Is TV’s New Golden Age of Drama a Tin Age for Comedy?

The phrase “We are in a Golden Age of Television” gets tossed around a lot these days. Originally coined to reflect the blossoming possibilities of the early days of television, the words have cycled through the cultural landscape nearly every decade since television’s inception. But, when considering the shows offered up as evidence of this “Golden Age,” the most frequently mentioned shows have one thing in common: they’re all dramas.

Masters of Sex. Breaking Bad. Rectify. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. Hannibal. The Good Wife. Boardwalk Empire. The Walking Dead. The Knick. Downton Abbey. House of Cards. True Detective. Homeland. The Americans. Fargo. The list of shows goes on and on and on, offering up a gluttony of fantastic dramatic television on which viewers can gorge themselves.

They’re all dramas, though. Where are the great comedies thriving in this “Golden Age of Television?”

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Looking back through the history of television, there are indeed landmark dramatic series that could rival or surpass today’s crop, but television itself grew up and evolved on its comedies. Giants such as I Love Lucy, Maude, Good Times, All in the Family, The Cosby Show or Family Ties changed the television landscape, broadening our minds by exposing us to a variety of multi-cultural or socio-economic backgrounds. They gave us thoughtful stories and tackled difficult issues while making us laugh all the while.

Where are those shows now?

Last week, ABC’s Modern Family won its fifth consecutive Emmy for Best Comedy Series, a feat matched only by NBC’s Frasier in the 90s. Given that impressive pedigree, Modern Family must sit atop the heap in this new Golden era, right? Eh. Probably not.

While it’s a fine show that sometimes echoes the great social daringness of the comedies of the past (particularly in the recent gay marriage storyline), Modern Family has most certainly seen better days. It won that fifth Emmy not due to its insurmountable quality, in my opinion, but because there really wasn’t any significant competition. Personally, I would have given the trophy to the far superior (and more tough-minded) Veep, the only real choice in the category, but it’s apparently an acquired taste.

If we’re being honest, we are really in a “Golden Age” of dramatic television. Almost no one discussing the trend includes comedies in the conversation save one or two shows… maybe. If you look not only at the crop of recent Emmy nominees but the overall choices available to the Academy, it’s evident that the general state of comic TV shows is as anemic as it has been in decades.

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Of the 2013-2014 TV season, only a handful of comedies rate in the top 20, according to the website Metacritic:

  • Portlandia, Season 4: 87
  • Veep, Season 3: 87
  • It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Season 9: 85

That, my friends, is all they wrote.

Granted, Metacritic’s follow through on returning series leaves a little to be desired (it doesn’t even track reviews for Modern Family’s Emmy-winning fifth season), but you get the general idea. The rave reviews are reserved for the bigger shows, the buzzier dramas.

Of these highly rated comedies, only Veep made it into the Best Comedy Series circle, a grouping so weak that Netflix branded the freshman season of its popular Orange is the New Black (first season Metacritic: 79) a comedy despite having competed in earlier, non-Emmy competitions as a dramatic series. Showtime’s Shameless also retreated from its battles in the dramatic categories this year, redefined itself a comedy, and doubled its Emmy nomination count – granted, only two nominations.

I don’t watch Shameless, and I have long argued that Orange is a dramatic series given the heavily dramatic tone of its flashbacks. If both shows had stayed true to their more dramatic backgrounds, then they most certainly would have been lost in the dramatic series shuffle. Clearly, the Emmy voting body agreed, totally shutting out both shows in the major categories.

The comedy landscape wasn’t always this dry. Looking back on Emmy history, you see the category ripe with real competition as, frankly, there were more great comedies filling the landscape. Take a look at this year’s nominees and compare them to nominees two decades back:

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Looking at these 10-year increments, not only will you see a more robust Emmy Comedy race, but you will also see the inclusion of more buzz-worthy, groundbreaking comic television. The Emmys took time to award niche comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show) along with accomplished blue-collar television that appealed to a mass audience (Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement).

And those were the shows that were nominated. Left out of the top races were some of television’s most popular comedies: Friends, Malcolm in the Middle, Roseanne, and Murphy Brown to name a few. We simply did not see that robust of a lineup this year. Completely gone from the conversation are the working class, blue-collar comedies that were so relatable to the average American family. You would be hard-pressed to find significant competition for the recent Best Comedy Series Emmy slots.

So, what happened to the American sitcom?

Everyone knows the old saying, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Producers of televised content still churn out comedies. They’re just not very good. Of the 21 new comedies that premiered during the 2013 Fall TV season, a whopping 15 shows were cancelled. Fox’s Us and Them has the dubious honor of ending its run after only airing a single episode. Not that that was unique to the most recent TV season, but, lately, the networks just seem to be throwing anything against the wall, hoping something sticks.

I would imagine it becomes expensive to gear up production and advertisements around a hot new comedy only to see it die out in a matter of weeks. As television moved beyond the standard four major networks, viewers’ short attention span has been drawn to what seems to have replaced the water-cooler comedies: water-cooler reality shows.

Shows like Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo seem to have taken the place of the great Middle American, blue-collar comedies that have historically served as the backbone of televised comedy. Why watch some overpaid actor work a fake, laugh-tracked audience when you can laugh at real people, American seems to say. Given the success of these shows and their presumed lower cost, why would the networks continue to churn out riskier, higher-priced comic ventures?

Instead, they have responded with more reality-based television than ever before in the history of television. I don’t need to rattle off the titles; you all know what they are. Dramatic television series don’t really compete with reality TV because people still seem to crave escapism in their entertainment. But, for laughs, reality TV is the next best thing to watching your next-door neighbor fall off a ladder.

