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Dramedy

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A dramedy is a term used to describe programs with elements of comedy and drama. However, the term does not merely apply to any comedy with some serious moments, nor does it apply to any drama with funny moments. In fact, it is very possible for a show to be a mixture of comedy and drama and not be a dramedy. Romantic comedy, for instance, is a common example of a frequently non-dramedic comedy/drama, as are most action or sci-fi shows (Firefly, Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files, etc.). The term as coined is more specific, in that it refers to those comedies—particularly those set in typically dramatic settings or themes (doctors in hospitals, lawyers, cops, etc.)—which, while clearly comedic in tone, nonetheless handle the dramatic situations—e.g.: death, divorce, illness, social concerns—as serious issues, or those dramas set in typically dramatic settings which nonetheless place their often over-the-top characters in outlandish or impossible situations one might more commonly associate with a sitcom. However, it is important to note that in the original intention of the term, the combination was structural, not thematic. On the other hand, structural distinctions are not easily distinguished to the casual observer, while thematic distinctions are, and as thematic distinctions are more easily recognizable, it has become industry standard to apply those thematic elements to the term over the structural ones. Moreover, structural blurring has increased steadily since the 1960s, and thus some series today which are clearly either comedies or dramas may contain elements formerly associated with the opposite genre.

Contents

Progenitors of Comedic and Dramatic Structure and Convention in American Television

Variety and Anthologies

In the Golden Age of Television in America, the lines between comedy and drama were not as significant. This is because a small percentage of prime time television shows were episodics at all. Rather, the airwaves were dominated by variety shows (Toast of the Town, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Milton Berle Show, etc.) or anthologies (Playhouse 90, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, The Twilight Zone, etc.) , with a healthy smattering of quiz shows, talk shows and other types of entertainment. While some anthologies—such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (suspense/mystery) or The Twilight Zone (sci-fi/horror)—clearly favored a particular genre of story over others, and some variety shows—such as The Colgate Comedy Hour—favored one type of entertainment over the other, the majority of these shows were a mix of all genres and all types of entertainment. In one evening, for instance, Ed Sullivan (who was himself no comedian, unlike his successors, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, et al.) might have welcomed as his guests an opera star, a comedian, the cast of a currently running Broadway drama performing a scene from their show and a plate-spinner. Even Jackie Gleason mixed in such characters as "The Poor Fool" (a comic-tragic pantomime character) with his more over-the-top Ralph Kramden or Reginald Van Gleason III. Anthologies such as Playhouse 90, on the other hand, might have presented a serious drama about the Holocaust starring Robert Redford on Monday, a light romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon on Tuesday and a screwball comedy starring the Marx Brothers on Wednesday.

Early Sitcoms and Dramas

There were some episodics, including the earliest sitcoms (I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners, etc.), and a few generic dramas (in other words, action/adventure or Western or science fiction), but these were largely hold-overs from the days of radio, and thus, the formats of these shows were based on the formats of the radio genres which preceded them. The Jack Benny Show, for instance, has much more in common structurally with The Jack Benny Show of radio than, say, Friends, Seinfeld or Arrested Development. The closest American TV viewers of the late 1940s and very start of the early 1950s came to non-comedic series with recurring characters, advancing storylines and few if any action sequences in a contemporary setting was with the daytime soap operas—another carry-over from radio. While these types of shows had been invented almost purely by radio, the variety shows and anthology series were, in fact, hold-overs from radio which had in turn borrowed them from American theater—the variety shows from Vaudeville, and the anthologies from more traditional theater. (The most famous and influential radio anthology series was The Mercury Theatre on the Air, most famous for its 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast. The Mercury Theatre was named for the theatre troupe, founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman, which had begun in New York by staging Shakespearean plays and original dramatic pieces.)

Evolution of Comedic Vs. Dramatic Structure

As television entered the 1960s, radio became a dead medium, the anthology series largely faded away, and true variety shows moved out of prime time and into other times of day (particularly late night). Thus prime time began to fill up with episodics.

Throughout the 1960s, the division of comedy and drama tended to be very distinct. Comedies tended to revolve around nuclear families, small groups of friends and/or small groups of co-workers. Dramas were more open-ended and often related with individual occupations (doctors, lawyers, police, etc.), although some, such as Peyton Place, examined slices of life or cross-sections of a community.

