When Every Series Is a Blend of Comedy and Drama, What’s an Awards Show to Do?

The Emmys must decide where series belong, but the lines between comedy and drama are all but indistinguishable these days

Succession - The Bear - Bad Sisters
"Succession" (HBO), "The Bear" (FX), "Bad Sisters" (Apple TV+)

What’s so funny?

And by that, I mean, what’s so funny about “The Flight Attendant,” “Barry,” “The Kominsky Method,” “Cobra Kai,” “Dead to Me” and other shows that were nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys even though much of their content was seriously serious?

What was so funny about “Orange Is the New Black” in 2014, when it was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series, but not in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020, when it was nominated in the drama categories even though the tone of the show hadn’t changed?

Blame it on the Emmys slipping and sliding over the treacherous surface of today’s television, where the difference between comedy and drama is becoming increasingly hard to discern. Hell, the first season of “The White Lotus” won a Directors Guild Award as a comedy series, while its second season is now competing at the Emmys as a drama series. Meanwhile, “Succession” might be the funniest show on TV, in a very dark and twisted way, but the Emmys would never dare call it a comedy.

And this past year has given us a boatload of new shows that could have gone in more than one category. “Bad Sisters” is a drama, according to the Television Academy, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call it a comedy. “The Bear” is competing in the comedy categories, but it’s every bit as serious as it is funny. “Poker Face” feels like a crime drama or a murder mystery, but it’s got enough laughs to put it in that category at the Emmys. “Atlanta” is a surrealist satire with hints of the supernatural, but at the Emmys it’s a comedy, too. 

This is television in 2023, when everybody knows the lines between comedy and drama have been almost completely obliterated and nobody has a good solution to deal with it. Things weren’t always so murky: Despite outliers like “I Spy” and “M*A*S*H” and later the work of Steven Bochco, all of which seemed to straddle categories, television in its first few decades was pretty easy to figure out. Comedies were half an hour long and every joke was greeted with laughter from either a live studio audience or a laugh track; dramas were an hour long and didn’t have real or virtual audiences.

In fact, not long ago the Television Academy decided to lean on the length of episodes to suggest category placement: A 2015 rule said that a half-hour show would go into the comedy category by default, while a one-hour show was automatically considered a drama. (Producers could appeal that classification.) In 2022, that rule was changed to allow producers to determine category placement, albeit with the Television Academy reserving the right to make the final determination. The current criteria heads toward “I know it when I see it” territory: “the majority of the running time of at least six episodes are primarily comedic for comedy series entries, or primarily dramatic for dramatic series entries.”

So what do you do? Cut the genre classifications, make the categories bigger and have all series compete against each other regardless of whether they’re dramatic, comedic or somewhere in between? The Emmys tried that a couple of times in the past (notably with the “Super Emmys” in 1974) and it was a disaster. They’ll give up gendered acting categories before they give up separate awards for comedy and drama.

Or should the Emmys have an Outstanding Dramedy category? That has the potential to confuse things even further, setting up a devilish sliding scale from comedy to dramedy to drama. 

Or should the top program categories do what some below-the-line fields do, and have separate awards for half-hour shows and one-hour shows? But then how do you deal with a show like “The Last of Us,” whose episodes this past season ranged from 43 minutes to an hour and 21 minutes?

Or maybe here’s the solution: Admit that art and entertainment isn’t made within strict, clear lines. Accept that any attempt to come up with clear classifications is doomed to failure, but that throwing everything into one giant catchall category would be even more frustrating. Concede that TV is a giant mess, confusing and glorious, and often not completely unclassifiable.

Drama? Comedy? Dramedy? Comma? Who cares? Celebrate it all and then throw some golden statuettes into whatever boxes make sense at the moment.

A version of this story first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Comedy Series Cover, Selena Gomez
Photographed by Jeff Vespa