A prison guard locks a drug-addled inmate in a closet. When he returns to check on her, she’s slumped against the wall, dead. The guard panics, ties an electrical cord around her neck and hangs her from a pipe, trying to make her overdose look like a suicide.
This scene comes from “Orange Is the New Black,” the celebrated Netflix series about life inside a women’s penitentiary. On Monday night, it will be up for an Emmy — for comedy series.
How a show with such dark, heartbreaking content wound up competing against traditional network sitcoms such as “Modern Family and “The Big Bang Theory” reflects both TV’s changing landscape and the latest trend in awards-season tactics.
Networks are placing series like “Orange,” an often tragic drama with elements of humor, in the comedy categories where, it is reasoned, they stand a better chance of winning nominations and awards.
For proof that it works, look no further than Showtime’s “Shameless,” which follows a dysfunctional family headed by an alcoholic.
After making little headway with Emmy voters in its first three seasons, producer John Wells asked the Television Academy’s board of governors to move the show from drama to comedy, arguing that the change was valid because the writing staff all had strong comedy backgrounds. Approval was given, and “Shameless” star William H. Macy will be vying for the Emmy as comedy actor Monday.
This might be called gaming the system, as some network executives privately acknowledge. But it also reflects the shape-shifting that has taken place in television programming, where the lines between drama and comedy have never been so fuzzy.
Ten years ago, when Emmy voters chose between “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Will & Grace” and “Sex and the City,” comic darkness meant “Sex’s” Carrie belatedly realizing she bought a pair of Jimmy Choos the day before they went on sale. Now, comedies regularly explore taboo subjects — rape, suicide, incest. Even audience-friendly shows like “Modern Family” routinely deliver raw, emotionally charged scenes. (Remember Alex flipping out in therapy? Or a heartbroken Mitchell disinviting his dad to his wedding?)
“You could say comedies are becoming more dramatic and dramas are getting a little more comedic and the lines are getting blurred a bit,” says “Modern Family” co-creator Christopher Lloyd, whose show has taken the Emmy for comedy series in each of its first four years. “It’s a positive development that says a lot about the need to surprise audiences, especially viewers who have become so jaded that they feel like they’ve seen it all.”
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, whose show won the Emmy for drama series last season, believes television has evolved past the point where comedies needed “special” episodes to tackle difficult subjects.
“It used to be you’d see one, maybe two episodes a season where a comedy would tackle a topical issue and then it’d be back to business,” Gilligan says. “Now those story lines are woven through the fabric of a season.”
That kind of careful story planning is easier to do these days as cable networks and on-demand streamers like Netflix and Amazon order smaller-batch seasons than their broadcast network counterparts.
Among this year’s Emmy comedy series nominees, “Louie,” aired 14 episodes, “Orange” telecast 13 and “Veep” had 10. “Silicon Valley” aired just eight.
Last year, when Tina Fey planned the final season of “30 Rock,” she asked NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt if she could reduce the episode count from 22 to 13.
“Thirteen is such a civilized number of episodes,” Fey told The Times recently. “That cable model is so lovely. We luxuriated in that. Things could finally happen! With episodic comedy, you spend a long time wanting the characters to grow — but not too much. So now we could do a bunch of big things.”
But doing big things in small numbers presents another quandary for the Television Academy. This year, two crime dramas — HBO’s “True Detective” and FX’s “Fargo” — premiered to wide acclaim. Both shows sported stand-alone story lines, ensuring that their casts would be around for just one season.
The programs, however, wound up nominated in different categories. The eight-episode “True Detective” and its stars, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, landed in the drama category, while the 10-episode “Fargo” and its cast members are competing in the less prestigious miniseries class.
“I’ve got conflicted feelings about it, and they’re probably what you’d imagine,” “True Detective” creator and show runner Nic Pizzolatto says about the network’s decision. “I probably just went from being a contender to a long shot, but it was a great vote of confidence in their belief in the show’s quality.”
FX President John Landgraf, speaking at network upfronts recently, called HBO’s move “unfair.”
“My own personal point of view is that a miniseries is a story that ends, a series is a story that continues,” Landgraf said.
Television Academy spokesman Chris DiIorio pointed to an Emmy rule stating that limited-run series with a “created by” credit, like “True Detective,” cannot be entered as a miniseries unless the network requests a waiver. HBO didn’t, putting “True Detective” up against defending winner “Breaking Bad” in the drama series category.
“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going for drama. Ooookaaay ...,’” Pizzolatto remembers.
Some Emmy viewers may well share his befuddlement when the categories are announced Monday. Many in the industry, including “Modern Family’s” Lloyd, believe that sooner or later the Television Academy might need to address the situation.
“At a certain point, the Emmys might have to delineate a bit more what’s what,” Lloyd says. “But until then, people can describe their show any way they want — even if that changes from year to year.”