Comedic Structure

Throughout the 1950s, in comedy, such pioneers as Lucille Balle and Jack Benny had begun to explore the new possibilities of the visual medium of television. In early seasons of I Love Lucy, for instance, almost all the action took place in the house, and almost all of it involved the four main characters of Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel—accomodations made both to the expense of building sets and radio traditions of limited casts to help audiences keep various characters straight. However, as the series developed, Lucy and Ricky frequently began to travel outside their home, often to such exotic locations as Italy or Hollywood. With this expansiveness of storyline and situation, new storytelling structures were implemented in deference to the new medium. By the time of The Dick Van Dyke Show, certain structural elements became commonplace in the American sitcoms. For instance, many episodes involved an "A plot," (the "main" plot of the episode, usually involving the lead or title character), the "B plot" (a secondary plot in each episode, to which less screen time was usually devoted, often involving one or more of the supporting cast members) and a "C plot" (a plot usually covered in three to five scenes, involving the remaining cast members and often done as more of a throw-away gag). This A/B/C plot also established a three-act structure, in which the problem (or rather, three problems) presented in the opening minutes would build to greater and greater complications until being resolved simultaneously—or, just as often, come crashing together—in the closing minutes, also resulting in self-contained stories. As with radio, sitcoms were true "situational comedies," in that each episode involved simple premises (situations) for the characters with simple resolutions. Further, sitcoms had been established as almost exclusively half-hour long. Most were multi-camera and filmed in front of live studio audiences. (In the earliest days, they also aired live, as did most television shows, including the anthologies.) Characters tended to be painted in broad strokes, and visual cues or hooks were often used to make them easily recognizable. The casts were also limited—generally no more than five to six main characters at most—and the relationships between those characters tended to be simple and relatively linear (e.g.: husband, wife, older brother, younger brother; or husband, wife, husband's best friend, best friend's wife; husband, wife, husband's co-workers, husband's boss; etc.).

Even as a handful of comedies became more high-concept (in a sense, "situational" even in their premises), switched to single camera and broadened their casts into something more approaching an ensemble (Gilligan's Island, Hogan's Heroes, et al.), they still closely adhered to most aspects of sitcom storytelling. For instance, Gilligan's Island may have had a larger cast, but the relationships and character sketches were still simple and broadly painted, so much so that it could be summed up in a few words in the theme song ("Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the Millionaire and his wife, the movie star, the Professor and Mary Anne"). Hogan's Heroes may have centered around a Nazi POW camp—for which one could hardly imagine a more dramatic premise—yet World War II was addressed as almost secondary to the story—its true horrors frankly weren't addressed at all—and there was little to no fear that one of the characters might be machine-gunned to death in an escape, as would have happened in a real-life POW camp. Both also strictly adhered to the three-act, three-plot structure.

Dramatic Structure

Drama, meanwhile, had been developing in a completely parallel path to that of the sitcom. Perhaps the first prime time drama to use a format which would still be recognizable today was Dragnet. Although generic, in that it was still a police mystery, (and, in fact, based on a radio series, which ran concurrently with the TV show for several seasons) Dragnet nonetheless invented entirely new conventions for the television medium. For starters, it was the first single camera episodic on American television, and the first one filmed, not aired live. Also, unlike most earlier radio generic action-adventure dramas, it was not serialized—in other words, storylines weren't stretched out over several episodes. Each episode solved the mystery of that episode. It is also important to note that Dragnet also had a very small cast, which again related to each other by linear (in its case, rigidly linear, as the hierarchy of police ranks tends to be) means. Although most later TV dramas would be more serialized, the four-act structure invented by Dragnet would become convention for TV dramas, and the entire structure for drama as defined by Dragnet would live on even today in the form of the procedural drama.

However, while Dragnet invented the rules for self-contained dramatic episodics, the action-adventure series developed on their own path, albeit one often incorporating the four-act structure and the single-camera, cinematic filming style. However, again, these were generic dramas, and the conventions established for them were thus established in service to the development of the more thrilling, suspenseful or mysterious aspects of the story. More everyday situations played little if any role in most prime time dramas.

