We’ve been spending some time considering the serious issues that DM refers to and how we should relate to those. It occurred to me that it would help if we understood how the show is constructed and what makes it fit into the category of TV shows called “Dramedy.” We all know that the term is a combination of “drama” and “comedy,” but I decided I needed to learn more about the special attributes of a dramedy. When I read a variety of sources, I discovered there is more to this designation than simply combining these two types of shows.
I thought I’d look at the definition of “Dramedy” as determined by several sources and then see how we can apply it to Doc Martin. My expectation is that we will be able to look at DM in a more comprehensive way that will add to our appreciation of the show. It is fascinating to look at the history of this genre and it provides some context. I found a good source to help with that and will give a brief run-down of it. Then I found a source that helped me understand more specifically what the conventions of a dramedy are. Of course, I have no idea if anyone working on DM studied these conventions or had them in mind while working on the show; however, I think I can demonstrate how the show follows them quite closely. For me, it was illuminating to analyze the show this way.
The first modern example of combining drama with comedy can be traced to Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent movie “The Kid.” In 2011, “The Kid” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It was one of the first major films to combine comedic moments with dramatic elements, and is widely considered one of the greatest films in cinematic history. Both Shakespeare’s plays and Greek plays had combined comic scenes with drama too. But we’re talking about TV shows, so I will concentrate on those.
All of the information I will use now comes from the online site TVIV.org. I have excerpted the portions of their discussion of dramedy that I consider the most helpful.
According to TVIV.org (and many other sources) the TV show M*A*S*H—based on the 1970 film—signaled a clear departure from the rigid definitions of sitcom in the 1960s. Like dramas, it frequently employed cinematic elements and storytelling tools—single-character narration, documentary-style cinematography, crane shots, etc. In the structural sense, its most important convention defiance was its use of season-long (or longer) story arcs—while most episodes addressed one conflict which was eventually resolved (or at least concluded), changes in situation permanently affected the characters, up to and including the deaths of major characters, and some story arcs were stretched out over the course of several episodes or an entire season.
To describe this new type of series—too weighty to be merely a “comedy,” too light to be a true “drama,” and containing a great deal of structural elements of both—television critics of the 1970s coined the term “dramedy.” However, even prior to M*A*S*H, television comedies had begun to address serious social issues. Here “All in the Family” comes into prominence again. (I used it previously to discuss what makes DM so appealing, and now I must refer to it for other reasons related to DM.) It debuted in the season prior to the 1972–73 season (in which M*A*S*H premiered). The “situation” of each episode was often a lead-in to a rather frank and unflinching portrayal of genuine societal concerns of the 1970s—racism, rape, abortion, religious conservatism and freedom, etc. The term would also be applied to such series as Barney Miller, which, while a half-hour comedy with a laugh track and broad characters, still nonetheless showed those characters as complex and often permanently affected by their police work.
According to ITIV.org: As the 1980s started and a new breed of television-bred producers, writers and creators such as Steven Bochco and David Chase began to get their own shows, the trend only increased. Bochco’s series “Hill Street Blues,” for instance, centered around police detectives and police work—a dramatic premise dating back to Dragnet. However, “Hill Street Blues” was often tongue-in-cheek, and many of the characters existed almost exclusively as comic relief.” Bochco and his contemporaries (such as Joshua Brand and John Falsey on “St. Elsewhere”) and ultimately successors placed comic relief characters as central to the plot, and would often involve even their more serious central characters in more comedic situations. Thus, the term “dramedy” began to apply to their works.
But it was in 1986 that another show broke through the divisions of drama and comedy in a significant way. The show “Moonlighting” was nominated for Comedy/Musical categories for the Golden Globes and for the Drama categories for the Emmys. Moonlighting had both structural and thematic elements of both. In its premise, it was truly a romantic comedy, yet it was also a serious detective drama. “Structurally, it employed cinematic elements and the four-act structure, yet some of the cinematic elements it borrowed were from Warner Bros. cartoons—clearly comedies.”
“(In 2006) the term (was) redefined to largely exclude structural elements and to focus on a subsection of thematic elements. Those comedies, which, while clearly comedic in tone, nonetheless handle the dramatic situations as serious issues are now considered ‘dramedies.'”
As you can see there’s a rich history in television that encompasses the evolution of Dramedy. Although this review focuses on American television, I believe it set the standards for TV in general.
