Dramedy, its history and its connection to Doc Martin

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.

Taflinger continues:
“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.

29 thoughts on “Dramedy, its history and its connection to Doc Martin

  1. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you again for being a regular reader and for liking my posts.

  2. Carl Jame

    You have way too much time on your hands. Can’t you just enjoy a show without having to dissect every bit of it?

  3. waxwings

    There are very few shows in the TV or movie universe worth dissecting. Doc Martin is one. Some of us can appreciate it at many levels, including the more serious and cerebral ones. Having a skilled and intelligent leader who can tease out the important life issues raised by this brilliant series is a gift to all of us. For those who value and appreciate the complexity of what the writers, producers, directors and actors have created with DM, we welcome Karen’s generous gift of dissection. And we are very grateful for the time and energy applied to it. The level of snark in your comment shows disrespect to all who engage in the colloquy afforded on this site. More’s the pity that a reply was in order. Getting off my soapbox now….

  4. Barb

    Wow… some people feel the need to complain about anything. Good reply Waxwings. I’ve been meaning to post about the article, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I appreciate the history of dramedy. I’ve never seen or heard of “The Kid”, but now I’d like to see it. Some of the shows I’ve haven’t seen either. But I did watch and like “All In The Family”

    It’s interesting to see there’s a formula for successful dramedies. I sure hope season 7 or DM will be more like the first 3 seasons…. more comedy and less drama. Season 6 was way too heavy.

    Thank you for another very thoughtful post.

  5. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thanks again for your comments Barb. You really should see “The Kid.” What Charlie Chaplin was able to do in a silent film is quite impressive. I remember being a huge M*A*S*H fan and I loved “All in the Family” and “St. Elsewhere” but I can’t say I watched “Barney Miller” or “Hill Street Blues” so avidly. I have always loved mixing humor with drama though.

    I am definitely in the same camp about S6 and hope to see more humor again too.

  6. waxwings

    Until your post on dramedy, I never thought much about it, or even knew that’s what I liked as a TV genre, rather than something else. Like Moliere said when he was talking, he never knew that he was speaking prose! I think many of us who are attracted to DM have been loving dramedy for a long time, but we didn’t know that’s what we were loving—or watching. Thank you for illuminating this for us.

    I think the very first time I ever heard the word “dramedy” was in a DM promo interview with Ian MacNeice who said that he really enjoyed doing this “dramedy,” and when he said it, I thought, ah yes, nice word for combining two words that I did understand–drama and comedy. Yes, perfect for DM.

    And of course, until this post, I never understood the differences between “human dramedy” and “advocate dramedy,” so I’m glad to be enlightened, and I agree, DM falls in the human dramedy category, as you outlined the distinctions.

    You mentioned several early dramedies, such as MASH (one of my favorites) and Hill St. Blues, Moonlighting, and St. Elsewhere. Yes, I think many of us would say we had been fans—big fans—of all these shows (now understood as dramedies). You quickly added back in to this list Archie Bunker, but for my money, it was light on the “drama” side of things and heavy with gratuitous laughs and blatant social commentary. It lacked the subtleties and real seriousness implicit in, say MASH or St. Elsewhere. What a great early example of dramedy was MASH. I liked it so much better than Archie Bunker for conveying social issues, political dilemmas and comedic drama. But we can disagree on this, as I know we will.

    And here’s another one that I think needs to be included in your “dramedy” list: Northern Exposure, about a newly graduated doctor who is required to set up his practice in a remote Alaskan town filled with eccentric people as a condition of his educational scholarship. It is full of pathos and drama, laughter and comic situations. It definitely goes in the human dramedy category. This series ran from 1990-95, and it had an enormous following. It was the only series that I ever recorded, and I still have the entire set stacked up beside my old VCR , ready to watch, as I frequently do. I just checked the IMDb site and found a quote about it from a viewer/fan very reminiscent of things we say about our own DM:

    “Northern Exposure has been one of very few shows that have brought both laughter and tears to my eyes within each and every episode…Perhaps I lean toward enjoying eccentricity more than some, but throughout any given episode’s ‘quirky’ moments there will always be an undercurrent for the common man, and a generous one at that….”

