Emmy appeal sends ‘Orange Is The New Black’ to Drama, credibility out the window

03.20.15 3 years ago


On Friday (March 20) morning, I assembled a one-person appeals board and by a unanimous decision, I've decided that the TV Academy and its genre classification system is/are a Comedy, because darned if those clowns don't make me laugh, which is more than I can say for undisputed comedy “Nurse Jackie.”

For a few years, the TV Academy has had difficulties with Emmy classification, because nobody on the Emmy rules committee is capable of accepting that sometimes things that are dramatic can also offer comedic elements and sometimes things that are comedic can often have dramatic elements and sometimes things that have a running time of between 44 minutes and an hour can be comedies and, in occasional extremes, it's even been known for half-hour things to be dramatic. It's almost as if life itself is neither wholly dramatic or wholly comedic and sometimes tone is fungible.

But don't expect for the TV Academy to understand that. Sensing that its membership was too dumb to recognize tone and quality without empirical qualifications, a rule change was made last month.

“To clarify the difference between the 'Comedy' and 'Drama' series categories, any series where the average length of an episode is approximately 30 minutes is eligible to enter as a 'Comedy'; any series where the average length of an episode is approximately 60 minutes is eligible to enter as a 'Drama.'”

Here's the problem: Nothing in that statement actually “clarifies the difference between the 'Comedy' and 'Drama' series categories.” It clarifies the difference between 30 Minute Series and a Hour-Long Series categories. Once again, distinctions of TONE are impossible for the TV Academy Board of Directors to fathom, but distinctions of TIME are at least comprehendible. And if you're giving awards that allegedly are based on quality, why wouldn't you want “time” to be your key unit of classification, right? Time is, as the cliche goes, money and in Hollywood, money is quality, so it all should be clear for the poor, dumb Emmy voters the Board of Governors is trying to coddle.

[Let it be noted: I don't think Emmy voters are dummies. The TV Academy Board of Governors thinks you're dummies. I actually think that if you look at the rolls of Emmy winners, Emmy voters often do a very fine version of their jobs, even if Jon Hamm, Steve Carell, Nick Offerman and others might take exception with the nomination or final voting process.]

But even in the process of announcing that henceforth, tone would be determined with a stopwatch and not with emotional reactions to the material being presented, the TV Academy left themselves with an out.

“Producers may formally petition a new Academy industry panel to consider their series' eligibility in the alternative category. This nine-member panel will include five industry leaders appointed by the Television Academy Chairman and four appointees from the Board of Governors. A two-thirds vote of this Industry Panel is required for petition approval.”

The sense here was that as dumb as the new process was — The MPAA Ratings Board has already proven that anonymous juries of industry professionals and sundry civilians are incapable of making judgement calls the second the waters get even slightly muddy — at least it offered hope that as inane as the time classification version of tone was, nothing would actually change.

And earlier this week, the TV Academy announced that three shows — “Jane the Virgin,” “Shameless” and “Glee” — had successfully appealed to be considered as comedies despite not fulfilling the key dictate of a comedy, which is running no longer than 30 minutes, right? That appeared to confirm that the earlier rules change was a paper tiger and nobody should be taking it seriously, which was fine since taking the TV Academy seriously has always been more trouble than it was worth.

“Jane the Virgin” is absolutely a comedy. It's devoted to whimsy, wackiness and narrative playfulness. I watch “Jane the Virgin” and I laugh and there's no question in my mind that while Gina Rodriguez is also quite fine at being romantic and dramatic, her shot at Emmy gold should be, as her Golden Globe victory was, in the comedy field. 

“Glee” was a comedy. Now “Glee” is a general irrelevance, drawing the sort of ratings normally reserved for Yule Logs and “Mulaney.” It's the last season and there's no reason why “Glee” shouldn't submit as a comedy. Heck, let “Glee” submit as a reality competition series for all it will matter.

“Shameless” was a comedy. Go back and watch those first couple seasons and between the madcap pacing, the heightened performances by William H. Macy and Joan Cusack and the satirical approach to a number of poverty-related issues and I wouldn't have had any problem if Showtime had submitted “Shameless” as a comedy. Oddly, “Shameless” did not submit “Shameless” as a comedy for three years, doubtlessly costing William H. Macy a trio of Emmy nods and probably keeping Emmy Rossum out of a conversation she might have found traction in. Instead, Showtime waited until the fourth season, fueled by the hilarity of Frank nearly dying, Fiona nearly killing Liam with cocaine and Ian going all bi-polar to declare “Shameless” a comedy. And the Emmy bigwigs accepted the genre change and Macy got his nomination and all was well, so I figured once “Shameless” had snuck in, the new appeals board wasn't going to reverse its previous course.

But then, on Friday (March 20), nine randos associated with the TV Academy determined that “Orange Is The New Black” had to submit this year as a drama, despite being nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and winning a few comedy-related Emmys last year.

And it's here that I part ways with the Emmys. 

Yes, the genre classification system as it existed was silly, but the new time-based qualification system was worse. The only good thing about the system was that it appeared to be practically toothless. But if an genre appeals board is able to look at “Shameless” and say that the show, as it currently stands, is a Comedy and “Orange Is The New Black,” as it currently stands, is a Drama, I see no reason to be invested in their idiotic process anymore. 

