The Age of the Half-Hour Dramedy
What’s with this recent glut of half-hour dramedies?
It seems like every week, critics are flocking to a new bleak-funny show about a (usually) young (typically) urban adult of tenuous emotional stability negotiating the merciless abattoir of late capitalism, or confronting the destructiveness of their own narcissism, or reckoning with the rote futility of an isolated existence.
This species of storytelling has been floating around for a while. Shows like Louie and Girls found success striking the delicate balance between humor and emotional grit. They proved that there was an audience for shows that eschewed formulaic comedy tropes and instead squeezed laughs out of the traumatic absurdity of real life. These sorts of shows were celebrated for being genuine experiments in genre subversion for the way they mined the uncomfortable or unseemly parts of life for kernels of comedy. Like wringing drops of water from a wet towel.
But these half-hour dramedies that were once seen as so generically transgressive have since spawned a veritable anthology of imitators. Shows like Master of None, Transparent, You’re The Worst, and Love have all sought to challenge the boundaries of genre, and they’ve all enjoyed (varying levels of) popular success extracting comedy from the emotional and psychological volatility of real, recognizable lives.
Indeed, just this month three new half-hour dramedies, FX’s Atlanta, Netflix’s Easy, and Amazon’s Fleabag—all shows that prod at the porous distinctions between comedy and drama—were released to near universal critical adulation.
In the age of Peak TV, this kind of short, episodic, category confounding entertainment is having a moment, and there are a couple possible explanations as to why that is.
As multiplexes around the country have continued to yield to the monopolization of titanic, industrial franchise machines, a yawning void has opened up where niche, unconventional indie comedies used to be. Movies about the complicated human lives of real people who don’t wear capes or use The Force or brandish wands can rarely be found among the theatre-fare flotsam. If a movie doesn’t service some existing, rabid fandom, and if it doesn’t promise a progeny of sequels, major studios are unlikely to devote resources. Even maudlin romantic comedies, which used to be churned out with clockwork regularity, seem to have fallen out of favor.
But this gap in our entertainment universe was never going to go unfilled. Smart, creative storytellers who at one time may have been attracted by the allure or prestige of Hollywood began to recognize that TV was not only more amenable to the types of stories they wanted to tell (real people toiling in the complicated, neurotic tedium of real lives), but was also a better artistic medium for them to authentically and generously explore their characters’ emotional depth.
For example, had Master of None creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, with their polished cinematic sensibilities and their veneration for the work of Woody Allen, been working 15 years ago, it’s likely that they would have envisioned their story as being best suited for the movies. However, the peculiar cultural architecture of Peak TV/Peak Franchise meant both that Netflix gave them a platform where Hollywood probably would’ve roundly rejected them, and that Netflix gave them creative carte blanche to pursue a realized artistic vision without the obtrusive hectoring of a profiteering movie studio. The result is a show that looks as sharp and sophisticated as a feature film, but whose first season of ten 30 minute episodes allows for nuance and depth and development.
But all of this is not to say that the emergence of half-hour dramedies as a popular format simply represents some linear market correction for the decline of indie film-making. With their intelligence in storytelling and innovation in structure, these shows are bringing something essentially new to the canon of filmed entertainment.
There’s something in the way that half-hour dramedies tend to meander through the lives of their characters, registering psychological scarring or emotional disquietude without compromising the mundane humanity of their lives, which roughly approximates what it’s like reading a novel. In the same way that rich, complicated novels evade categorization, these shows revel in the tensions that arise when drama and comedy collide. They seem to want to make you laugh and then make you feel guilty for laughing, or make you cringe at some display of visceral human rawness that maybe feels a bit too familiar. This requires a real considered complexity, a novelistic attention to how viewers’ emotions are being manipulated.
Dramedies like Louie also do a good job of punctuating the staid monotony of real life with brief bouts of fantasy or farce. In the same way that novels often drift liminally between the real, the almost real, and the imagined, these shows illustrate the frequent surreality of being a person on Earth. A surreality grounded in emotional realism.
Perhaps the most basic and fundamental reason that these shows often mirror the experience of reading a novel is the fact that often, and especially recently, these shows tend to be helmed by one or two auteurs, whose singular, coherent visions dictate the atmosphere of their shows. Whether it’s Lena Dunham with Girls or Ansari and Yang with Master of None or Louis C.K. with Louie, these filmmakers regularly write and direct each episode, exerting a total authorial control over the direction of the show. The result, when these shows succeed, are worlds that feel lived in and whole, with their own networks of signifiers and their own unique idiosyncrasies.
Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, might be the best example of how these shows can render captivating experiences by evoking some of the formal characteristics of the novel. Fleabag is ostensibly about a sexually ravenous, socially aloof young London urbanite who struggles through strained relationships with her family, but as the series progresses it becomes evident that the show is really exploring the haunting specter of emotional trauma and overwhelming guilt. The show includes a small cast of recurring characters, none of whom are denied depth and humanity, and a consistent sense of stylistic flair, no doubt attributable to Waller-Bridge’s vision.
At the heart of Fleabag is the protagonist’s persistent breaking of the fourth wall, where she proffers flippant commentaries on her sexual exploits or dysfunctional family dynamics. The commentary offers the through-line of internal monologue that we so often see in novels, but it also introduces the novelistic idea of the unreliable or misdirecting narrator to a format that rarely allows for such experimentation (Mr. Robot is another good example of TV’s burgeoning interest in the unreliable narrator). The emotional effect of the discordance between the protagonist’s commentary and what we come to learn about her past is the most artistically impressive part of the show, and it exemplifies the ways that the half-hour dramedy, with its genre ambiguity and formal freedom, can call back to novelistic devices as a way of innovating TV.
As more of these shows get greenlit, and more talented storytellers become attracted to the structure, we’ll no doubt see the half-hour dramedy continue to evolve in style and complexity. Right now, these shows are the most interesting things on TV, and that doesn’t appear likely to change.