Series that balance laughter and tears don't constitute a new genre—they simply show how much comedy has evolved
Weeds' seventh season opens with comedy. Mary-Louise Parker's drug-dealing mother, Nancy Botwin—serving out a prison term after turning herself over to the police at the end of season six—is sitting on a cellblock folding chair while officers debate whether she should get parole. As the offscreen officers bicker, her wide, brown eyes peer from behind rectangular, thick-rimmed glasses, darting back and forth in a way that expresses both confusion and certainty. Nancy uses to her eyes to convey dripping sarcasm without ever uttering a word.
Later in the episode, those same expressive eyes are suddenly instruments of heartbreak. For the first time in three years, she sees the young son she left behind when she went to prison, and discovers that he has no idea that she is his mother. Parker's doe eyes fill with tears, just as they have so many times before—and oh so effectively—over the previous six seasons as Nancy desperately tries to keep her family, life of crime, and web of lies from spinning out of control.
Weeds is not alone in its ability to transition deftly from laughter to tears. Showtime has several other series that are technically comedies but regularly feature moments bearing real emotional weight: The Big C, which had its season premiere this week as well, plus Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara, which had their season finales last week. Other networks have shows that strive for a balance between levity and gravitas: Fox's Glee and FX's Louie, to name a few. This type of show is so common right now, in fact, that it seems on the verge of becoming its own distinct genre: the dramedy. But to see these series as separate from comedies would be a mistake, as doing so fails to give due credit to the comedy genre for how much it has evolved.
Over the past several weeks, three of the television's industry biggest trade publications—Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline—debated whether the Emmy Awards, which currently bestow Best Series honors to one comedy and one drama, should add a third Best Dramedy Series category.
There are several arguments being made here. One is that series like Weeds and Glee "aren't particularly funny." Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter says, "If a comedy is truly outstanding, it makes you laugh." There are obvious snarky retorts to be made here: When was the last time you laughed out loud at the cheap jokes in Two and a Half Men? Is that too, then, not a comedy? But to not give credit to Nurse Jackie for the sharp writing and nuanced characterization behind comic relief characters like Merrit Wever's Nurse Zoe or Anna Deavere-Smith's Gloria Akalitus is unfair.
Similarly, the case being made that it's too hard to judge Laura Linney's emotionally ranging performance in The Big C against the slapstick of Tina Fey in 30 Rock doesn't hold water. Fey, for one, has prevailed in this category before, defeating "dramedy" actress Mary-Louise Parker. But the situation is really no different to what's going on in the drama categories, where a performance from Sally Field during which she histrionically cries and screams her way through an episode of Brothers and Sisters is judged against the stern characterization of Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer or the groundedness of Connie Britton in Friday Night Lights. It's a testament to the variety of programs television has to offer. Without that variety, TV will likely become a line-up of CSI spin-offs and reality competitions. Sure, there is no official measure to create a Best Dramedy or Best Dramedy Actress category, but one TV academy member confirms to Deadline that it's a possibility that the organization considers on an annual basis.