In a statement, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was philosophical.

“'Orange is the New Black' is a truly pioneering series and an iconoclast which has always defied genre or easy categorization. While we”re disappointed in the committee”s decision, we believe that 'Orange' represents the best of television in either category,” Sarandos says.

In principle, I agree. And I don't want it to seem like I'm picking on “Shameless” here. I love “Shameless.” It made my Top 10 for 2014 and it had reliably been kicking around my Top 20 in previous years. “Orange Is The New Black” has made my Top 5 the past two years. These are both great shows and any category in which Emmy voters would recognize either would be aces for me. No matter what category you put “Shameless” in, I fear that Emmy Rossum will still get hosed. And whether it's called a Comedy or a Drama, “Orange Is The New Black” is likely to get its share of nominations.

I know I'm in the critical minority on this, but for me, “Orange Is The New Black” has always been a comedy. It isn't just that Jenji Kohan writes with a marvelously arch sensibility. No, “Orange” has always used Taylor Schilling's Piper as a point of entry into a glimpse at the absurdities of the prison system. “Orange” isn't just capable of going dramatic, it excels at going dramatic. But if you look at the primary structure of the series, it's a semi-satirical look at an institution in crisis. The characters associated with the prison administration are all pitched comedically, albeit with dramatic underpinnings. And it's the rare character within the prison who doesn't have the ability to operate in a comedic mode.

People say, “Do you laugh at 'Orange Is The New Black'?” And my answer is always, “Yes.” I also get emotional watching it and scared for the characters and outraged and all of that good stuff. But I definitely laugh. I'd say “Orange Is The New Black” is probably 55-45 comedy-to-drama? Or 50-50? 

But if “Orange Is The New Black” was a Comedy last year, it's a Comedy this year, because I don't believe that nine people associated with the TV Academy are qualified to tell me or Netflix it's not a Comedy, especially not if those nine people previously ruled that “Shameless” is a Comedy. If Showtime wants “Shameless” to be a comedy, all praise to them, I guess. But to tell Netflix that “Shameless” is somehow more a Comedy than “Orange Is The New Black” and has, in fact, become less of a Comedy than it was last year? That's moving into a kind of subjectivity that I can't begin to accept.

A producer of well-regarded half-hour comedies who prefers to remain anonymous, perhaps for fear of arbitrary classification reprisals, makes a smart point when he or she tells us, “That rule made everything worse. Because the actual issue has much more to do with half-hour shows actually being dramas than it does with hour-long shows actually being comedies. Also: the whole thing is so stupid.”

This classification mumbo-jumbo is, indeed, an entirely one-way street.

Showtime's never going to appeal to have Edie Falco lifted out of a Comedy field in which she's a regular nominee and plunked into a Drama field that goes 10 deep just because “Nurse Jackie” may or may not be a Drama.

FX is never going to say, “Louis C.K. is such a creative pioneer that we're going to push him up into the Drama field because we're tired of our Comedy nominations and we're curious if 'Louie' could get recognition there for episodes of television which are, undoubtedly, dramatic.”

CBS is never going to look at “Mom” and say, “Allison Janney's submission this year is probably going to be a laugh-free episode about the love of her life dying, so maybe we should push her over to Drama.”

As I understand the current rules, something like “In Treatment” would default to Comedy and unless HBO decided it was important to appeal so that a Gabriel Byrne would be going against an impossible-to-crack Lead Actor in a Drama field, it would stay in Comedy.

“Orange Is The New Black” should still be safe in the Drama field, because with “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” gone (and “Downton Abbey” sure to eventually lose support), there are gaps. Netflix will still push “House of Cards” hard here, but all it means is that if you're “Bloodline,” you can count on Netflix not especially caring about your Emmy hopes this year. On the other side, if you're “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” you've suddenly become Netflix's best Comedy Series hope and you've suddenly gone from dark horse to strong contender. Kudos. 

But why are we talking about any of this in this way? If the TV Academy wants to abdicate the ability to categorize based on tone, just admit that the words “Comedy” and “Drama” are too complicated to understand and you don't want to be trusted anymore to distinguish. And don't, as I've seen suggested, throw in an overflow “Dramedy” category, because almost all of the best shows on TV are probably, by some definition, Dramedies. “Shameless”? Dramedy. “Orange Is The New Black”? Dramedy. “Better Call Saul”? Dramedy. “Last Man on Earth”? Dramedy. “The Jinx”? Docudramedy. “The Big Bang Theory” just spent an episode mourning Howard's deceased mother. Dramedy. I giggle non-stop at Kevin Bacon's “The Following” earnestness. Dramedy. 

If you're determined to prove that you wouldn't be able to categorize a Drama or Comedy with a nine-person panel or even with a coin flip, just surrender. Make the categories 30-Minutes and 60-Minutes and wash your hands of the responsibility to adjudicate tone. Time is a stupid way to classify things and it opens up a fun new can of worms in an era in which network dramas are actually closer to 41 or 42 minutes, which makes them closer to the 30-Minute threshold than to 60, but whatever. Worry about that later. I don't expect the TV Academy to be able to decide how long a TV show is either, but they can't make a bigger botch of it than they're currently making of this Comedy/Drama thing.

Stay tuned to HitFix for more Emmy coverage as we get closer to nominations in July!

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