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Is the Difference Between Comedy and Drama the Difference Between Network and Cable TV?

Date December 27, 2011
Is the Difference Between Comedy and Drama the Difference Between Network and Cable TV?

After perusing the SAG and Golden Globe nominations for this year, I was struck once again by how the categories of drama and comedy seem to divide themselves into "cable" and "network" TV series. Just like last year, The Good Wife is the only network drama to get a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble, a category dominated by cable series. On the other hand, the SAG nominees for Best Comedy Ensemble are all network TV series. The acting categories follow the same pattern. This year only two out of the ten SAG-nominated comedy actors are from cable shows: Hot In Cleveland's Betty White and Nurse Jackie's Edie Falco, which air on TV Land and Showtime, respectively. The reverse holds true as well. Only two actors from network TV series are nominated in the drama category: Julianna Margulies of CBS' The Good Wife and Kathy Bates from NBC's Harry's Law. (I'm not exactly sure where Kyle Chandler falls, since Friday Night Lights aired originally on DirecTV and then later on NBC.)

While there's usually a little cross-pollination in the acting nominations for the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Emmys, all three favor network series heavily in the Best Comedy category, and cable series in Best Drama. This year's Golden Globe nominees for Best Comedy Series include two cable comedies (HBO's Enlightened and Showtime's Episodes) out of five nominees, but the Best Drama nominees are all cable series. These statistics aren't exactly surprising, considering the differences between network and cable TV. First of all, cable TV has a lot more freedom to depict situations that are considered more "dramatic," including sex, violence, zombies, the 1960s, and methamphetamines, allowing the actors on cable dramas to have more opportunities to show their range. Of course, one might argue that actors on network TV could (and should) have the same opportunities (minus the often sensationalized content not suitable for network TV) as long as the writing is strong, and the actors themselves are able to deliver great performances.

Another factor to consider is that most network dramas are some variation of procedural shows. This past fall, 18 of the drama series on network TV were some variation of medical, crime, or legal dramas. Most of these shows follow the same formula each week, providing a somewhat narrower range for the actors to cover. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that procedural dramas don't give actors a chance to deliver award-winning performances, just that there's more time spent on case-of-the-week business than on the development of the main characters. Of course there are meatier roles on some procedural shows, like Hugh Laurie's complex, self-destructive misanthrope on House (a role for which he's won two Golden Globes). Julianna Margulies has also won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role on The Good Wife, which is technically a legal drama, though a very character-driven one. The fact is that actors on procedural dramas share their screen time with three to five suspects/patients/clients every week, while non-procedural shows have time to focus more on the same core characters and their emotional journeys. And while network series have to worry more about pleasing the general public, cable series can afford to take more risks while catering to a smaller audience.

Comedies, obviously, are different. Not only are they less expensive to produce, the expectations and guidelines are completely different than those of drama series. The objective of a comedy series is simple: to make people laugh. This can often be done without having to push the envelope quite as much in terms of mature content, as drama series tend to do. This is where the creative freedom of cable series can actually work against them. Cable comedies are often darker and grittier than the lighthearted sitcoms found on network TV, and this makes them less likely to be nominated in the Best Comedy category. For instance, Showtime comedies The United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie have gotten plenty of acting nominations for their leading ladies, but together they've only earned two nominations for Best Comedy Series between the Globes, the SAG Awards, and the Emmys over their combined six seasons. These shows tackle darker issues like drug addiction and mental illness, which, although they're portrayed in humorous ways, make the series inherently less compatible with the strict definition of "comedy."

The division between "Comedy" and "Drama" causes some difficulties for shows caught in the middle: the more serious comedies and the lighter, funnier dramas rarely get nominated for Best Comedy or Drama. While darker cable comedies score their fair share of acting nominations, they're not often recognized for being the "Best Comedy" because they're seen as too dramatic in a category that values humor above all. Meanwhile, the lighter network dramas like ABC's Castle, don't stand a chance against big-budget cable dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, with their other-era costumes, dramatic glances, and excessive smoking and drinking. As a viewer who appreciates shows that walk the line between comedy and drama, I wish there was a way to give these shows more recognition during awards season, and to encourage more crossover between network and cable series. Then again, maybe it's better this way; maybe to change things would be to upset the balance between network and cable TV. And frankly, I don't think network TV could handle it if the pendulum swung any further in the other direction.

 

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