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Archive for Friday, June 12, 2009

Emmy labels prove difficult to pin down

June 12, 2009

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— Which is funnier, “Weeds” or “Rescue Me”? “United States of Tara” or “Dexter”? “The Office” or “Boston Legal”?

When you’re watching them, it doesn’t really matter if your favorite show is technically a comedy or a drama, but come Emmy time it sure does, and things grow a little blurrier every year.

“Weeds” and “Rescue Me” both have very damaged protagonists who inflict pain and suffering on their family but are often hilarious to watch and are surrounded by people who say and do very funny things in often grim situations. But “Weeds” is a comedy and “Rescue Me” is a drama.

“Dexter” and “The United States of Tara” both have mentally ill protagonists who have chosen to just “go with” their diseases. The words “dark,” “disturbing” and “hilarious” apply to both, but “Tara” is officially a comedy and “Dexter” a drama.

When the Emmys came along, everyone assumed it wasn’t right to judge a comedy against a drama, a comedic performance against a dramatic one. Which was fine back in the days when the comedies were the ones with the laugh tracks and the slapstick and the jokes. But now virtually every good drama has many fine moments of humor and the very best comedies regularly prowl the borders of tragedy.

Logistically speaking, it would make sense for the producers of some of the funnier dramas — “Rescue Me,” for instance, or “Boston Legal” — to switch Emmy categories. There are very few successful comedies these days, and who wouldn’t want to see a face-off between Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” and Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me”?

But let’s face it: Although everyone speaks in hushed tones about “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “M*A*S*H,” comedies don’t get the respect dramas do these days. So if you have a show that swings both ways, it’s probably going to identify as the alpha genre.

“Weeds,” curiously, did not, which may explain why Mary-Louise Parker, though twice nominated for lead actress in a comedy, has never won and the fine male supporting cast — Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk — has been ignored. Similarly, shows such as “Scrubs” and “Chuck,” which wallow in the laugh-scream dichotomy, have had to struggle just to stay alive, never mind the Emmys.

I don’t know what the answer is in terms of categories, but if we really want shows that “think outside the box,” then we need to give those that do a little extra love.

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