I want to now move on to an in-depth look at the mechanics of dramedies and how they appear in DM. For this information I decided a good source is a 1996 article written by Richard Taflinger, Ph.D., associate clinical professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University:
Taflinger asserts “the dramedy is…the most difficult of comedy shows to produce because it must contain three things: 1) a superb cast working as an ensemble; 2) a clearly delineated sphere of activity for plots; and 3) excellent writing.” DM satisfies all of these criteria.
Most dramedies have a core cast of 6-8 characters. DM fits this scheme because its core cast consists of eight characters who form its ensemble: Martin Ellingham, Louisa Glasson, Bert Large, Al Large, Aunt Joan/Aunt Ruth, Mrs. Tishell, a constable (Mark Mylow/Joe Penhale), and a receptionist (Elaine/Pauline/Morwenna).
When it comes to the sphere of activity, Taflinger specifies:
“The sphere of activity must not only be clearly delineated but must have an essential nature of its own, one that by its very appearance gets a reaction from the audience…Since the locale is so important in the dramedy, it is more strongly emphasized behind the credits. For example, the camp and surrounding territory are clearly shown in the opening of M*A*S*H, and the neighborhood and house shown for ALL IN THE FAMILY.” The introductory credits for DM are always accompanied by the sweep of the scenery in and around Portwenn, eventually settling on a view of the harbor from above.
Taflinger argues “there are two kinds of dramedies. In the first, the human dramedy, the emphasis is on the characters battling the theme as it relates to the theme’s effects on other characters. In the second, the advocate dramedy, the characters are in two warring factions, each faction advocating a certain point of view about the theme.” He adds:
“Human dramedies usually have a subplot, the only type of situation comedy that does. The subplot is often comic, underscoring the main, more serious plot. It is also usually a conflict between people, rather than a conflict between people and the intangible forces surrounding them…In all cases, the subplots underscore comically and thus intensify the main plot.” Among the episodes of DM we have many comic subplots that would satisfy the qualification of underscoring the main plot. Starting with the first episode, we have the main plot of Martin Ellingham’s awkward arrival in Portwenn combined with the comic subplot of the awkward discovery that one woman’s HRT cream is giving both her husband and her boyfriend breasts. ME has to decide whether to stay on in Portwenn and find a way to deal with all sorts of unwelcoming behaviors by the townspeople while also having to find a way to mediate between the triangle of lovers. In the end he gets punched in the nose, but the couple’s anger gets defused and he decides to stay in Portwenn. If we wanted to, we could go through almost every episode and come up with a comic subplot that underscores the main plot.
Taflinger delineates several segments to each dramedy: complications, crises, climax, and denouement.
“The complications are based on the theme but involve character or action. They are new developments in the problem that require the characters to examine their own thinking or take an action that opposes or supports their point of view on the theme.” In DM the epsiode complication that jumps to my mind is S6 E7 when Mike is pursued for being AWOL. He’s AWOL because the army planned to alter his OCD, or fix him, and he didn’t want to be fixed. He ultimately agrees to turn himself in and hopes the army will allow him to deal with his OCD in his own time.
During a crisis,”the characters are presented with a dilemma and must do or decide something to relieve the stress.” Among the many times the characters in DM are presented with a dilemma we can include water contamination, Mrs. T’s absconding with JH, and Mrs. T’s return to Portwenn after being in psychiatric treatment.
“The climax forces the character to examine his or her beliefs and actions in support of them, and either vindicates or condemns him or her.” Here we could apply ME’s handling of Stewart or of Helen’s death, and many other occasions.
“The denouement of a human dramedy will often end with the conclusion of the subplot, thus ending the show with a laugh rather than deep introspection.” The first episode of DM is a good example of ending with a laugh, but here I see some deviation of DM from the norm because there are many episodes that end on a serious note. This is especially true at the end of S3 and throughout S6. Even here, however, the humor of the subplots keeps the episodes from getting too far away from comedy. For example, S3 E7 was filled with humorous events although the denouement was no laughing matter. In S6, we can say DM became much more of a drama than a dramedy and most episodes ended without a laugh.
