'True Detective' is a drama, 'Shameless' is a comedy and the Emmys are a mess

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true-detective-shameless-emmys.jpgOn Tuesday (March 25), HBO and "True Detective" surprised Emmy Awards observers by choosing to compete in the drama series category. It followed news that Showtime's "Shameless" is switching to the comedy field after three years competing as a drama at the awards.

On its face, "True Detective" makes perfect sense in the drama field. A dark and moody crime story/character study seems just the kind of show to challenge the likes of "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" and HBO's own "Game of Thrones."

As the first year of an anthology series, however, "True Detective" also seemed more likely to follow the "American Horror Story" route and compete in the TV movie and miniseries categories. The precedent is there, and though the miniseries (or "event series," in current marketing-speak) field is getting more crowded, it's seen as an easier path to multiple trophies.

"True Detective" went another way, though, and that decision, coupled with the "Shameless" move and a similar category jump from "Orange Is the New Black," point to a bigger trend in TV that the Emmys may not be prepared to handle: The number of shows that fall in between the strict delineations of comedy and drama, or miniseries and ongoing series, is mushrooming, and category jumping and strategizing serve more to cheapen the awards as a whole than give individual shows a better chance to win.

By the way, none of this should be considered a dig at how HBO and the makers of "True Detective" decided to position their show for the Emmys. Given the conventional wisdom that the end of "Breaking Bad" is a shoo-in for most of the major awards come August, running "True Detective" against it is actually pretty bold and could make for a more unpredictable ceremony.

The more jaundiced take is that HBO doesn't want "True Detective" competing against its high-profile movie "The Normal Heart," which is sure to get a huge Emmy push and likely a number of nominations. The Television Academy will once again give separate awards for best TV movie and best miniseries, but acting, writing, directing and all the technical categories in the field remain combined.

The miniseries vs. regular series issue is more for people inside the industry, though (as Zap2it argued before the 2013 Emmys). What might matter more to the rest of us -- i.e., people who watch the Emmys and the shows vying for them -- are the seemingly cynical category hops that several shows have taken.

It's still true that most shows fit squarely into the "comedy" or "drama" boxes. "The Big Bang Theory" or "Modern Family," to name two of last year's comedy nominees, would never consider vying for drama awards, just as, say, "Homeland" or "Breaking Bad" wouldn't dream of calling themselves comedies.

But when you watch "Shameless," are you watching a comedy with some dark parts or a drama with a humorous streak? What about something like "Louie," which veers from riotously funny to melancholy to kitchen-sink realistic, sometimes all in the course of a single half-hour show? How about "Girls," or "OITNB," or "Nurse Jackie," or "Enlightened"? Where do they fit?

Maybe it's time to create an "open" category for the Emmys, where tweener shows like the ones mentioned above could compete on their own not-just-comedy, not-just-drama terms. For practical reasons -- not least of which, people don't want to watch a five-hour Emmy telecast -- that probably won't happen. But as the body of shows that don't neatly fit one place or another continues to grow, the Emmys would do well to look for a way to find a home for them. 
Photo/Video credit: HBO, Television Academy, Showtime