Netflix, mind you, is making the argument (in part) because they need a strong Emmys presence on the comedy side of things, now that “Orange is the New Black” has been relegated to drama. Despite submitting a petition for Jenji Kohan’s prison dramedy to be reinstated as a comedy, Netflix’s pleas were denied by the Television Academy. The show is simply too long to be a comedy under the new rules passed down in 2015.
For Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s new series, though, the Television Academy is happy to comply. Despite the fact Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris created a show with equal doses of comedy and drama (if not more of the latter), there’s no debate over which category it should compete in at the Emmys. Why? It’s only 30 minutes long.
Let’s go back. In February 2015, the Television Academy announced a few new rules for its upcoming awards ceremony. For one, there would be seven nominees in the Outstanding Comedy Series and Drama Series categories. For another, Outstanding Miniseries is now called Outstanding Limited Series, and features strict qualifying requirements to get in (or, more likely, keep shows like “True Detective” out of the drama categories). Yet perhaps the most frustrating of the new decrees came with an indiscriminate, all-too-broad label: All half-hour series will be submitted as comedies, and all series 30 minutes or longer will be considered dramas.
Now, as nice as it is to see an awards telecast provide new, clear guidelines addressing past problems, a number of issues have already popped up. For one, while “Orange is the New Black” lost its petition to submit in the comedy category, a number of other hour-long series won. “Shameless,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Glee” all successfully partook in the process and will compete as comedies in 2015. “Shameless” only started competing as a comedy last year, but apparently the show met the vague qualifications of the nine-member judging committee. The panel is asked to determine “as to whether it predominantly takes a comedic or a dramatic approach to the material” after watching all episodes of a season submitted. Three made the cut, but one very prominent former comedy nominee did not.
What the above illustrates is the inherent subjectivity involved in the process, just as it’s always been. These new time restrictions make it clearer who belongs where to the audience watching at home, but then they’ll start to wonder why “Jane the Virgin” is competing against “Veep,” blowing up the purpose of the additional regulations. Moreover, shows will always be fighting to get into the less competitive comedy categories. Far fewer will be going the other way, meaning studio marketing departments are still the ones in charge of determining where each show belongs instead of plain ‘ol common sense.
Enter “Grace and Frankie.” One of the most consistent comments found in reviews of the Netflix series related to how dramatic this half-hour sitcom from the creators of “Friends” and “Home Improvement” actually ended up. Indiewire TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller described the series as a “post-apocalyptic drama” in her review, adding “it takes a long time for things to feel at all funny.” Neither point was to the show’s detriment (Miller graded it a B+), but the dramatic heft of the premise continued to be felt all the way through the 13-episode first season. Without getting too spoiler-y, “Grace and Frankie” isn’t afraid to make its audience feel the gravity of the situations presented.
No couple is spared, either. While most viewers would expect scenes depicting the plight of two 70-year-old divorcees whose husbands had been gay throughout their entire marriage, both Grace and Frankie and Robert and Sol suffer grave consequences of the split. Sol perhaps is hurt the most, missing his ex-wife Frankie to the point where it repeatedly puts his relationship with Robert in jeopardy. On top of that, the children — who play small but significant roles — are also plagued by the actions of their progressive parents.
After watching all 13 episodes, the scenes I remember the most aren’t funny. It’s when Martin Sheen breaks down in tears as Robert remembers how much Grace did for him during hard times. Or when Sol rushes to Frankie’s side after a light earthquake because he knows he’s the only one who can calm her down. Or when an extended flashback sequence illuminates the day-to-day hardships Robert and Sol faced when trying to come out. There are so many moments that would have even the most macho man bursting into tears, it’s damn near impossible to thing of “Grace and Frankie” as a comedy.
Now, no one’s arguing “Grace and Frankie” should compete as a drama if they’re looking to win. Sitting at a 48 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it will need all the help it can get to land a few nominations, and it’s simply tougher to break into drama right now (and pretty much always). But it shouldn’t matter what’s easier. It should matter what’s fair. If “Grace and Frankie” is a weeper with as many laugh-out-loud moments as “Mad Men,” it shouldn’t be held to the silly, already outdated standard of its run time. Neither should “Jane the Virgin,” a series clearly aiming for (and obtaining) laughs above all else throughout its 42-minute episodes.
While the new rules give the appearance of actual effort by the TV Academy, a true show of support to the creative community wouldn’t be to add more regulations. It would be to have less. Much less. Rather than setting run time restrictions or letting networks choose their own adventure, the TV Academy should decide where a show belongs — and not via any new rules set in place to pass the buck. Subjectivity cannot be escaped in arts competitions. Embracing it is the better choice than running from it. After all, it’s their competition. If you’re going to say something, you better have something to say.