Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton and Eve Best as Dr. O'Hara in "Nurse… (David Russell / Showtime )
When Edie Falco won an Emmy for outstanding actress in a comedy for her role in "Nurse Jackie" earlier this year, she looked not only surprised, but also surprisingly irritated. Holding the statue at arms length, she said "Oh, this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever, ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show. Thank you so much. I'm not funny."
Now, many awards winners make obligatory murmurs of self-deprecation, but Falco didn't sound humble so much as exasperated, as if the television academy had missed the point of her Jackie Peyton. The character is many remarkable things, of which funny is fairly far down the list.
Not that the academy had much of a choice; if voters wanted to reward Falco for her phenomenal performance, they had to do it in the comedy category, because Showtime considers a comedy the story of a woman so stressed out by the balancing act of work and family that she extends her hours of production with a home brew of uppers and painkillers.
There's precedent, of course, not just for the categorization, but also for the award. Toni Collette has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a mother struggling with multiple personalities in "United States of Tara," and Mary-Louise Parker has picked up a Golden Globe and multiple Emmy nominations for the drug-dealing former suburbanite Nancy Botwin in "Weeds." (Golden Globe nominations land Tuesday.)
It isn't just women — David Duchovny has picked up a Golden Globe for " Californication," which is heavy on self-absorbed pathos and light on laughs — but Showtime has developed an alarming penchant for putting wonderful actresses in psychologically torturous, life-threatening situations and calling it comedy. This season, it was Laura Linney starring in "The Big C," which follows a woman coming to grips with her terminal cancer and is, remarkably enough, the least dark of the bunch.
Not that any of the characters or the situations are trivialized or played for laughs — all the shows are written with depth, complexity and, occasionally, poetry, which is, of course, how they managed to land such big names.
Despite the presence of Duchovny's sex-crazed character, the gender discrepancy is alarming. While men can be award-winning heroic serial killers (Showtime's "Dexter"), cancer-patients-turned-drug-manufacturers ( AMC's "Breaking Bad") or double-life-leading adulterers (AMC's "Mad Men"), women can do dark only if they soften it with at least the label of comedy.
Most scripted shows on cable are essentially psychological dramas in which an ordinary soul must suddenly cope with extraordinary circumstances. The only thing that separates "Breaking Bad" and "Weeds" is a lightness of tone achieved almost exclusively by dialogue. It's difficult to imagine the "Breaking Bad" writers coming up with anything more disturbing than a child committing murder with a baseball bat, as happened last season on "Weeds."
Which isn't to say that drama can't be funny — the time-honored theatrical icon shows a laughing face as well as a weeping one. Very few shows carry on without a comedic element or two. Even in the extreme cases of "Nurse Jackie" and "Dexter," one is drawn to the main characters despite their behavior precisely because of their conflicted humanity, and humor plays an important part in that connection. "Nurse Jackie" bears a much more striking resemblance to "Dexter" than it does to "30 Rock" or "Parks and Recreation," which provided two of Falco's fellow Emmy nominees, but no one would consider calling "Dexter" a comedy.
So, how many comedic elements does it take to make a comedy? Over on the networks, more rigorous formats make categorization officially easier though not necessarily more accurate. Some shows, such as "The Office" or "Modern Family," are clearly comedies, while others use comedy to heighten, or offset, narrative drama. The success of "House" depends almost entirely on witty dialogue and the comic timing of Hugh Laurie, but it is a medical procedural and therefore a drama. Linney's self-empowering if slightly crazy cancer patient could easily slip in among the cast of "Grey's Anatomy" (if they hadn't had Katherine Heigl's self-empowering if slightly crazy cancer patient already) but again, "Grey's" is a network medical show, so automatically drama.
Likewise, one could argue that such popular crime shows as "Bones," "Castle" and even "The Mentalist" are all funnier than "Nurse Jackie" or "United States of Tara," but while USA's long-running detective procedural "Monk" was considered a comedy, with Tony Shalhoub collecting a stack of awards for outstanding actor in it, there will be no comedy noms for network wise-cracking detectives.
A cynic might suppose that Showtime and other cable outlets push the boundaries of comedy not just because they can, but because the dark shows tempt dramatic performers who generate buzz and nominations. If, on the one hand, this trend toward humor born of inky pathos reinforces the ridiculous but still time-honored belief that drama is more important than comedy, it also proves the impossibility of categorizing just about anything, especially television.