Next Taflinger addresses how the characters are typically developed:
“The regular characters in a human dramedy are in occupations that allow them to meet and deal with characters who have problems relating to a societal ill…They discover and try to solve the problem; the problem thrust upon them by the nature of the societal ill with which they are concerned…They are usually compassionate, human, and try to believe that each person is an individual worthy of respect and personal regard.” We have no trouble associating this with DM. Both ME and LG have jobs that engage them in dealing with “societal ills.” ME must treat people who can’t miss work or who don’t have the capacity to properly follow his medical advice. LG must handle all sorts of parenting problems as well as her students’ family conditions. Both of them treat everyone without prejudice. The rest of the regular cast follows these precepts too.
“There is one main character…Most plots revolve around this character, usually as he works to solve the problem, but occasionally he is the bearer of the problem.” This is DM in spades.
“Usually one of the supporting characters causes antagonistic feelings among the others, and will usually bear the brunt of any subplot. His personality grates on the nerves of the other characters, and makes them desire abatement and/or revenge.” This quality is satisfied in DM by both Bert and Mrs. T. Bert more regularly causes disruptions that result in some sort of redress, but Mrs. T has her moments for sure.
“The transients in a human dramedy have two purposes: 1) they are the source of most of the primary problems, either as the creator or the bearer of the problem; and/or 2) aid in finding and/or applying solutions to the problem. The former is most common.” Again, DM fits within this mold. The transients include psychologist Anthony Oakwood, hotel owner Carrie Wilson, doctor friend Gavin Peters, Joan’s former lover John Slater, Ruth’s stalker Robert Campbell, and so many others. They are, for the most part, the bearers of the problem.
“There is a theme in virtually every episode of a dramedy…They are personalized and personified, relating specifically to a character so that the audience can see the effect on the individual.” I see this as closely related to the transients and we certainly see themes throughout DM.
“Psychologically, the characters are as close to fully rounded human beings as can be found in situation comedy. They are capable of depression, exhilaration, love, hate, anger, serenity, sentimentality, compassion, wit and stupidity. Most importantly, they are capable of logical and rational thought tempered with intuition and emotion.” For DM we can add that they are often afflicted with a variety of psychological conditions.
Taflinger also states, “the place of work is not comfortable and quite often not even attractive, just functional.” Again, DM comports with this convention. The small building that contains both ME’s surgery offices and his personal rooms is far from attractive and cramped when he is alone. The kitchen doubles as a place for private use as well as for the use of the receptionist. Once he adds Louisa and James Henry, the space seems extremely tight, especially since they don’t use the living room very often. Saying it’s functional is almost a stretch by the end of S6.
I have been using the features of a human dramedy because that is what DM most closely fits. In advocate dramedies “the main character is one who represents a definite point of view that is usually very limited and not subject to change…These characters resent and oppose any point of view other than the one they hold. They think they are always right, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a fool, an idiot, or worse. They are outspoken to the point of crass rudeness, will voice their opinions loudly and long, and if proven wrong will not accept the argument but will make personal attacks on their opponent’s intelligence, background, and morals.” In addition, “opposition characters hold opinions and philosophies diametrically opposed to the main character’s. It is from this opposition that plot conflicts arise. Such characters are usually in the main character’s family, allowing ready access for battle…The involved neutrals are peacemakers and clarifiers. They are most important, however, as representatives for the audience, giving the audience someone with whom to identify and enabling the audience to see the effects of extremism.” “All in the Family” is clearly an excellent example of an advocate dramedy.
Finally, Taflinger notes, “although the dramedy is often very funny, it is not because of a deliberate striving for laughs no matter how they are gotten…It uses both serious exploration and discussion and comic intensification to examine a theme and make the audience aware of intellectually and feel emotionally about it.” DM does exactly this. There are moments when they go for a laugh, e.g. ME hitting his head or falling down stairs, Penhale acting the buffoon; however, the major thrust of the show is to use comic intensification that affects viewers on an intellectual and emotional level.
When I read about the attributes of dramedy and applied them to DM, I realized that the show really sticks to the conventions associated with dramedies. Despite my deep appreciation for this show, I am struck by how there is a formula that it follows to a great extent. The excellent character development and writing are also key elements of all human dramedies. Doc Martin is in good company, and we should not be surprised that it’s been such a success since it conforms to the same standards of many of the most outstanding TV shows in memory.
Originally posted 2014-06-05 19:01:33.