The Emmys think Barry is a comedy? Don’t make me laugh

One-word genre labels are losing relevance because they can’t keep up with what television, in the streaming age, has become.

Reading through the nominations list for this year’s Emmy Awards – to be held on the morning of 13 September AEST – one thing stuck out to me:

Nominee for Outstanding Comedy Series: Barry (season 3).

Now, I love Barry, I think it’s an ‘Outstanding Series’, but I have to wonder – was the third season really a comedy? 

Created and written by Bill Hader, who also serves as the show’s star and frequent director, Barry follows its titular character as he tries to leave his life as a hitman to pursue acting in LA. The first two seasons draw plenty of comedy out of this premise, satirising Los Angeles and the entertainment industry, introducing a comically ineffective Chechen mob and the emerging comedic genius of Anthony Carrigan, and packing in plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners.

But the third season takes a notable turn toward the dramatic, amping up the violence and pushing many of the characters to their darkest points yet. This most recent season wound back the laughs, and stretched out the tension; I think it’s kind of foolish and bizarre to label it a comedy.

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This isn’t just a problem for dramatic ‘comedies’ either. The incredible 25 nominations for HBO’s hit series Succession raise their own questions. The show is nominated for ‘Outstanding Drama Series’, and a slew of actors are nominated in categories for best performances in a drama series, but isn’t Succession more of a satire than a straightforward drama?

While Succession seems, on paper, to be a Very Serious Show about Very Serious People, a lot of its merit comes from the mockery of its characters, and the satire of their grossly privileged world. If the show was to play as a straightforward drama, I think it would be out-of-touch and alienating, rather than celebrated as a hyper-relevant satire.

The writers and directors of Succession never forget how ridiculous these characters and their lives are, and the show constantly asks its audience to laugh at out-of-touch, childish, melodramatic and sheltered one-percenters.

The camera work reminds us of this too, zooming in rapidly to film characters’ reactions when something particularly egregious happens, adding an exclamation point to a joke and asking: ‘Did you see that? Wasn’t it ridiculous?’ The characters’ problems, the tension of the show, and its status as a ‘drama’ are constantly undercut by the ridiculousness of their hyper-privileged worlds in a distinctly comedic way.

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Of course, Bill Hader’s Barry (which also stars Henry Winkler) sounds like a comedy, and the names Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong give Succession some dramatic weight. But shouldn’t the Television Academy be smarter than this, and think about more than star associations when classifying TV?

Are genres categories irrelevant?

Genre labels are simple ways to make new shows understandable and appealing, but television is becoming increasingly complex and diverse. Shows are scattered around broadcast television, streaming and cable TV, and appeal to more niche, fragmented audiences than the television of broadcast, mass appeal, and network television of the past. One-word labels are losing relevance because they can’t keep up with what television has become.

Furthermore, why are actors who contribute to the comedic aspects of drama still nominated in categories for dramas? Why are Nicholas Braun and Kieran Culkin, who contribute much more to the comedy of Succession than they do to the series’ dramatic elements, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in A Drama Series? It would seem a strange fit if they won the category, wouldn’t it? 

Better Call Saul, at least, straddling comedy and drama deftly, does at least have some technical nominations that fit the bill, ie ‘Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series’

Scrap it

Maybe the Emmys should scrap genre categories altogether and throw all the shows and actors into one mega-category! Or they could separate series by episode length and have half-hour shows in one category, and longer-form episodes in another. Perhaps the best way to go about award categories is to recognise the different platforms and formats of the series, broadcast TV vs. streaming.

Maybe actors could be nominated for a different category than their show? Nicholas Braun for comedy and Succession for drama? Could you nominate hybrid series for both categories, and put Barry and Succession in comedy and drama if they deserve both of the nominations? 

Is the whole idea of the award show outdated? It seems they’re already losing their credibility as markers of success, as TV fandoms and the internet has the power to praise, elevate and advocate for a series without the need for a golden trophy.

These days, we’re empowered through the internet to reject formal awards and accolades and engage with our favourite or most hated shows through LetterBoxd reviews, Twitter fandoms, TikTok reactions and Instagram fan pages instead.

As a fan of both, I’ll be happy if Barry wins for comedy and Succession for drama but the days of the Television Academy having the final say on how good – or even what – a show is are clearly numbered.