That changed in 1964 with the release of Peyton Place, which has been dubbed by many the first "prime time soap." Here began the true evolution of what would eventually become recognized as the format for prime time dramas, as Peyton Place combined structural elements of soap operas, action dramas and even the anthology dramas into a new form. The cast was an ensemble, and relationships between characters were often complex and non-linear. There was a four-act structure, although episodes rarely ended with resolutions to each episode's problems. Unlike the three-plot structure of comedies, Peyton Place and its successor dramas often followed half a dozen or more plotlines and subplots within any given episode. Unlike soap operas, however, plots tended to develop more gradually and with fewer shocking twists throughout the season (as one would expect from shows which aired weekly, not daily). Further, due to the structure of seasons, prime time dramatic series began to stretch out a handful of storylines over all or most of the season, finally resolving them in the season finale (while still, of course, leaving cliffhangers to pull viewers into the succeeding season).

Birth of the Dramedy

The 1970s: The Term Is Coined

As the 1970s began, however, American network television experienced another overwhelming shift in sophistication. By now, audiences which had been raised on television were becoming adults, and the turbulence of the political and social events of the day were starting to be reflected both in the movies and the television of the era. Just as 1970s American film underwent a period of a jarring shift and bold experimentation, so, too, did 1970s American television. One of the earliest examples of this shift in television grew out of one of the earliest examples of this shift in film. M*A*S*H—based on the 1970 film—signalled a clear departure from the rigid definitions of sitcom in the 1960s. Although a half-hour long and featuring characters painted in broad strokes (even a laugh track in its earliest seasons—an invention from the earliest days of the single-camera sitcom, designed to create the illusion of the live studio audience), M*A*S*H had a large cast, and the roles of its ensemble and their relationships with one another were often complex and non-linear. Like dramas, it frequently employed cinematic elements and storytelling tools—single-character narration, documentary-style cinematography, crane shots, etc. In the structural sense, its most important convention defiance was its use of season-long (or longer) story arcs—while most episodes addressed one conflict which was eventually resolved (or at least concluded), changes in situation permanently affected the characters, up to and including the deaths of major characters, and some story arcs were stretched out over the course of several episodes or an entire season. In the thematic arena, the weight of the setting was central to the storyline. Unlike World War II in Hogan's Heroes, the Korean War in M*A*S*H was not merely a backdrop; it was far more than a MacGuffin. The war and its horrors played an important daily role in the lives of the characters, and although comedy was always an important element of the series, the seriousness of the situation was always given appropriate weight.

To describe this new type of series—too weighty to be merely a "comedy," too light to be a true "drama," and containing a great deal of structural elements of both—television critics of the 1970s coined the term "dramedy." However, even prior to M*A*S*H, television comedies had begun to address serious social issues. On All in the Family, which debuted in the season prior to the 1972–73 season (in which M*A*S*H premiered), for instance, the "situation" of each episode was often a lead-in to a rather frank and unflinching portrayal of genuine societal concerns of the 1970s—racism, rape, abortion, religious conservativism and freedom, etc. However, both structurally and thematically in its premise (if not its episodic premises), All in the Family adhered to sitcom convention. Nonetheless, the term "dramedy" was retroactively applied to it (and its spin-offs and similar satirical shows throughout the 1970s—Rhoda, Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.) to acknowledge their more socially relevant thematic elements. The term would also be applied to such series as Barney Miller, which, while a half-hour comedy with a laugh track and broad characters, still nonetheless showed those characters as complex and often permanently affected by their police work.

