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Why Are the Emmys Categories So Damn Confusing?

Think ‘The Bear’ is a laugh riot? Yeah, neither do we. Unpacking the contradictory, confounding, and just plain nonsensical labels the Television Academy slaps onto today’s best shows.

Emmys 2024 contenders

Jeff Neumann/A24/Paramount+/SHOWTIME; Katie Yu/FX; Chuck Hodes/FX.

Over the weekend, my phone blew up with texts from TV comedy writers who were in the middle of watching the latest season of The Bear. Some were enjoying the new episodes, others were frustrated by them, but not one person said this story of toxic workplaces, addiction and mental illness, and ruinous personal relationships was a barrel of laughs — this despite the fact that FX, Hulu, and Emmy voters everywhere continue to consider it a comedy. As one writer put it, “I like the show a lot, but it’s a whole new level of offensive that it wins awards for Best Comedy. They are not attempting, in most episodes, to even gesture at the idea of comedy.”

Yet later this month, The Bear Season Two will probably garner an even bigger haul of Emmy nominations than last year’s 13, all in the comedy categories. And that’s only one prong on the fork of what could be the most confusing Emmys ceremony ever. In addition, the likely frontrunner for Outstanding Drama Series is Shōgun, which until the announcement a couple of months ago of new seasons in development was framed as a limited series. And among the contenders in the limited-series category will be new seasons of Fargo and True Detective, franchises that have been around for a decade.

All of this comes on the heels of January’s strike-delayed 2023 ceremony, where Jennifer Coolidge won a drama supporting actress Emmy for a largely comedic role on a show, The White Lotus, that had previously swept the limited-series categories, and where Succession creator Jesse Armstrong’s acceptance speech for Outstanding Drama Series referred to his show as a satire.

We get it. These Emmy categories were created in a very different era of television and made sense for decades. I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Frasier were unquestionably comedies, just as Hill Street Blues and The West Wing were clearly dramas. You might see some blurring of lines in terms of which actors were considered supporting(*) and which were considered lead(**). But it took until 1999 for there to be significant existential Emmy controversy, when Ally McBeal, an hourlong legal show with a comedic tone, but without the traditional jokey structure of a Seinfeld, won the comedy series trophy — on the same night when its sister series, The Practice, took home the drama series award.

(*) Famously, all six Friends insisted on submitting themselves as supporting actors for the show’s first few years, to avoid anyone seeming to overshadow the others, and later all switched to lead at the same time. 

(**) Somewhat less famously, but amusingly, Rob Lowe has submitted himself as a lead actor on every show he’s been on, even when he was clearly a fifth or sixth banana on a show like Parks and Recreation

Clear category distinctions grew harder to come by as we headed into the 21st century. Desperate Housewives — an hourlong soap opera with an archer-than-usual tone — got a comedy series nomination in 2005. Edie Falco won a comedy actress Emmy for a 98-percent-dramatic performance on Nurse Jackie and, puzzled by this development, insisted in her acceptance speech that she isn’t funny. Orange Is the New Black — also an hour, overtly comic at times but intensely dramatic at others — was nominated for comedy series in 2014, and shortly thereafter, the Emmys changed the eligibility rules so that all hourlong programs were automatically considered dramas and all half-hours comedies, though shows could petition to be moved. (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel succeeded at such a bid and won the 2018 comedy series award.)

Meanwhile, we had the anthological likes of True Detective, Fargo, and American Horror Story wreaking category havoc in the early-to-mid 2010s. The first season of American Horror Story competed as a limited series in 2012, as did Fargo in 2014 — the same year in which the inaugural True Detective season competed as a drama series. That didn’t turn out so well for True D creator Nic Pizzolatto and friends, who were steamrolled by the final Breaking Bad season; later installments, including this year’s True Detective: Night Country, submit in what was eventually renamed Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series. To make things even more of a mess, we had a run of limited series like Downton Abbey, Big Little Lies, and The White Lotus that turned out to, in fact, be unlimited, forcing category jumps for later seasons.

By now, the entire nomination process and awards ceremony has turned into Schrodinger’s Emmys, where a show can be a comedy, a drama, or a limited series, and the only way to know for sure is to open up the ballot. The Bear is a half-hour show whose first season could make at least a vague argument for being a comedy, even if the most memorable moments were the serious ones. Shōgun was developed as a miniseries, but now a second season is in the works; some cynics assumed this was all a way to game the system, since there’s a very large, Succession-shaped gap in the drama categories, and only one of the previous cycle’s Outstanding Drama Series nominees, The Crown, is even eligible this time around. Fargo has been allowed to stay as a limited/anthology series all these years, even though some characters appear in multiple seasons, whereas Coolidge’s return automatically forced White Lotus elsewhere. (And not into the comedy categories, because … it’s an hour?)

Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this confusion is Showtime’s The Curse, the Nathan Fielder-Benny Safdie-Emma Stone team-up seemingly built to defy categorization. Fielder is a comedian by trade, and the show was explicitly a satire of reality TV, gentrification, and more, so maybe it was a comedy. But it’s impossible to imagine the show continuing after what it did to Fielder’s character in its final episode, so it’s a limited series, right? It has less of a case as a drama, but hey, episodes were an hour apiece, and Fielder and Stone both got to play some dark moments for their characters, and even the satire wasn’t that funny, so … maybe? So of course, it was submitted as a drama series — despite no evidence of any attempt to make additional seasons — simply because the path there was much easier than in comedy or limited series.

At this point, TV lovers just have to throw up our hands and admit defeat. Creating a set of dramedy categories would solve exactly nothing, since too many shows in this day and age would be able to justify their eligibility there. And that also wouldn’t help with the problem of limited series that are successful enough to be renewed. The Television Academy could try eliminating genre distinctions altogether, in the same way that comic and dramatic performances compete against each other at the Oscars. But in those sorts of head-to-head matchups, drama tends to win in a rout, and some years you’re lucky to see someone even nominated for a comedic role. Plus, the Emmys are all about making Hollywood feel good about itself, and trimming down the number of people being honored — or creating some sort of muddle where lots of shows and people win trophies, but not in any kind of clear and direct competition — is a nonstarter.

The Emmys have other issues to solve, like voters’ tendency in recent years to nominate every single actor on the handful of shows they watch. But the only thing we know for sure when the new nominations are announced on July 17 is that there’s going to be a whole lot of head-scratching about which shows and actors landed where.

From Rolling Stone US