How the Rise of the Hourlong Comedy is Forcing the TV Academy to Change The Emmys’ Rules


Earlier this year, the TV Academy made a controversial ruling that only half-hour programs are considered comedies in the upcoming Emmy race, and that hourlong television shows are automatically put into the drama category unless producers plead their case to a panel and win a two-thirds vote. The decision was met with detractors as hourlong shows were quick to appeal the ruling: Yesterday, Shameless, Glee, and Jane the Virgin — all hourlong shows that can be very funny — won their petition to be considered comedies. (There is no word on Orange is the New Black, meaning either Netflix has yet to petition or that the jury has yet to rule.)

The Emmys can often be a mess — think of last year’s debacle about True Detective being submitted as a drama rather than a miniseries like Fargo, or how sketch shows have been forced to compete against talk shows (these categories will, fortunately, be split from now on) — but they’re becoming even messier as the TV Academy struggles to adapt to how quickly television is changing. In the process, certain shows aren’t being given their proper due.

First things first: Though it’s understandable where the TV Academy is coming from, it is still frustrating and nonsensical for an episode’s length to dictate its genre. This rule change is surely a result of last year’s category-hopping, in particular Orange is the New Black, because it’s clear Netflix’s decision to submit Orange as a comedy was largely to avoid competition between that and House of Cards (and because the comedy category is generally less competitive than drama). Orange is a dramedy: a structurally dramatic show with plenty of humorous moments, a series that seamlessly balances between the two genres. But there is no category for “dramedy,” and that presents a problem for a promising and increasingly prominent genre: the hourlong dramatic comedy.

Series like Shameless and Orange is the New Black certainly lean toward the dramatic, but they also effectively function as comedies, even if it’s very dark humor — how often have you laughed at the utter ridiculousness of Piper in jail, getting her privilege called out by her fellow inmates? Both series regularly feature comedic characters in bizarre situations or populate their scripts with familiar setup/punchline exchanges. Including comic relief to keep things light in a heavy drama doesn’t necessarily make it a comedy — after all, Badger and Skinny Pete didn’t cause Breaking Bad to switch categories — but in the cases of Shameless and Orange, their comedic intentions are obvious, and more than just a simple break in tension. There is also the question of Breaking Bad‘s spinoff Better Call Saul, which centers on one of Breaking Bad‘s funniest characters and, when first announced, was still being explored as a possible half-hour. Who knows how Better Call Saul will be submitted, or if the TV Academy will allow it to be treated as a comedy? After all, the Academy hasn’t even stated yet exactly how they will determine what is and isn’t comedy.

Things are more clear with shows like Glee and Jane the Virgin, which are basically the longform version of comedies. Jane (already a nominee for Best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes) routinely borrows elements from the telenovela genre in order to further heighten the comedy, and is structured more like a sitcom than a drama. Aside from the over-the-top soap opera feel and the inherently funny premise, Jane the Virgin has a decidedly light and comedic tone, and hits all of the basic sitcom beats — in fact, it hits twice as many of them over the course of a single, hourlong episode.

There is no clearcut solution for Emmy categorization, though a “dramedy” category is one of the most popular suggestions; it would also be able to encompass the multiple half-hour series that also straddle the comedy/drama line such as Transparent, Girls, and Louie — all of which can be argued are more dramatic than anything else. Though it would undoubtedly be an overcrowded category, providing far more competition than networks desire. The one thing that is clear is that television genres are more fluid than ever, and the TV Academy has to find a way to keep up.