    Anyway, before I get lost in the twiggy branches of the dramedy tree of knowledge, I will stop. Thanks for another enlightening post and for showing us that we have been speaking prose all along. 🙂

  7. waxwings

    PS: The exact Moliere quote was: “These forty years now I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it.”—Molière, The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670

  8. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    “Northern Exposure” is one of my favorites too and I should have included it. I think of DM as a cross between NE and “House.” The quirky characters and doctor in a setting he’s not used to and a remarkable diagnostician with a surly demeanor on the outside but a good heart on the inside and compromised by his own handicaps. They are both surrounded by a great ensemble and had a mixture of laughs combined with serious issues. “House” started to break down after the first two or three seasons, but we regularly watched it anyway. Thanks for the quote from Moliere too!

  9. Linda

    That WAS a good reply Waxwings! I ascribe to the “Bambi” theory – if you can’t say something nice …..etc. Why would someone enter this site if not to read about Doc Martin stuff? I appreciate the brilliance of these posts which often have me going back to an episode to re- look or re-think something. In my opinion, this is a very throrough and comprehensive blog! Keep writing!!!

  10. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you Linda! I plan to continue and hope to find more to write about.

  11. Barb

    I just finished watching “The Kid” on youtube!! I’m so glad you told me about it. I think I’ll make a list of some of the shows that have been talked about, and I’ll see if I can find them! I haven’t seen most of them. I used to watch St. Elsewhere… and Barney Miller? I might have seen an episode or two M*A*S*H. It’s good to hear about shows that are worth watching!

  12. Mary

    Great commentary as usual by Karen…. I think it could be summed up nicely with the one paragraph you added ““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.”

    If you think about it, any drama worth its salt is one in which all of the complexity of what makes us human is fully displayed. The best dramas will make you think, laugh, cry, feel anger, hope, joy or despair. If you don’t then the actors and writers are not doing their job. I tend not to give much weight to labels like dramedy simply because good drama has it all. Doc Martin has touched people around the world because its characters are so convincing as human beings. They are us.

  13. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Yes! Categories shouldn’t limit what can happen, but they are used to represent important differences between dramas and dramedies in television, for example. Dramas are generally serious and contain very little humor. The fact that a dramedy uses humor to intensify a serious theme is what makes it so special to me. It’s great that this genre has developed to the point that there’s no loss of character depth or important themes while also being light enough to make us laugh.

  14. Mary

    “dramedy uses humor to intensify a serious theme”…

    Hmmmm….yes, but isn’t that what the best dramatists do? It can be serious in overall tone, but the dramas that capture my attention (and undying love) are deftly balanced with comedy. I guess you could call it dramedy, but then I’m not sure I’d label Doc Martin’s Series 6 a dramedy…some humor yes, but heavily overshadowed by the tensions of Doc and Louisa’s relationship. I guess I find the term dramedy a bit confusing and strange, another way to market t.v. shows, while the word drama simply means what its always meant, “telling a story”.

  15. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    I have no reason to quibble over whether DM is a drama or a dramedy. It’s been labeled a dramedy in various articles and I’ve done my best to show how it fulfills the conventions of a dramedy. If you’re not convinced, that’s fine. I think you have a point if we are looking at S6 even though there was still a fair share of humor throughout the series. S6E1 was the funniest episode of the whole show, if you ask me. S1-5 made me laugh a lot-much more than any straight drama would. I haven’t seen a definition that tells us there is supposed to be a certain percentage of comedy in a show to qualify it as a dramedy. For me, the enjoyment of watching this show has a lot to do with it not being serious all the time. I was sorry to see the humor in the character of ME disappear in S6 and hope it returns. His inability to recognize jokes and to admit mistakes, his clumsiness and rudeness, and his ineptness while romancing L, were all great fun and I miss that. The whole show lost a lot of its humor with the possible exception of Penhale. But his type of humor is now tiresome to me.

    If you bristle at putting labels on things, you’re not alone. TV critics find it useful, and I think labels are appropriate when they help us recognize the innovations that writers have used to modify former patterns. I enjoyed the exercise of applying the conventions of dramedy to DM and seeing how easily they fit it. Nothing more.

  16. KR

    Waxwings — couldn’t agree with you more! I love this blog because it’s so intellectual. Karen, keep up the excellent work — even though I’m not responding often, I’m always reading and enjoying the posts and the thoughtful replies.

  17. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    It’s so good to hear from you again. I am glad to know you’re still reading the blog and continue to enjoy it.

