Tears of a clown: Examining genre-bending in modern television shows

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There was a time when muddy and slow-panning cinematography were only synonymous with the melancholy storylines of a drama series. Years ago, quick cuts and off-the-cuff witticism were only found in the folds of a comedy. Certain aesthetics and acting styles belonged to distinct genres of television, and they were not to be mixed and matched. 

This past expectation is still reinforced by the structure of the Emmy Awards. Here, television programs are recognized for the ways in which they excel in distinct categories. Shows are organized into respective genres based on the themes they broach, the visual templates they employ and the tones they maintain. 

But after 71 years of judging television shows as fitting into these predetermined categories, as molding to either/or, it might be time for the Television Academy to acknowledge the fledgling multitudinous of genre. 

Where television was once either noir-style, soap opera drama or knee-slapping, laugh-track comedy, this is no longer the defined expectation. Even so, this rigid framework was incredibly appropriate for when television was first becoming a staple in popular culture. Television served as a representation of the nuclear family, a representation of the clear gender and sexuality tropes and of the widely accepted race politics. Turn on the TV, fix the antenna and explore worlds in which even the biggest conflicts rarely broke free from the expected social structures. 

Take 1950s sitcoms — “Leave It to Beaver” and “My Little Margie,”… anyone? Shows like these stood as a central element of American television, and they all focused on family, home life and specifically structured social interactions. Controversial topics such as feminism, racial justice and “radicalism” had no place here — and neither did disillusionment with reality. By having such strict standards for storylines, it was definitively easier for shows to be categorized as either comedy or drama, but never both. There was no room for confusion; viewers wanted to know exactly what they were getting into. 

This is not the case anymore. People no longer want television that paints a very limited and very, dare I say, “white” type of reality — and can you blame them?  Acclaimed modern television shows are the ones that represent the nuances and diversity of daily life in creative but honest ways. As such, many of television’s best shows are becoming increasingly textural in terms of genre — and a great deal of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows reflect this sentiment. 

HBO’s “Barry” is nominated as a comedy. But in its second season, this critically-acclaimed “comedy” series vibrantly pulses with identity crises of incredible consequences, themes of crippling nationalism and bouts of imposter syndrome. 

Barry (Bill Hader) escapes the American military complex physically but is perpetually and emotionally dragged back into that world to the point where his morals completely dissipate. Sally (Sarah Goldberg) tells her story as a survivor of domestic abuse but grapples despairingly with revisionism and her desire to be authentic. Even NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the show’s never faltering absurdist comedic relief, expresses his hatred of criminal life and fear of disappointing his crime family in a vulnerable and sensitive monologue. And yet, all of these actors are nominated for comedy Emmys in their respective categories. 

In isolation, each of these moments sounds like the making of a drama. But these scenes and plot points play out in tandem with chaotically and joyously absurd storylines, incredibly impressive comedic chemistry and some of the best comedy writing coming out of this generation. “Barry” breathes both humor and sorrow, playfulness and existentialism, without compromising its integrity. 

As “Barry” sits pretty in the comedy category, the similarly structured “Better Call Saul” is Emmy-nominated as a drama. Netflix’s “Better Call Saul” features storylines of drug peddling, corruption, deceit and Saul’s (Bob Odenkirk) constant and always-failing attempts to be better. All of these dramatic elements swirl against a desolate Albuquerque landscape. 

But Odenkirk has a long-standing history in comedy. From writing for “Saturday Night Live” to his role on “The Larry Sanders Show” to his character, Saul Goodman, serving as the go-to comedic relief on “Breaking Bad,” Odenkirk is seasoned in the art of comedic writing and comedic acting. And he is not afraid to utilize these skills in “Better Call Saul.” Gritty frames and tension-filled scenes are often undercut by Odenkirk’s smooth-talking and clever quips. Even his riffs with co-star Jonathan Banks, also nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, are brimming with giggle-inducing banter. 

There is something to be said for a show that follows the classic formula of either comedy or drama. But what has become readily clear is that audiences are becoming more and more committed to shows that reflect the tone-shifts that reality does. Everyone makes awkward jokes in tense situations, and many of us use humor to get through tough times. When series such as “Barry” and “Better Call Saul” employ a similar meshing of genres, the worlds of these shows are much easier to believe. 

Ultimately, comedy and drama cannot be so cleanly separated in real life, so why should we expect it of the television we consume?

Maisy Menzies covers television. Contact her at [email protected].