Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Tonight is the Emmy awards, so how can I not write about the genre labels for classifying TV shows? Besides, I like TV (well, lots of it), and I always watch the Emmys. Yes, I confess it. So for the sake of a much-needed lighter topic this week, I risk your thinking less of me as a lover of the boob tube and idiot box.
Plus, even more than TV, I love watching the genres of television shift and change as the shows shift and change as our culture shifts and changes. New shows don’t quite fit existing categories, but they become popular and get good ratings, so then other shows imitate them to capitalize on their popularity. The emergence of new TV genres is about creative innovation, yes, and genre-busting. But it’s also about creative marketing and genre-copying.
I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my long TV-watching years. Reality shows start popping up, then the competition shows in particular start repeating, then the musical talent shows are everywhere, and next thing you know I’m hooked on The Voice and So You Think You Can Dance. I start watching this new show called Trading Spaces in 2001 and in 2016 I’m hooked on Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, and Property Brothers, not to be confused with House Hunters, except that last night I discovered a show called House Hunters Renovation, combining both the house hunting series and the renovation series. What’s next? Probably a competitive talent show where young designers live in and renovate a house together by scrabbling over physical obstacles while sharing romantic moments in hot tubs with champagne before eliminating each other with snarky comments and black roses. Oh wait, how did The Bachelor get in there?
How all that genre-mixing and emerging happens is complex, I’m sure, and too much for one post. Today, I’ll just get started on the genres of the Emmy Awards. The Emmys make those questions of genres all seem so simple—a show is a comedy, drama, or variety show. But they also reveal when a genre has emerged all the way into acceptability—reality/competition program was added in 2003.
In recent years, at least, the nominees for the Emmys have sometimes seemed like uncomfortable fits for their genres. Orange is the New Black is a comedy??!! But some shows may be pushing the boundaries of a genre, either changing our acceptance of what a comedy is or busting out into a new genre.
So here’s my own reality program for this week, with TV shows competing for successful renovation of a TV genre
Which shows will win an Emmy tonight—the ones that fit into their genres more conventionally? Or the ones that stretch the genre more?
Here are the rules: I’ll run through my own opinion of how conventional the shows nominated in each major genre are, and then I’ll compare with the results after the winners are announced. To keep from slanting it after the fact, I’ll post my opinions today, Sunday, before the winners are announced, and then update the post tomorrow with the results (the broadcast ends way too near my bedtime for me to write the follow-up post tonight). Feel free to play along with your own judgments of the nominees. I’m bound to get some things wrong, especially with shows I don’t watch consistently.
And the nominees are:
The 2016 nominees for outstanding Comedy series are
Here’s how I’d rank them for conventionality, from most conventional to least:
Modern Family is surely the most conventional but still very funny sit-com, with Veep (starring frequent comedy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (created by sit-com pro Tina Fey) close behind. Even though I’ve seen blackish described as an old-fashioned sit-com with contemporary awareness, I find it remarkably old-fashioned in everything but subject matter. I’d say Silicon Valley also has unconventional subject matter but plays with the genre, too. Master of None may fit as a simple comedy—Time magazine reviewed it as a “wistful TV romantic comedy”—but that “wistful” part twists the genre a bit. Transparent goes way beyond wistful all the way to comedy-drama. That series got a lot of attention for its controversial subject matter last year, but it’s also a bit genre-busting in its mix of comedy and drama.
So what is a TV comedy? One that has laughs in it, presumably. You know, like Better Call Saul, the spinoff from Breaking Bad, starring the very funny actor Bob Odenkirk. But you may be way ahead of me--Better Caul Saul is a nominee for outstanding drama series, and Bob Odenkirk nominated for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
What else is nominated for best drama series?
A comedy-drama, period soap opera mini-series, violent fantasy, political thriller, Shakespearean play, science fiction, and espionage thriller.
Those are my genre labels, of course, and any show can be labeled in multiple ways. But if “drama” can include such a wide range of shows, is it a meaningful genre? I’ve been known to say that a genre is anything that people say is a genre. If the people who use it, make it, read it, or watch it call it by a common category name, who am I to say it’s not a genre? But I’m not sure most TV fans would say Game of Thrones is a “drama.” More likely to call it a fantasy. And everyone talks about Downton Abbey as a soap opera.
So ranking these nominees for how conventional a drama they are is especially tough, I think, since I don’t know what a drama is. But here goes—my ranking from most conventional drama series to least:
,All right, this could go on all day, and I wouldn't get my rankings posted before the Emmys begin. Since the other categories are subdivided by form (structured/unstructured reality programs; limited series/TV movie) or are genres I don't watch enough of the nominees in to judge (Variety series--talk or sketch), I'll try just one more category.
For me, the sharpest, most distinct genre in the awards categories is Reality-Competition Program. The nominees all fit that descriptive label, of being reality shows based on a competition:
My rankings for most conventional to least:
I struggled with The Amazing Race in part because it largely created this genre, so I would expect it to be highly conventional, but it doesn’t seem to have as many direct copiers as others. The fact that it keeps winning the Emmy may indicate that it’s keeping the genre fresh. Or that it’s comfortingly predictable. Same for Project Runway, though its imitators now are many.
But it seems to me that this category is one ready to break into newly emerged genres. Surely Project Runway and Top Chef have more in common with each other than with The Amazing Race. And the old talent show genre seems reincarnated in The Voice and Dancing with the Stars. But I’m not sure where American Ninja Warrior comes from.
So there you have it--one person's rankings of the Emmy nominees from most conventional to least conventional. Which will win out tonight? Will convention trump innovation? Or will the newly expanded set of Emmy voters recognize artistic creativity? Or are they all pretty conventional shows, and the Emmys are just confirming what the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry prefer?
As if you needed anything to make the Emmy broadcast even more exciting than it always is, I'll be tweeting from @AmyDevitt1 during the show. I'd love to hear what you think.
Tune in for the results tomorrow.