  18. Theresa

    Once again thank you, thank you, thank you for the extraordinary time and effort you put into your writing. Your work is outstanding and I am impressed every time you write something. I also really appreciate the added information you include that gives us other avenues to explore on our own time. Your mention of “The Kid” was one of those. I never would have thought I would enjoy a silent movie – the first I ever watched. It was very good.
    Thanks for explaining “the formula: – it adds another layer to my appreciation of this show and the work that goes into producing it. I remember hearing Ian McNeice use the tern “dramedy” once in an interview and I thought “that is an interesting term”. Didn’t realize there was so much to it.
    LOVED M*A*S*H. Brought back memories of watching it with my siblings. Good times.Thank you very much, Karen.

  19. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank You Theresa! I’m very glad the attributes of a dramedy added dimension to your viewing of DM. They do for me too. So much of TV has been enriched by adding comedy to drama (or vice versa). The serious themes are easier to handle when tempered by comedy, but I don’t think they lose any impact.

  20. Chai

    Another program comes to mind: “Monk”, played brilliantly by the talented Tony Shalhoulb. As with Martin Clunes and “Doc Martin”, it seems that the preceding roles acted by Mr. Shalhoub were only a warm-up to the convergence of writing, directing, setting, location and ensemble which consummated in his portrayal as the obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk. The only ‘down’ note might be for the actors who become so intimately identified with certain characters that the viewers are unable to accept them in other roles.

  21. Amy Cohen

    Fascinating analysis of dramedy, and reading the list of shows in that category made me realize that it is one of my favorite genres—I’d add Downton Abbey to the list although perhaps there was less comedy there, though the Countess was always good for a laugh.

    Reading through the elements and structure of dramedies as the writers you rely on described them made me wonder: is this an “after the fact” analysis or are these elements that creators of dramedies incorporate deliberately to make a work a dramedy? That is—are these features planned as requirements for a dramedy or did these critics just find that they are common to so many dramedies?

  22. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply, Amy. What I would say about the way such designations are developed is that the initial recognition of various aspects of movements/definitions is that the artists/writers/creators of art/literature/film etc. start reacting to various events in the world by producing works that correspond with their observations of those. After they put their creative juices to work, analysts come along and notice how there came to be a coherence to the movements. This has happened over and over again in art and literature. We have Romanticism followed by Realism, then Naturalism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, etc. We can trace how Romanticism began in Europe and influenced writers throughout the world in a sort of wave starting with one decade in one area of the world and moving on to others. Whole books have been written about this phenomenon in each of these movements. Artists are often the first to be sensitive to changes around them and to respond by adapting their artwork to what they’re feeling. So Naturalism, for example, was a reaction to the question of whether human behavior is a result of heredity, environment, and the pressure of circumstances, and those authors wrote about characters who exhibited traits emblematic of those conditions.

    With respect to trends in TV, I think we would say the same. Once Charlie Chaplin addressed some serious issues with humor as well as drama, screenplay writers, comedians, and others found that refreshing and exciting and decided to put those two elements together in their work too. They realized the impact of the combination during an era of such upheaval. Each time, and each decade, there was a little tweak here or there until analysts could look at the output as a coherent creation that contained particular features that made it successful. Then they called it a dramedy. Once that happened, and the elements were established, newcomers to the form studied it and put it to good use.

    In my mind, the writers/producers/directors of Doc Martin were familiar with the concept of dramedy, wanted to create a dramedy, and found themselves following the typical format of dramedies because it suited their ideas very well. What we see, then, is that they have mostly stuck to the ingredients of dramedies while also straying at times. For me, their straying eventually became a problem, not because they weren’t following what could be called a formula, but because when they went off course the show wasn’t as strong. Now they have to fight to get themselves back in line with the dramedy they used to be, which was excellent because of its mixture of unforced humor and addressing serious matters to do with family, childhood, marriage, and more.

  23. Amy Cohen

    Thanks, Karen, for your thoughts. I understand the way general movements in art, music, and literature evolve in a symbiotic way. I was more focused on the incredibly specific list of elements listed for a dramedy—number of characters, one main character, subplot, a specific setting, jobs that introduce new characters, etc. Some of these seem common to many types of works—TV or otherwise—that aren’t dramedies. Most sitcoms have a particular setting, limited characters, conflict, jobs that bring in new characters, etc. These elements don’t seem unique to dramedies—e.g., I Love Lucy, to name an old sitcom, Dick van Dyke, to name a 60s sitcom, Cosby (80s), or even today unless you’d consider shows like Big Bang Theory or Modern Family to be dramedies (I don’t). Also many dramatic shows fit these elements as well—lawyer and doctor shows, etc. Is Grey’s Anatomy a dramedy because there are sometimes funny parts? I guess I sometimes find these “elements” tests to be forced by scholars looking for something that never was thought of by creators as necessary to their genre.

