Best Actress in a Dramedic Role?: The Emmy Awards' Genre Problem

Curator's Note

While it’s not uncommon for stars to indulge in self-deprecation upon winning a major entertainment award, something was different when Edie Falco took to the stage to accept the 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her role in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. As the video (left) shows, Falco skips over humble and lands on incredulous, citing her win as “ridiculous” because she’s, well, “not funny.”

While there are comic elements within Jackie, Falco’s role as the eponymous drug-addict and adulterer is not one of them, and that she would admit as much reveals a growing complication within the Emmy Awards’ generic categorization.

Historically, the Emmys have not always been organized as a binary between comedy and drama. Dragnet won Emmy Awards for “Best Mystery, Action or Adventure Program” for 1952 and 1953, but then won “Best Mystery or Intrigue Series” for 1954, before being nominated for "Best Action or Adventure Series" for 1955 (which it lost to Disneyland (Davy Crockett)). The year after that, the Academy threw out genres entirely to simplify things (shifting to a half-hour and hour-long split), only to return to genres a year later before gradually settling on the comedy/drama split we know today.

That current system of dividing between comedy and drama reflects how a half-century of television development has mediated and shaped generic expectations, but the rise of the mash-up genre known as dramedy has created circumstances where dramatic performances within shows on the border between the two genres are competing in comedy categories, and winning. Falco’s win is part of a growing trend, including Toni Colette the year before in the same category for United States of Tara, and she could be joined by Laura Linney (The Big C), Chris Colfer (Glee) or even pick up another Emmy herself later this month.

Falco’s speech raises two questions. First, is this a problem? Should Emmys be given for performances that are inherently comic or dramatic, or should they instead go to great performances (either comic or dramatic) within a given genre? Secondly, what can be done? While genres may be growing more fluid within television production, award shows require a certain degree of rigidity, and any solution (like categorizing performances and series separately) could compromise their legitimacy well beyond Edie Falco’s humorlessness.

It could be worse: at least her speech was funny.



I appreciate your historical perspective because the Emmys are a constantly changing beast.  You did research in the 19050s, and I've been accidentally researching in the 1970s, which was a big ol' mess due to a divorce between the New York and Hollywood factions of the Academy and boycott threats by the artist community.  After the mess died down, the LA Times television critic continued to be critical, prompting a rather wounded letter from the Academy president, who asked, "can't you see that we've taken the criticism and are trying to improve things?"  So I wonder if we are again in a situation (as noted with Kyle's post about the Grammys) where the invisibility of the Academy and their procedures is part of the problem.   

The rise of the dramedy also parallels, to some extent, the rise of premium and basic cable original programming.  This is a rather profound industrial shift.  Does Emmy have a responsibility to mirror that?  To what extent do the Emmy wins help shape broadcasting history?  Will the continued insistence on the Comedy/Drama binary distort future histories of the current moment?  Or has Emmy's story always been one of being two steps behind?

I guess I could also ask what would happen if we stopped considering genre entirely--wouldn't a bunch of shows fail ever to get recognition?   A related question--are broadcast shows currently overshadowed by the premium cable programs and their bags of money?  Are the possible winners, therefore, implicitly determined by the organization of the categories? 

There are a lot of questions here, perhaps too many to answer properly in 400 words, but my short answer is "Yes" to most of them.

What's interesting about Academy procedures is that they are actually more transparent than ever before - with sites like Gold Derby (formerly at The L.A. Times) now routinely analyzing the nominations, there are ways in which the nominating procedure has become public knowledge. Mind you, it's a public knowledge only for people who post on/read Gold Derby, but it allowed for recent changes (like the shift in 2006 to Blue Ribbon Nomination panels and then the shift BACK to popular vote-based nomination systems after the results only drew more criticism) to be discussed/dissected/debated in a public forum.

I'd definitely agree that the Emmys serve as a reflection of broadcasting history, and they absolutely played a key role in the rise of HBO's quality brand in the early 2000s. What's interesting about HBO and genre, however, is that they rarely refer to their own shows as dramas or comedies outside of the context of awards, choosing instead to refer to them as "HBO series" (likely to further distance themselves from this pesky "television" thing they want to disassociate themselves from). So on some level, the Emmys are the only reason HBO has to make the distinction, a distinction they actually draw on the half-hour/hour long binary in most instances (outside of exceptions like In Treatment, which is really 2-2.5 hours long if you factor in each week's episodes as a whole).

I do think that, without generic categorization, many shows would fall through the cracks and certain inequalities of the Emmy system would be revealed. However, there are always inequalities in any award system, and I think you're right to ask whether this is the main one of concern. What I'll say is that this is one of the most visible: flipping through nominations casually, or watching the broadcast without following the nominations, strangeness that manifests within the nominations (as opposed to absences) live on throughout the process and draw the eye to further concerns (including many you mention).

(One last note: I didn't have time here, but I'm also interested in shows that have CHANGED categorization - Gilmore Girls, for example, submitted in drama in 2007, but submitted in comedy before then.)

I should note that another question in the back of my mind is the frequently cited proposal to put broadcast shows in a different category than cable (at minimum, premium cable)--i.e. "The Good Wife" can be as awesome as it likes, but "Game of Thrones" is always going to trounce it.  So that theory would distinguish programming based on revenue models instead of genre.  This would be a pretty stark exposure of "television as business," and I suspect the Academy would shy away from that.

But back to genre--what other values are there to distinguishing based on genre?  Is Falco's win a testament to the strategizing that goes on behind the scenes?  Put her in the comedic category, and of course her performance seems more weighty than Courtney Cox in "Cougar Town".  But more than that, do we read genres differently?  Do our expectations for great work differ?  I expect all of this is well covered by those who do genre work, but your argument that awards programs play a role in defining our expectations of genre sure seems worthy of more exploration.



To your first point, it will never happen so long as the networks are the ones airing the awards. While the network/cable split might ensure that big network shows might win more trophies, it would also suggest a hierarchy between cable and networks that shows like The Good Wife are trying to break down. I think that everyone involved wants to play down that hierarchy as much as possible, as it plays into HBO's desire to be separated from the networks in the public consciousness. CBS might actually be the one network who wouldn't object, given that Viacom could compete in both categories. I definitely think a Premium vs. Network/Basic split would be out of the question, but even a Network/Cable distinction would raise alarm bells for executives.

It's tough to know how, precisely, the panels operate without actually being in one of them. It's just incredibly awkward all around: not only are they watching performances that can differ generically, but some are longer than others, and watching them back-to-back-to-back creates a really interesting comparison point. Which one comes at the end of the day? Which one comes in the beginning? If voters haven't seen the programs in question, which is entirely possible, will they not have had access to the other materials (promos, for example) which help mediate their impression of a program's genre? The panels are not a typical audience, nor do they represent a typical circumstance, so generic classification might be even more complicated in that context.

Myles, Karen: Your conversation re: the Emmys has made me realize how little I've paid attention to the show in recent years. I guess I've assumed that the exponential growth of television content would have led to a wholesale reassessment over at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. (Such grand titles behind these organizations, taking their cue from the Oscars' "Academy.")

Drama and comedy as the Emmys' on/off switch seems increasingly untenable, as you both make clear (I'm having fun with drama as the "on" position, in terms of its place in the cultural hierarchy). When is the last time that the Emmy Awards have had a revamp of the magnitude of the Grammys' reconfiguration?

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