One-Hour Dramedies

Thus, the term was originally applied almost exclusively to half-hour shows with story structures to which viewers would have traditionally referred as "sitcoms." However, at the very end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, the trend began to shift the other way, and dramedies truly "met in the middle." A major step occurred in the late 1970s with the debut of Lou Grant, an hour-long dramatic spin-off of the half-hour sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The title character and the ensemble which surrounded him were, like sitcom characters, portrayed in broad strokes, yet they were still, like with most dramatic series, a true ensemble, and their relationships were complex. Lou and company frequently found themselves in outlandish situations rife with comedic resolutions, yet those situations were just as frequently resolved seriously. As the 1980s started and a new breed of television-bred producers, writers and creators such as Steven Bochco and David Chase began to get their own shows, the trend only increased. Bochco's series Hill Street Blues, for instance, centered around police detectives and police work—a dramatic premise dating back to Dragnet. However, Hill Street Blues was often tongue-in-cheek, and many of the characters existed almost exclusively as comic relief. While the concept of comic relief was nothing new to action-adventure (it dated back in radio as early as Little Orphan Annie, with Sandy the dog, in film as early as Errol Flynn's movies, and frankly as far back as Shakespeare and Greek theater before that, continuing up through such television detective series as The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I.), it was typically relegated to one character or a small handful of secondary characters, or the humor flowed naturally out of otherwise serious situations. Bochco and his contemporaries (such as Joshua Brand and John Falsey on St. Elsewhere) and ultimately successors would place those comic relief characters as central to the plot, and would often involve even their more serious central characters in more comedic situations. Thus, the term "dramedy" began to apply to their works.

Continued Popularity

In fact, the dramedy would never cease to be a popular genre. From the 1980–81 through the 2007–2008 seasons (and still to this day), at least one critically acclaimed and/or popular dramedy would premiere in every season. To wit:

Recent Dramedic Evolution

Moonlighting

By 1986, it was clear that dramedy had become a category of its own, and that both half-hour, three-act traditional sitcoms and hour-long, four-act traditional dramas had equal claim to the categorization. The reason this year is so important in the development of the genre is because of the series Moonlighting. Prior to 1986, even as M*A*S*H inspired critics to coin a new word, as All in the Family discussed rape, as Hill Street Blues had a character growl for most of his dialogue, it was still clear to most critics what constituted a "comedy" and what constituted a "drama" for the purposes of, for instance, awards. However, in 1986, Moonlighting was nominated for Comedy/Musical categories for the Golden Globes and for the Drama categories for the Emmys. (Both awards base their categorizations upon the production company's submissions, and the production companies for Moonlighting had submitted their show in both categories. The Golden Globes chose to go in one direction, and the Emmys in another. Later rules clarifications from both awards bodies would reduce the risk of—although not entirely eliminate—the possibility of this occurrence. However, for the next three years, the Golden Globes would treat Moonlighting as a Comedy, and the Emmys would treat it as a Drama.) Award bodies rules semantics notwithstanding, Moonlighting had both structural and thematic elements of both. In its premise, it was truly a romantic comedy, yet it was also a serious detective drama. Structurally, it employed cinematic elements and the four-act structure, yet some of the cinematic elements it borrowed were from Warner Bros. cartoons—clearly comedies.

Increased Sophistication in Structure

After Moonlighting, however, structural distinctions began to break down, and thus, the term "dramedy" began to apply less and less to a structural distinction. In the 1990s, for instance, shows such as Seinfeld and NewsRadio began to employ longer story arcs and patently refused to truly resolve their episodic conflicts—elements of drama, yet in no way could those shows be considered "dramatic" in theme, tone or structure. (Seinfeld, for instance, addressed Nazis, illegitimate children and even the death of a central character's fiancé, but always in a flippant, light-hearted manner. Later shows, such as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, would follow this example.) Meanwhile, dramatic shows—even those far removed from generic premises—such as ER or The Practice, liberally employed humorous situations or characters, yet little else about those series could be called "comedic" in theme, tone or structure. On the other hand, Ally McBeal, like Moonlighting, often addressed serious legal issues, yet it also frequently employed wildly fantastic animated sequences, and was thus considered a latter-day example of a dramedy.

Dramedy in 2006

Thus was the term redefined to largely exclude structural elements and to focus on a subsection of thematic elements. Those comedies, which, while clearly comedic in tone, nonetheless handle the dramatic situations as serious issues are now considered "dramedies." Recent examples of this would include Scrubs (in which the death of a patient may result in a character resorting to alcoholism) or Starved (a sitcom about eating disorders). Conversely, the modern dramedy may incorporate those dramas set in typically dramatic settings which nonetheless place their often over-the-top characters in outlandish or impossible situations one might more commonly associate with a sitcom, such as Boston Legal or Desperate Housewives.

As of July 2006, this is the proper usage of the term, although it is—like many terms in Hollywood—subject to change.