DRAMEDY

Dramedy is best understood as a television program genre which fuses elements of comedy and drama. According to Altman (1986) new genres emerge in one of two ways: "either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation into a coherent and durable syntax, or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements." Semantic elements are the generic "building blocks" out of which of program genres are constructed--those recurring elements such as stock characters, common traits, and technical features such as locations and typical shots. Syntax, or syntactic features, describes the ways these elements are related and combined. The recurring combination of semantic and syntactic elements creates a conventional type or category of program called a genre.

Arguably one of the clearest examples of the dramedy genre emerged in 1985-86 when the Directors Guild of America nominated the hour-long television series Moonlighting for both Best Drama and Best Comedy, an unprecedented event in the organization's previous 50 years (Horowitz, 1986). Moonlighting combined the semantic elements or conventions of television drama (serious subject matter, complex and rounded central characters, multiple interior and exterior settings, use of textured lighting, single camera shooting on film) with the conventional syntactic features of television comedies (four act narrative structure, repetition, witty repartee, verbal and musical self-reflexivity, hyperbole). Not all dramedies, however, were an hour long. For example, the half-hour series Frank's Place dealt with serious issues, had rounded and complex central characters, textured lighting, multiple settings, single camera shooting on film, no studio audience or laugh track, and a four-part nanrative structure. Given the economic organization of the American television schedule, in which "half-hour" is usually equated with "comedy," and "hour-long" with "drama," many dramedies were considered more comic than dramatic and vice versa.

Television, like most popular culture forms, is strongly generic; audiences come to television program viewing experiences with definite expectations about genre conventions; indeed, according to Warshow (1964) audiences welcome originality "only in the degree that intensifies the expected experience without fundamentally altering it." However, as a commercial enterprise, television piques audience members' interest and attracts viewers, at least in part by offering innovations on familiar genre forms. Thus, while dramedy may have taken the final step from invention to genre evoluton in the 1980s, several series during the 1970s occasionally experimented with individual "dramedic" episodes, including M*A*S*H, Barney Miller, and Taxi. After Moonlighting had garnered both popular success and critical acclaim, a number of television producers turned to dramedy's unique duality as a means of attracting audiences. Other television series which some critics have called dramedies include The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Hooperman, The "Slap" Maxwell Story, and Northern Exposure. However as the short runs of several of these series indicate, creating a highly rated dramedy is no easier than creating a popular series in another genre.

Critics, on the other hand, have quite uniformly praised television's dramedy series' sophistication and innovation. They argue that the appearance of dramedies, whose self reflexivity and intertextual references require a substantial degree of both popular and classic cultural literacy from viewers for full appreciation of their allusions and nuances, signifies a change in the relationships among television, audiences and society and indicates that television has "come of age" as an artistic medium.

-Leah R. Vande Berg


The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd

FURTHER READING

Alley, R. S. (1979). Television drama. In H. Newcomb (Ed.), Television: The Critical View (2nd ed., pp. 118- 151). New York: Oxford University Press.

Altman, R. (1986). A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre. In B. K. Grant (Ed.) Film Genre Reader (pp. 26-40). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Cawelti, J. G. (1976). Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

deLauretis, T. (1979). "A Semiotic Approach to Television As Ideological Apparatus." In H. Newcomb (Ed.), Television: The Critical View (2nd ed., pp. 107- 118). New York: Oxford University Press.

Eaton, M. (1981). "Television Situation Comedy." In T. Bennett, S. Boyd-Bowman, C. Mercer, & Wollacott, J., (Eds.). Popular Television and Film (pp.26-52). London: British Film Institute.

Horowitz, J. (1986, March 30). "Sweet Lunacy: The Madcap Behind Moonlighting." New York Times Magazine, p. 24. [Reprinted in The Chicago Tribune, April 20,19B6, Entertainment Section]

Mintz, L. E. (1985). "Situation Comedy." In B. Rose (Ed.), TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide (pp. 107-130). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Newcomb, H. (1974). TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday.

Newcomb, H. (1978). "Toward Television History: The Growth of Styles." Journal of the University Film Association, 30 9-14.

Vande Berg, L. R. (1989). Dramedy: Moonlighting As An Emergent Generic Hybrid." Communication Studies, 40,13-28.

Warshow, R. (1964) The Immediate Experience, Garden City: NY: Doubleday/Anchor.

Williams, J. P. (1988). When You Care Enough to Watch the Very Best: The Mystique of Moonlighting." Journal of Popular Film and Television l6, 90-100.

 

See also Frank's Place; Moonlighting; Northern Exposure; Wonder Years