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‘Succession’ and ‘Ted Lasso’ Prove the Emmys Should Rethink the Comedy/Drama Split

Awards Wrap Up: The reigning HBO and Apple TV+ hits blur genre lines enough to question all these outdated classifications, critic Jennifer Keishin Armstrong writes

Let’s face it: In the last decade, the Emmy categories of “comedy” and “drama” have become a joke.

For much of TV history, the dichotomy served the industry well. How could you compare “Cheers” and “The Golden Girls” with “L.A. Law” and “thirtysomething,” right? But streaming has broken down many of the conventions that were quite necessary in the broadcast-dominant era, including the time and genre constraints that made scheduling and ad sales possible.

As a result, confusion has now reigned in the Emmy nominations process. Case in point, “Orange Is the New Black,” the women’s prison tale that the Television Academy nominated as a comedy in 2014 and as a drama one year later.

And that series was only a harbinger of things to come. Some of the best shows of recent years — “Fleabag” and “Dead to Me,” among others — feel as if they’re not quite the right fit for either side of the divide, and it’s madness to simply say that 30-ish minutes makes a comedy and 60-ish minutes makes a drama. (In fact, the Academy agreed, and ended the rule that used length as a determining factor earlier this year.)

Dozens of other shows, particularly the most critically acclaimed works on streaming services, similarly split the difference. The 2010s were a time of genre-smashing across pop culture, particularly in music and television. The Emmys need to start acknowledging that. 

This genre breakdown is, in fact, arguably the great artistic advancement seen on television in the last decade. We should celebrate totally undefinable works like “BoJack Horseman”(a comedy about an anthropomorphized horse, a deadly serious drama, and a cartoon!) and “Veep” (very funny, and one of the darkest indictments of American politics ever committed to the screen). Recent sensation “Ted Lasso” is absolutely a conventional fish-out-of water comedy about an American football coach in British soccer — except for the turn it took last season to face Ted’s mental health issues stemming from his father’s suicide. 

“Succession,” a modern-day twist on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and one of the defining series of our current time, has long had fans and critics arguing about whether it’s a comedy or a drama — and no one is sure of the answer. Troubled heir Kendall’s rap about family patriarch Logan sure was funny. So is nearly every interaction between son-in-law Tom and cousin Greg. But do the characters know they’re funny? Are we laughing at them or with them? And does that matter when it comes to the comedy/drama divide?

The fact that we can’t tell what’s a comedy and what’s a drama marks another step in the evolution of television from crass, ephemeral, lowest-common-denominator entertainment to serious artistic endeavor. With wide-ranging categories like Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director, the Oscars don’t differentiate among which emotions its nominees evoke because the point is to honor artistic achievement as a whole. Changing this nominations system for television, however, would also pose challenges; most significantly, it would cut the number of major award nominees by about a third. (Some categories, like Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Television Movie, don’t divide by genre.) In an already overstuffed marketplace full of excellent work, reducing the number of beneficiaries of such an award is, indeed, a disappointment.

That’s why solving this conundrum might take some creativity — but given the downward trajectory in award-show ratings over the last decade and the vastly changed (and still changing) media landscape, some radical creativity might not be a bad thing. Maybe it’s fine to put all types of shows into one bucket, like Limited Series and Television Movie already do. Maybe given that, you expand the number of nominations, like the Oscars have done for Best Picture.

And here’s a crazy idea: Maybe you have more than one winner to spread the love. Maybe you have a list of finalists and a list of winners. The Emmys allow multiple winners in the 31 (out of 118) juried and area categories, all of them technical or craft areas, but not in the vast majority of categories. The Peabody Awards — for which, full disclosure, I do contract work — releases a simple list of 60 finalists and 30 winners every year. But they’re also not contending with complications like acting and writing awards. Or maybe you award a first, second and third place prize.

There’s also the matter of getting Emmy voters to take comedy as seriously as they take drama, a hurdle Oscar voters have yet to clear. As the old showbiz adage goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” It would be a loss to penalize shows that garner laughs, given the skill it takes to do so.

Categorizations and binaries are breaking down, and that’s a good thing. (We’re going to have to start facing this for gendered actor/actress categories as well, but that’s for another day!) Such boxes are mere constructs meant to be demolished by good art. If we’re in the business of recognizing that art with awards, we need to reflect that change, whether we’re laughing, crying, or a little bit of both.

After all, real life makes no such distinctions.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of "Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love," as well as "Seinfeldia," "When Women Invented Television" and "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted."

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