Orange is the New Black and The Limits of Genre

I was planning to have this week’s post be about the Emmys in general, but this year’s ceremony was honestly so boring that it would not make for a very compelling entry. Aside from some well-deserved victories for Breaking Bad, the winners ranged from repetitive to just downright perplexing (miniseries/TV movie categories, I’m looking at you). One of the things that really disappointed me was that aside from Uzo Aduba’s Guest Actress win, Orange is the New Black, one of my favorite new series of the past year, was shut out. I have always had mixed feelings about the decision to have Orange is the New Black compete as a comedy. It is a show that just doesn’t clearly fit into either of the broad categories the Academy provides, and I feel this was one of several reasons why they came up nearly empty-handed despite an incredibly well-done, critically beloved first season that received a ton of buzz.

Last week, I told an industry colleague I want to be a writer, and they asked what I like to write. My immediate answer was “dramedy.” I tend to believe that many of the best shows are a bit of both drama and comedy, and it is certainly where my sensibilities lie, as both a writer and a fan. Orange is the New Black is one of the best current examples of a true dramedy, which is why an argument could have been made for its inclusion in either set of categories. I understand why they chose to submit as a comedy- the comedy categories were simply less competitive this year, especially in a post-30 Rock world. The Emmy rules are incredibly vague when it comes to the division between comedy and drama, ultimately leaving it up to the shows and networks to submit as they see fit. The only official criteria is that “the majority of running time of at least six of the total eligible episodes” should be either “primarily comedic or primarily dramatic”. They would have never stood a chance of beating Breaking Bad, but in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, they had a strong chance of dethroning four-time victor Modern Family, which has grown stale in its age. It is also probable that Netflix, in its first season of Emmy eligibility, did not want Orange is the New Black going up against their other show, House of Cards. But while Modern Family does occasionally deal with serious subject matter, it is still about as traditional a comedy as there is. It doesn’t have a laugh track, but it is a half-hour long, and its primary intention is to be humorous. Orange Is The New Black had a scene in season 1 where a prison guard hangs an inmate who overdosed from the ceiling by an electrical cord to make it look like a suicide. The show only got darker in season 2, which makes me wonder if a second year in the comedy categories will be even harder for voters to swallow. Even Emmy winner Aduba’s character Suzanne, aka “Crazy Eyes”, went from serving primarily as comic relief to playing a pivotal role in the show’s darkest, most heartbreaking storyline yet.

Overall, the line between drama and comedy has only become more blurred as time has gone on. When the decision to submit Orange is the New Black as a comedy was announced, a Netflix spokesperson even said “the show tackles real issues…through its use of humor” and ituniquely blends comedy and drama in its hourlong episodes and simply defies standard categorization.” The mention of hourlong episodes is interesting, because length used to be a defining feature- dramas were an hour and comedies were a half hour ninety percent of the time. Now, hourlong comedies are typical: Glee, Monk, Desperate Housewives, and Ugly Betty come to mind. One interesting example is Showtime’s Shameless, which switched to submitting as a comedy in 2014 after three seasons of submitting as a drama. Half-hour dramas are not really a thing- the only example that comes to mind is Dragnet from back in the day. But without length as a deciding factor, where is the line? No matter how much your show “defies categorization”, if you want the opportunity to win awards you need to pick one. It is totally normal to both cry during comedies (Jim and Pam’s wedding, I’m looking at you) and laugh during dramas. Even Six Feet Under, one of the most thematically dark shows in recent memory, featured plenty of laughs, occasionally even in the form of musical dream/fantasy sequences. Interestingly, while I was researching for this post I found a couple of articles that described Six Feet Under as a dramedy, which I find to be absolutely absurd, but that is a discussion for another day.

Do I think Emmy voters watching comedy submissions may have been taken aback while watching Piper beat another inmate to a pulp? Yes. If they wanted to vote for a traditional comedy, Orange is the New Black was not the answer, even though it is way more innovative, fresh, and well done than, in my opinion, any of the other nominees this year. Is there a future where a third dramedy category is created at the Emmys? Possibly, but that could also backfire and just make the lines even more unclear. It would also be unfair to do away with categories altogether and have one general competition for excellence in scripted television because you just simply can’t compare Robin Wright’s work on House of Cards to Amy Poehler’s work on Parks and Recreation. Is it easier to win awards if your show fits firmly into one category of the other? It very well may be. I hope this does not discourage people from continuing to create shows that fall outside the limits of genre, because this dramedy writer certainly hopes to one day.


5 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black and The Limits of Genre

  1. I find that this is applicable to so many topics. We love to neatly categorize things, yet it’s not always possible. As an organization queen, I love organizing my iTunes by genres, the clothes in my closet by “function,” etc. It drives me crazy when items fit more than one category and throw me for a loop. However, those things are exactly what thrill us. We love clothes that we can wear for work AND happy hour. We love hybrid music like “hip hop house” and “techno pop.” We love “fresh” and innovative shows like OITNB. It’s a constant struggle! 🙂

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  2. This season of Shameless was my favorite thing on television this past year (So SO good) but it was by far and away the most dramatic the show has ever been. The category fraud has gotten out of control, but I completely understand shows jockeying to give themselves their best shot at taking home a trophy.

    My solution to fixing this problem? Recognize Dramedy as a genre and give it its own categories. Let Shameless,OITNB and even Louie, Nurse Jackie and Girls (who had a second season so dark it’s only semblance of comedy was it’s half hour time frame) battle it off against each other. Sure the awards show would be longer but we might actually end up with a few deserving winners.

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    1. I agree that this may be the best solution, although the thought of a straight-up comedy category with basically just The Big Bang Theory and other multicam sitcoms is a little depressing. Thank you for reading! 🙂

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