    For me dramedies are shows that use humor but also have continuing story lines that are more dramatic. I am not even sure I’d call MASH a dramedy or All in the Family. To me both were comedies making serious commentary, but there was nothing really dramatic in terms of continuing story lines. Humor has been used to make serious points forever going back at least as far as Jonathan Swift if not earlier. Didn’t Shakespeare even use comedy to make some serious points about human relationships (I am thinking of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream or Taming of the Shrew)?

    I think of Doc Martin as a dramedy—a light hearted drama with some parts that make you laugh—like Moonlighting or Downton Abbey. I think of shows like All in the Family and Modern Family as comedies with some social commentary, but their main purpose is not to tell a story but to set up situations that will make us laugh and maybe think a bit.

    I will stop rambling now….

  24. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Well, Amy, I would say that there must be some similarities amongst genres in the most general sense that includes an ensemble of characters, a setting that reappears in each episode, and incidents/actions that move the plot. We couldn’t really have a story without those, right? But I see a big difference in what happens say in The Big Bang versus MASH or Moonlighting, and, for that matter, Doc Martin. (As for Shakespeare, and Chaucer, etc., I did mention that they had combined humor with serious topics too.)

    The core characters in Big Bang share the primary role; there is no one main protagonist who everyone else plays off. You might argue that Sheldon has the more central part, but that’s not always true. I’m getting beyond my reach a little here because I don’t watch Big Bang regularly, but I’ve seen enough to know they each are highlighted and every episode isn’t about Sheldon. The humor is far more apparent than the drama, if there is any real drama. Big Bang is mostly a half hour of nerds being nerdy. Occasionally they hit on some meaningful points about academia or relationship issues, but only in the most simplistic of ways.

    When it comes to I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore, or any of those sit-coms, we have much more slapstick, or light humor, and very little in the way of drama.

    So there is a distinction drawn between rom-com, sit-com, plain ol’ comedy, and dramedy. They share the comedy element and deviate in the emphasis placed on how the comedy is incorporated.

    That we have these categories and develop theories about movements may seem overly didactic or pedantic, and everyone can decide for themselves how much they care about them. They exist, however, because they help provide some order and insight into what might otherwise seem lacking in comprehensibility. Naturally, you would hear me say that because literary analysis is my wheelhouse.

    I find looking at Doc Martin’s use of the many qualities of a dramedy a way of getting more enjoyment out of it. For me it adds something. It may not to you, and that’s fine.

  25. Amy Cohen

    I think we are actually in agreement here. I do find the analysis fascinating and helpful, so I was not at all dismissing the relevance of the analysis or the categories. I love literary analysis (I took as many English classes as I could in college without technically being an English major), so please don’t think I was somehow belittling your post. But I am not sure that the elements picked out by Taflinger are helpful in defining the differences between a sitcom, a drama, and a dramedy.

    I just think in some ways there is no real category of dramedy—it’s all a spectrum to some extent. You’ve got at one end pure drama with no laughs and at the other pure comedy with almost no story (there’s always some story, even in a sitcom). Everything else falls somewhere in between. MASH may be closer to I Love Lucy than to Bonanza (which also had Hoss for some humor and Hop Sing (ouch)), Doc Martin may be closer to Bonanza than MASH. But don’t almost all shows blend some story/drama with some humor? Is there really a clear line where a show becomes a dramedy?

    Mostly I was saying that I found Taflinger’s test for dramedy flawed and confusing since I see those elements in many shows that fall outside of the range on that spectrum that we might call dramedy. My argument was with him, not with the purpose or value of literary analysis itself.

  26. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Fair enough. Any attempt at defining a genre comes up against differing opinions and there’s no requirement that you accept it as gospel. I consider the many elements of dramedy that Taflinger points out quite telling in that the setting, role of characters, and similarity of approach are applicable to those sorts of comedies that also make an effort to tackle serious topics. To me it’s fascinating that he, and others, have identified key points of comparison even down to including an opening sweep of the locale in each episode to establish that the show comes to us from the same space where we were before. In Big Bang, for example, we have no such opening sweep; we’re just supposed to know we’re somewhere in California and in some apartment building. The location of the show could really be anywhere USA.

    But you don’t have to be convinced by any of this. It’s simply another interesting way to look at the show.

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