Consider the most well-known late 90s and 00s dramas, all part of the TV Golden Age’s upsurge in quality, and all widely considered Greatest Of All Time material: The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men and of course the movement’s spearhead: The Sopranos.
One thing linking all of the above shows is that they’re damn funny. And they don’t just have jokes, or comedy characters floating about – that, in fact, is the approach taken by so many dramas nowadays – but rather humour runs through the entire script. Though their approaches to it may be different, wit is key to each series’ rhythm, too deeply engrained to be disentangled from the show’s makeup without losing its basic essence. One of the great pleasures of watching The Sopranos or The Wire, two shows famed for their thematic richness, grim worldviews, and examinations of heavy issues, is in discovering how much they make you laugh, all the time; it comes as a surprise that these most serious of shows are also the funniest.
Now think about Game of Thrones – perhaps not the very best of ongoing dramas, but nonetheless representative in its approach. Thrones’ neutral state is serious, its dialogue tending towards the turgid. When the show jokes, it’s a Joke, complete with extended setup, punchline, and pause for you to bask in the afterglow. When a scene begins, it’s often immediately clear whether it will be ‘funny’ or ‘serious’, and Thrones isn’t the only (or anywhere near the worst) offender in this regard – just look at any of this year’s bumper crop of acclaimed dramas, from Bloodline to Rectify, The Americans to Penny Dreadful, True Detective to The Leftovers. They share a similar set-up, and similar binary divisions of humour and drama.
So, what’s going on? It certainly seems to be true that writing good comedy is harder than writing good drama, but the ubiquity of this tonal shift suggests other factors are at play. Part of it may be the kinds of stories being told – the genre trappings of shows like Penny Dreadful and Hannibal lend themselves to grand symbolic gestures, and humourless character types.
More and more, though, it seems that credibility is what these shows seek. It took films over half a century to start receiving mainstream recognition of their worth as an art form, and in the era of Netflix bingeing, it’s clear that television is still a medium with its stigma firmly intact, too often portrayed by online media as a guilty pleasure, or method of procrastination. Maybe, in their pursuit of legitimacy, TV writers have left humour by the wayside, deeming it disreputable, or acceptable in moderation. They would be misguided – The Sopranos, and many of its descendents, are respected for the depth of their realness, for the universality of the characters’ plights, and their dialogue.
This is where the sense of humour comes in, and whether favouring awkward naturalism or Whedonian wit, it’s an inseparable part of every one of these shows’ appeal; perhaps, if they really want to be taken seriously, modern television writers need only remember how to really make us laugh.