I recently watched United States of Tara, a Showtime original starring Toni Collette as a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I’d heard quite a bit about the show, especially a growing well of praise that’s sprung since the show’s cancellation in 2011. While I was fascinated with the characters (Collette’s performance of Tara and her multiple “alters” is comparable to the work Tatiana Maslany is currently doing on Orphan Black) and storytelling, since finishing the series, I’ve been more stricken not only by how gloriously it succeeded as a half-hour dramedy, but also by how dead the genre feels in today’s television landscape. Has it reached the end of its road?
Though the dramedy has a long history (ostensibly beginning with M*A*S*H), it evolved tremendously in the early 2000s. Freaks & Geeks, Paul Feig’s seminal high-school dramedy, finished its single-season run in 2000, while 2001 saw the arrival of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence’s high-energy hospital sitcom. The term “dramedy” had been redefined to focus on thematic, not structural, elements. Both of the aforementioned programs would lay the groundwork for network dramedies (hour and half-hour, respectively) for the forseeable future. From Freaks & Geeks would come sharp, quirky, yet poignant hour-longs: Ugly Betty; Pushing Daisies; Desperate Housewives; and on the cable side, Huff. Scrubs set the stage for more manic, zany half-hours that would be increasingly serialized and infuse a certain amount of emotion into their stories: How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Community.
But it’s on cable that the new half-hour dramedy came into its own. In 2005, HBO and Showtime each debuted a half-hour dramedy of their own. For HBO, it was The Comeback, a truly fascinating, though incredibly painful to watch, faux-reality series starring Lisa Kudrow as a failed actress trying to reclaim her fame. The series never found popularity, its inaccessible nature not helped by the fact that the entire series was presented as raw footage, full of long awkward pauses between characters and with all the “bad takes” and incidents that would normally be edited out still presented to the viewer. It was canceled three months after its debut, and today remains more a fascinating failure than essential viewing. Showtime, on the other hand, premiered Weeds.
Weeds is the story of a suburban housewife (Mary-Louise Parker) who, after her husband’s death, turns to marijuana dealing in order to support her family. Its first season had elements of suburban satire, but as time passed, those fell away in favor of the character-driven stories. Weeds ran for eight long seasons, seasons which saw its quality diminish intensely. (So intensely that, by the time of the finale, few publications or critics even cared enough to weigh in.) Even the finale, an episode that jumps a decade into the future and brings back characters who left the series years before, was divisive among fans. (I mean, it’s no Lost finale, but I digress.)
What is undeniable about Weeds, though, is the impact it had on the cable television landscape. This new breed of half-hour dramedy, featuring extreme serialization and an emphasis on dark comedy, was a huge hit. From Weeds came a bevy of shows that followed these new guidelines. Showtime would follow them closely, perhaps a little too much so, in producing The Big C and United States of Tara, becoming notorious for their “respected actress behaving badly” series. Other programs used the guidelines and created new variations: Hung, in which a high-school teacher becomes a male prostitute; Californication, starring David Duchovny as a struggling novelist; Bored to Death, which would incorporate noir storytelling elements; Party Down, which eschewed traditional structure, each episode revolving solely around an event the titular crew is catering, forcing a subtler type of serialization. While not huge ratings hits or massive phenomena, this new slew of series nonetheless remain an important part of television’s history, having both occurred during the Golden Age of TV Drama and also repurposed a genre that had worked in the past, and was still working well on the network channels.
But where are we now? United States of Tara, considered by many to be the crown jewel of this new kind of dramedy, ended in 2011, while Weeds, the origin of the species, finished its reign in 2012. The drawn-out end of the Golden Age is fading into a new Silver Age, an era for drama and comedy defined by an increased feminine presence and an embrace of the emotional core many Golden Age dramas avoided. Single-camera and animated sitcoms have grown in popularity and prestige. Experimentation is becoming more and more encouraged, both by new outlets like Netflix and established programmers like HBO. Networks not known for original scripted content have stepped up and provided fascinating and exciting new programs, like Sundance and IFC. The television landscape is made of Play-Doh, ripe for playing around, trying new things, and starting from scratch if an idea doesn’t work out.
And so the dramedy finds itself diminished. HBO recently struck critical and cultural gold with Girls, Lena Dunham’s examination of the female twenty-something life in New York City, as well as a bonafide television masterpiece with Enlightened, Mike White’s quiet rumination on the pursuit of happiness. Showtime brought on Don Cheadle for House of Lies, an entertaining, if contentious, story about a team of management consultants. And… that’s about it, as far as the new dramedy model goes. But is it the end? Is it time to mourn this complicated beast?
Maybe not. Fuse is setting to premiere their first scripted program, The Hustle, a dramedy set in the hip-hop world, and HBO has picked up an untitled Dwayne Johnson/Mark Wahlberg project about retired athletes, Michael Lannan’s untitled series about young gay men living in San Francisco, and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, featuring a who’s who of young indie-comic talent. Each of these has at least the faintest promise, and combined with the programs still on-air, it could keep the genre alive for a few more seasons. This might be the slow death of the half-hour dramedy, but you can keep your black suits and veils in the closet for now.