Saturday, May 7, 2011

Golden Age of TV Drama: Why so serious?

I can’t remember the last time I laughed watching a television drama. Retracing, there's this supermassive black hole and then Dawson crying. In the eleven years since, television drama got a little attention and suddenly needed to be the most important artform on the planet, throwing out everything except its black turtlenecks, showily toting around Franzen, and demanding to be taken seriously through sheer force of how seriously it was taking itself. It’s like it learned nothing from Hank Kingsley.

Obviously I exaggerate, because until Archer came around (and maybe still), I had a luxurious camp staked out claiming Mad Men was the funniest show on television, our best drama and our best comedy. Whatever its problems, brother-in-arms Breaking Bad is the Rumpelstiltskin spawn of Shawn Ryan and Alejandro Jodorowsky, consistently spinning tension, rage, and gore into gut-busting gold. Alan Cumming is turning comic relief into the richest performance on The Good Wife, Shameless is discovering that it can be hysterical when it’s done being moody, and Kyle Chandler is giving Timothy Olyphant a run for his money with the wry stares.

Most of our best dramas fit comfortably in that stack, and a few more—your Tremes and your Rubicons—make token gestures toward levity that aren’t as consistent but at least it’s not another gloomy conversation about life in Seattle or Westeros or the Sonoma Valley where catching up with friends is like Debbie Downer talking into her mirror and what to eat for dinner is an existential threat. You could almost blame Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Remember when HBO was hilarious? Paulie Walnuts, EB Farnum, corpses, convicts, and everyone on The Wire livened up the blackhearted takes on America. Elsewhere dramas like The Shield and Veronica Mars distinguished themselves with black comedy and Shakespearean sarcasm, and Lost always had time for a good Hurley crack. Not that there weren’t apocalyptically dour dramas—Battlestar Galactica made the most of its mood by thoroughly staking out some iconoclastic territory on world-historical themes, while 24 settled for deathly in order to hock All-State—but once upon a time, funny dramas were thriving.

But that was before the Sorkinization of television drama, when the cast and crew of The West Wing relocated to sunny LA without jettisoning the life-and-death stakes. Cut to 2011. In the ear-splitting hype, HBO and AMC have forgotten to be funny. A joke on The Walking Dead or The Killing would be as cacophonous as their scores, and equally intrusive—can’t they just glower in peace? In Treatment might not improve with some lightness, but it sure would cure the claustrophobia. Game of Thrones, however, needs some jokes fast, or it’ll have to settle for being the best damn soap opera on television. Sorry, fantasy fans, but diarrhea medicine has more charming representation.

Even more than the prestige networks, FX had been strongly committed to fun and funny with its examinations of masculinity—Terriers being the most recent success, and Rescue Me is . . . also on FX—but if my lips moved watching Lights Out or Sons of Anarchy it was to shout expletives at these boring-ass narcissists whose every hangnail is a new Pia Toscano. Starz and Syfy, meanwhile, are beholden to the false idol that their fantastical dramas must be deadly serious to be taken seriously as art, a specter that murdered a whole generation of comic fans in the ‘90s and is currently swarming our would-be fun B-movies.

Which leaves us with the broadcast networks, which still air shows, if you're looking for them at 3 AM on a Wednesday night on a full moon and it's the reality show hiatus and there was no game that day and The Magic Bullet didn't want the hour, that probably qualify as television drama, each of which would lay down their life to defend the right of a drama to be humorless. Just look at House's devolution. Some good, old-fashioned comic relief might not compensate for The Chicago Code’s many crimes, but it’d sure make a case for leniency. As for the rest, find me a crime procedural that made you laugh and I’ll give you a book on raising your standards.

And so it goes. To be fair, Showtime and USA keep churning out dramedies, which are presumably funny to someone (Matt LeBlanc?). But the fact remains that the only freshman dramas from the 2010-11 season that were even occasionally chuckleworthy are now on the big network in the sky. In a few years our last remaining comic dramas will be put out to pasture, and all we’ll have left are Punitive Justice: Unnecessarily Extreme Violence Unit, Aaron Sorkin’s take on the gritty backstage politics of a Milwaukee McDonalds, and half-hour episodes of The Road.


  1. Thank you! This has been on my mind lately, too, watching running TV dramas. It's my nearly universally-applied belief that art cannot be quality if it is not at least a little funny (something I always held against BSG). Look at The Seventh Seal or any Shakespeare tragedy.

  2. Totally agree about the lack of comedy in modern tv dramas, but I don't understand why you blame West Wing. That show had tons of comedy in it.

  3. To clarify: I was talking about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, just not in so many words, but I don't blame Sorkin. His transition from West Wing to Studio 60 just serves as a useful guidepost for what's happening all over w/r/t TV drama.

  4. If Joss Whedon had dared to put more laughs into Dollhouse, we might have seen the mold start to break a little. I always thought that he was one of the masters of mixing comedy and wit into his angsty dramas.

  5. Absolutely! There's not a doubt in my mind that Joss Whedon's next show will be funny and serious. What's crazy is I can't say the same for David Milch, Shawn Ryan, Ronald D. Moore, the list goes on...

  6. Misfits is one of the best dramas on TV these days, and also one of the funniest shows.

  7. Flully Flullenberger2:58 AM, May 09, 2011

    I'm sorry, I just don't get what you mean by "Sorkinization." Studio 60 may have failed on all levels, but the lack of humor wasn't purposeful. The West Wing was as successful as any other show at blending comedy with drama. Same with Sports Night before it. So Sorkinization is...the failure to do as Sorkin did?

    Overall I agree with you. I do like some comedy in my drama(although the lack of humor in Game of Thrones doesn't bother me, because it makes up for it in MAGIC). I just don't think Sorkin shares any of the blame for the loss of it. I mean, the only way Studio 60 could have been successful was if it had been funnier than 30 Rock, which, come on. I think he deserves a pass on that one. Is this a rant yet? It's starting to feel like a rant. (I'm not Aaron Sorkin, by the way. Really.)

  8. Sports Night was not funny.

  9. No fun? In Game of Thrones? Have you missed every single one of Peter Dinklages scenes?

  10. Not sure how many times I can say this, but here's one more: I don't blame Aaron Sorkin for anything. His most recent work--The Social Network--is the funniest I've seen of him. The point is that, like AMC, HBO, and on, and on, Sorkin went from funny drama in the early 2000s (The West Wing) to deadly serious drama more recently (Studio 60). I could call it the HBOization of TV drama but that implies something wholly different.

    @Max: I like Dinklage's scenes. I don't find them as funny as I'm meant to, but more to the point, there's one funny guy in a cast of 30? (P.S. I still haven't seen this week's episode, but I have faith that Aiden Gillen will bring the comedy.)