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.
But this would be an affront to how our comedic tastes and sense of humor have changed. Just as shows like The Honeymooners or I Dream of Jeannie probably wouldn't make it to air today (the comedy, though pleasurable nostalgic viewing, would be deemed to stale and obvious), the series that do make it to air reveal a more sophisticated comedy palate. Nurse Jackie has "comedy borne out of absurdity and gallows humor," says its creator, Liz Brixius. "It's whistling past the graveyard." The fact that landscape of comedy is actually something that should be celebrated, not ghetto-ized by creating a third genre of television to accommodate the change. The comedy world has changed before: removing the laugh track, reverting to single camera comedy, instituting improvisation, breaking the fourth wall. What we're seeing now is another incarnation of that evolution. "I think that's part of what's getting people excited about comedy again," says The Big C showrunner Jenny Bicks. "That it's not just defined within this narrow window of 'sitcom.'"
The pain and frustration Laura Linney conveys in the season premiere of The Big C while telling off a receptionist who won't give her an appointment with a notable oncologist resonates on a real level with anyone who's gone through that situation either themselves or with a family member—and you laugh at it because you've been there and can relate. It's quite similar to the "oh, girl..." reaction one might have to Liz Lemon singing an ode to "night cheese" on 30 Rock. All comedies need to have dramatic tension in order to pull off laughs successfully. These "dramedies" are just raising the stakes and playing the characters' reactions straighter than a classic sitcom would set up a punchline. But whether it's Cam bemoaning that Mitchell won't publicly kiss him on Modern Family or Michael Scott at wit's end over his move to Colorado on The Office, those stakes are there in more traditional comedies, too.
There's an unexpected, recurring fart joke on The Big C's premiere, and you'd be hard-pressed not to laugh out loud. Soon after, Laura Linney's brother finds out she has cancer, and you'd be hard-pressed not to cry. That the pendulum can swing back and forth between the two reactions is a representation of how sophisticated the comedy genre has become, and why it shouldn't be fragmented by cheap labels like "dramedy."