Additionally, many of the most buzzed-about television have prominent big-screen talent behind them. These filmmakers are largely unable to tell the stories that most engage them in today’s popcorn flick culture. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh look to televised dramas to convey their trickier, more complex content. Television provides room to grow and develop characters and, in turn, provide adult stories that are captivating the nation, and the actors are following suit.

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But these filmmakers aren’t going to television to make comedies. Sure, Armando Iannucci followed up his cult hit In the Loop (which was based on his UK show The Thick of It) with the great Veep, and Lena Dunham gave us Girls after breaking onto the scene with her independent film Tiny Furniture. These are but two examples of filmmakers looking to generate comic television content. Just this week, Scorsese announced his follow-up project to the final season of Boardwalk Empire – a prequel series to his film Shutter Island. Wouldn’t you absolutely love to see a Martin Scorsese-produced sitcom?

Just pause for a moment to think about that one…

With even critically panned film comedies continuing to perform (the recent Tammy has grossed to date over $80 million on a budget of $20 million), comic filmmakers aren’t giving up on the big screen and fleeing to television as quickly as their dramatic counterparts are. Thus, the recent influx of talent into television from big screen filmmakers only benefits dramatic content – not comedies.

I do not come here to bury the American sitcom. Comedies, like most everything, ebb and flow like the tides. Most recently, critics in the early 80s proclaimed the television comedy dead after an explosive period in the 1970s. But the sitcom came roaring back soon thereafter, heralded by classics like Family Ties, Cheers, and The Cosby Show.

So, no, I do not come here to bury the American sitcom, but I do come to put its picture on a milk carton.

There are still whispers of current sitcom greatness – even if the Emmys and audiences choose to ignore them. As more classic examples of comedies wane, niche or cult comedies are becoming more and more prevalent.

The much buzzed-about Community will live again on Yahoo! It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has thrived for years well past what critics, who are firmly on board with it now, originally thought it would. Comedy Central offers a great deal of edgy comedy programming, probably because the stakes are lower there, led by the best show you’ve never heard of – Broad City. HBO gets points for bringing back the great Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback, and there are hints that Netflix will return to the Arrested Development well once more.

Expand the definition of comedy, and you’ll find Archer, Portlandia, and Drunken History garnering significant buzz in smaller circles. Even web giant Amazon has gotten into original comic programming and currently offers a new batch of pilots by the likes of Wilt Stillman and David Gordon Green, recently reviewed by Craig.

These small, cult-inspiring gems will have to tide us over until the “Golden Age of Television” reflects a balance between great dramas and great comedies.

6 comments

  1. Avatar
    Mego 8 years ago

    Great post! I would dare say that the golden age of comedy seems to happen for comedies AFTER they air. Comedies are never deemed as “genius” until they ruminate for a while. Example: “Arrested Development.”

    I think people are more apt to turn to comedies through mediums like Netflix, whereas dramas are something more immediate that viewers turn to, which could be why there’s more buzz.

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    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    Comedy gets no respect

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    Robin Write 8 years ago

    I feel ashamed that it did not quite occur to me that the ridiculous growth of reality TV has really socked one on the nose of TV comedy, and it is struggling to get back up. It is a really great observation. And a very, very sad one.

    Here in the UK I now have to scratch my head and wonder has the same thing happened here? Fuck yeah. I know this before I even go research it. I hate reality TV. Now. Big Brother was a great adventure – in 2001! But it was new and there was nothing else like it. Now there are tens of these reality shows on every channel every day. You hardly know you are watching reality bullshit when it comes on because it is the norm now. What a shame.

    Sit-coms in the UK are a little bit different from the US. Or at least how it all works with the networks / channels / production companies. There are tons of comedies, not all spectacular, that come from, say, the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, that just ran and ran and ran. Like Open All Hours. Last of the Summer Wine. Only Fools and Horses. Blackadder. Birds of a Feather. And those that had a shorter lifespan but live on in the British comedy folklore forever. Like Fawlty Towers. The Good Life. Rising Damp.

    And then the genre breakthrough sit-coms like Red Dwarf. Desmond’s. Men Behaving Badly. Or Absolutely Fabulous. Comedy here certainly took a reality and satirical direction 15-20 years ago with the likes of I’m Alan Partridge, The Royle Family, and The Thick of It. And how can we forget the impact Ricky Gervais has had with The Office, and then Extras.

    Now, I don’t know. People talk about The Inbetweeners a lot. And The IT Crowd. But the buzz of conversation tends to be about who did what or what will happen there or oh that made me laugh – in reality a TV show. It is all about reality TV. Mostly. A very, very sad observation indeed.

    Great article though. Felt I had to actually say it after this rather impulsive and gloomy comment-come-essay.

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    steve50 8 years ago

    Perhaps the answer is more limited run comedies, 6 to 10 episode events similar to what drama has done on cable. People would have a reason to keep watching because of the imminent conclusion, bigger name actors would not require a career change to appear as leads, quality writers and directors would be attracted to the exercise because it would be a temporary commitment, not a 12 year stint.

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    Al Robinson 8 years ago

    “I would dare say that the golden age of comedy seems to happen for comedies AFTER they air. Comedies are never deemed as “genius” until they ruminate for a while.”

    What about Seinfeld? It seems like that show took off after the start of the 2nd season and suddenly became the “greatest show of all-time”.

  6. Avatar
    Clarence 8 years ago

    Steve, I think Limited Run comedies are a great idea: burn bright and burn out quickly, so to speak. I know The Comeback is trying this later in the year, so I’m interested in seeing how it impacts (potentially elevates?) the comedy of the show.

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