The Difficulty of Defining Television Comedies in 2013

The Emmys' comedy category includes series that don't easily fit the label, but the awards show should get credit for nominating programs that embody the ways TV is changing.

Laura Dern starred in HBO's Enlightened for two seasons.

Enlightened fans are accustomed to never getting what they want. Critics championed the HBO series, which starred Laura Dern as an earnest idealist rebuilding her life following a rehab stint, but the show’s devoted disciples never recruited a sizable flock of fellow viewers. Consequently, despite the impassioned pleas and online campaigns, the show got the ax in March after two seasons. So when Dern received an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series this year, it felt like a consolation prize. Enlightened may have been a common should-win pick in Emmy preview columns, but few observers actually predicted a win for Dern last night. (They were correct: Dern lost to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Veep’s acerbic Selina Meyer.)

One of the narratives surrounding Enlightened—besides how audiences missed out on creator Mike White’s brilliant writing (evident in the show’s haunting, existential monologues)—was that it never truly fit the comedy label thrust upon it, perhaps in ways in ways that hurt its chances of survival. Yes, viewers were supposed to sympathize with Dern’s well-intentioned but deluded Amy Jellicoe, but were they also reveling in schadenfreude? In the first season, Amy was that girl in the office: After seeking treatment following a humiliating workplace breakdown, Amy was totally absorbed in her new-age philosophy and completely lacking in self-awareness in ways that could be tremendously funny. But there was also a kind of sadness in her obliviousness, an admirable optimism in her search for purpose, and a vulnerability in her healing process that all resonated despite her flaws. This was especially true in the more plot-driven second season, when Amy decided to become a corporate whistleblower following another office humiliation. The layers of Amy felt less and less comedic as the show went on, but the way Dern pulled them off was still an award-worthy feat.

One of the frequent complaints about the Emmys—besides the fact that we still bother with it all—is how the show’s broad definition of comedy leads to unfair, apples-to-oranges match-ups that don’t actually recognize what's best. How could Dern’s journey to make Amy “an agent of change” compete with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, strong contenders who occupied a completely different ecosystem in television comedy? How could Louis C.K.’s Louie, which could be riveting even when it forwent the laughs, stand up against shows that devoted their energies to cranking out joke after joke and gag after gag?

Enlightened may have been too difficult to label, too hard to pin down for some viewers, but its loose relationship with the comedy genre was probably not its Emmy downfall—steep competition against old favorites was. The Emmys actually deserve credit for occasionally feting the hard-to-classify series that embody how television has been changing. In 2010, Edie Falco won the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy for her turn as the titular character in Nurse Jackie, a show that straddled the line between comedy and drama so much that Falco even made a joke about not being funny when she claimed her award. The year before, Toni Collette won the same prize for playing the Kansas housewife with multiple-personalities in United States of Tara, a show that, while funniest in its first season, was also very much a drama, and one that got progressively darker and more dramatic with every season. (Its third and final stretch even had some horror-like moments.) In those years, the competition wasn’t entirely unlike what Dern went up against this year—Emmy darlings Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler—so it wouldn’t have been totally shocking if Dern had walked away a winner last night.

Louie was in a similar position for the outstanding comedy series category as a deserving critical favorite that was assumed to have little chance of victory in the face of the Emmys' continued obsession with Modern Family. But while C.K. had been nominated as an actor before (in a category dominated by The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons), Louie was only finally shortlisted as a series for the first time this year; it lost in every category it was nominated for, but it was also the first basic-cable series to be nominated for the top comedy prize.

Genre-defying shows like Louie and other disputed comedy-dramas have increasingly gone head to head with more traditional comedies in the last few years. Having both Girls and Louie nominated as an outstanding comedy series felt like a step-up for this growing class of non-traditional comedies, even if they weren’t the victors. In the leading comedy actress category, half of the nominees—Dern, Falco, Lena Dunham—represented shows whose comedy status is frequently debated. The Emmys’ love affair with its usual choices appears to be more of a problem than how it handles the breadth of its comedy category.

The Emmys could prove that assessment wrong next year depending on how it treats Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix series that was all any TV enthusiast could talk about this summer. A handful of standout performances from its stellar cast have already generated plenty of Emmy buzz, and if Netflix’s other forays into original content could wrack up 14 nominations this year, Orange isn’t likely to get passed over, even though it, too, obscures the line between comedy and drama. Its most memorable bits were its funniest (see: two prisoners’ riff on “white people politics”), but its heartfelt look at the lives of women in prison are an inseparable part of the show’s DNA. Unlike Enlightened or Louie, its episodes are an hour long, rare for comedies.

So where will it end up? Slotted as a drama and facing the quite-darker likes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men? Or, more likely, cast in with the oddball lot of Girls, Louie, and, yes, Modern Family? (Weeds, another series from Orange creator Jenji Kohan, was labeled a comedy.) Either way, a nomination would be welcome recognition for another show that breaks a few rules—even if, as Enlightened fans know, recognition only goes so far.