness and poverty and have aired episodes that, save for their runtime, have little in common with what most people would consider a “sitcom” to be. Pretty soon, this phenomenon spread out of FX: Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Master of None, Catastrophe, and even Rick & Morty would all go on to mine similar dark spots of the human experience for laughs and tears all within a 30 minute runtime, and eventually hour long shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Succession began blending comedy and drama in a manner that only further muddled genre conventions.
What facilitated the rise of the dramedy, and why have they been so rapturously received? There likely isn’t one single reason, but I think a one possible explanation is that a lot of beloved dramas concluded mid-decade and that their replacements failed to capture the popular imagination. Breaking Bad and Mad Men were both off the air by May of 2015, leaving Game of Thrones alone as the one drama with a considerable cultural footprint, while would be successors to the peak TV throne like Homeland, House of Cards, or The Handmaid’s Tale either ran out of creative steam or failed to catch on. Stranger Things would eventually emerge as a sensation, but its status as a nostalgia piece has kept it from attaining the “prestige” status of some of the aforementioned shows. Add to the equation how self-seriously dour some of these shows became, and it became clear that if critics and audiences wanted to find affecting storylines about realistic characters who weren’t overly dour “difficult men,” they’d have to turn to comedies to find them.
This of course raises some interesting questions not only about what separates comedy from drama, but how a body like the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should judge dramedies and assess what the “best” comedy and comedic performances are. Take Barry, for instance. While certainly funny, the main thrust of the show concerns the title character — an Iraq War veteran turned contract killer — trying to carve out his own place in the world separate from the whims of others, which requires him to do some terrible, unforgivable things. The heavy moral questions Barry weighs — namely what it means to be “evil” and how long you can expect to outrun the consequences of your actions — lend themselves to creating some of the tensest, most explosive television moments since Breaking Bad, and as such most of the lead actors aren’t concerned with making the audiences laugh. The show’s Emmy nominated performers are one bummed out bunch: Bill Hader weighs the big questions questions as the lead, Henry Winkler mourns the loss of the woman he loves, Sarah Goldberg tries to keep the flames of her dream alive in a misogynistic environment, and Stephen Root is single-mindedly devoted to manipulating the main character for his personal gain. The one outlier is Anthony Carrigan, who provides most of the comic relief as NoHo Hank, a Chechyan mobster who’s probably more suited to host a show on HGTV than run an international crime ring. Does the fact that he gets more laughs than Root or Winkler make him more deserving of the Best Support Actor in a Comedy award, or should either Winkler or Root get the nod for doing more emotionally wrought work? In other words, should comedy awards award the best comedic performance, or do they award the best dramatic performances that happen to take place in a 30 minute comedy?
Luckily I’m not tasked with making that decision, but I the rise of the dramedy has got me to thinking about the nature of comedy and its current state. After binging shows like Fleabag, Barry, Russian Doll, and You’re the Worst, I decided to try and start Better Things, the critically acclaimed Pamela Adlon vehicle about a divorced actress trying to raise three daughters by herself. And honestly? I couldn’t make it past the first episode. The pilot wasn’t bad, but it was just so damn bleak, and I really didn’t feel like spending ten or so hours of my life watching a “funny” take on a woman sloughing it through middle age. What I did do instead was rewatch Community, Dan Harmon’s reference heavy cult TV series about a group of misfits who come together at a community college, and it was incredibly refreshing to watch a comedy whose chief goal was to make the audience laugh as much as possible, instead of making them laugh a little bit and ponder their mortality and unhappiness. That’s not to say that Community doesn’t deal with heavy themes; like a lot of dramedies, it focuses on characters experiencing failure and disappointment and trying to come to terms with their unfulfilled dreams. But the show never let these concerns get in the way of a good gag, and no matter their flaws, the main cast usually ended up coming off as lovable and endearing. The show could tug at your heartstrings, but it did so to acknowledge life’s harsh realities and provide some form of comfort to its audience, not to pick at our collective existential scabs.
I think the recent predominance of dramedies is why I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, Netflix’s absurd, madcap sketch show, has found such an enthusiastic audience. The inspiration behind contentious listicles, countless memes, and a very active Twitter account, I Think You Should Leave runs only fifteen minutes per episode, and delivers its jokes at a rapid fire pace that barely leaves room for viewers to catch their breath between laughs. With Saturday Night Live and other late night show’s taking an almost myopic focus on the Trump Administration and the dramatic turn of most of TV’s best comedies, the market was scarce on straightforward, escapist humor, and an audience starved for silliness ate up Robinson’s songs about skeletons using bones for dollars and good car ideas. Maybe this is a sign of things to come — maybe audiences are becoming fed up with having to endure a bit of despair with their humor and a new era of pure comedy is upon us.
But, of course, I Think You Should Leave wasn’t nominated for any Emmys, while more topical sketch shows like I Love You America with Sarah Silverman and Who is America? were. Maybe America is in the middle of one long, overdue collective therapy session and needs the dramedy to help us cope with and process the things that plague us and our societies. Given their quality, we sure could do a lot worse. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish we were less concerned with using comedy to address our many social and psychological ills, and more content to use them to unwind with a good laugh. What a concept!