Comedy is tragedy plus time, as the saying goes — and in TV comedies, timing is everything. Historically, the TV Academy has considered a comedy to be a half-hour of television. But this season, several shows are blurring the lines between comedy and drama in both tone and episode length — which may impact their chances in the Emmy race.
Take, for example, Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, which picked up the prize for best comedy series for its first two seasons and is aiming for a third nom this summer. The feel-good series about a scrappy English soccer — excuse me, football — team first found a rabid fan base during the pandemic with its positive messages of collaboration and communication, themes presented via the eponymous coach played by co-creator Jason Sudeikis (who has received two Emmys for his performance). But what began as a 30-minute series has evolved into a slightly different animal, with episodes in its third season running over an hour. It’s still a funny show, but an expanded run time has allowed Ted Lasso to explore more serious topics (this season touches on sexuality, racism and Lasso’s divorce, and continues to explore his struggles with mental illness).
Emmy voters haven’t balked at hourlong comedies in the past — Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which wraps its fifth and final season May 26, petitioned to be considered a comedy, and won best comedy series, in 2018; it has been nominated in the category for each subsequent season.
Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, another darkly comic streaming series, scored a best comedy nom for its first season in 2014. A TV Academy ruling in 2015, however, determined that shows over 30 minutes must submit as dramas or formally petition for the other category. OITNB appealed, but the new rule and the show’s darker tone forced it to move categories for its following seasons — making it the first show in the Emmys’ 74-year history to win awards in both comedy and drama categories. That controversial rule was dropped in 2021, clearing the path for today’s genre-blurring shows.
Like Ted Lasso, HBO’s Barry has evolved greatly over its four-season run. While its episode length has remained close to 30 minutes, the hitman comedy show — which has twice won best actor for Bill Hader and supporting actor for Henry Winkler but has yet to win for best comedy series — has become much more brooding and devastating as it nears its May 28 series finale; it’s now more akin to the tense, Emmy-winning thriller Breaking Bad or its Emmy-nominated prequel, Better Call Saul. The cabler’s other top contender, Succession, which has won best drama series twice, is as funny as it is serious — and yet has cemented itself as the drama to beat in this year’s race.
That poses a dilemma for HBO’s The White Lotus, which won the Emmy for best limited/anthology series for its first season despite having been renewed for a second before Emmy submissions closed last year. The show has jumped categories into drama — but the awkwardly funny moments in the hourlong Mike White-scripted satire make it feel more like a comedy of manners.
Streaming series have long pushed genre boundaries, and this season will see possible comedy nominees in Peacock’s Columbo homage Poker Face (averaging 60 minutes per episode) and Netflix’s spooky Wednesday (clocking in at over 40 minutes), both of which serve laughs and slight horrors in equal measure. Meanwhile, Hulu’s Tiny Beautiful Things is something of a TV anomaly: the half-hour drama. No such show has received a series Emmy nom, but the Kathryn Hahn starrer — inspired by writer Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column in the online literary magazine The Rumpus — could break through.
The most befuddling submission this year might be FX/Hulu’s The Bear, which has already netted Golden Globes, SAG Awards and Indie Spirit Awards in the comedy categories and is a leading contender for Emmys. But while a nom may be a lock, can a series about the stressors of a toxic work environment — in this case, a Chicago sandwich shop — compete in a category with ABC’s notably less stressful workplace comedy Abbott Elementary?
In a streaming-dominated TV landscape, strict rules of genre are becoming moot; should a dark and dramatic show win best comedy series, the Academy may have to once again reassess how its top Emmy categories reflect evolving tastes and tones.
This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.