Was I not meant to laugh?
What follows is an off-the-cuff bit of writing about television, comedy, and genre. It isn’t part of my thesis, exactly, but draws on some of the issues that I’m working with. It isn’t intended to be a final comment on anything, just a bit of rambling on a topic.
As a television researcher, and particularly as a comedy television researcher, I often face issues related to how various programmes are categorized. The nightly decision of what to watch is tied to significantly to category. We like or don’t like various genres. We dismiss the programmes linked to others we dislike. But what happens when there’s confusion in the marketing of a programme? What are we supposed to make of a programme that defies generic conventions?
This past week saw the premier of Channel 4’s Sirens, a show that still has me a bit puzzled. The initial ads for it popped up several weeks ago and I interpreted them as being pretty clearly aimed at a comedy audience. Three men in a truck, waiting in a drive-thru queue. Frustrated, they put on the ambulance siren, forcing the cars in front of them to edge out of the way. They pull up to the window and place their order. The show title comes on screen with a heavy drum overlay. The ad left genre out of it, but the content was clearly that of a comedy. The minor cues within it seemed to inform the audience that this would fit alongside some of 4’s experimental comedy programming, such as Campus (which was itself advertised as a piggy-back to the earlier Green Wing).
When the second round of ads came out, the direction had changed slightly. One such ad can be viewed on Channel 4’s YouTube:
The content of the ad includes quick cuts, highly sexualised content (though presented in an almost cartoonish way, with naked men hopping out of cupboards or using colanders to cover themselves), and a tag line ‘saving everyone but themselves’. Following on the previous ad, it is easy to continue to lump it in with the experimental comedy genre. Yet the voiceover declares it a new drama from 4. Not a comedy-drama. A drama. A drama about EMTs.
There’s a certain dissonance between the visual and the voiceover here. So how is the viewer meant to approach this programme?
I allowed the answer, for me, to come via another Channel 4 offering — Shameless. (As it happened, the premier of Sirens was days after another of the 4 channels began airing episodes of the US version of Shameless.)
Like Shameless, Sirens is a “drama”. It is a dramatic series in structure and content, but the delivery is often comedic. That is, rather than a dramatic drama, it is that relatively new hybrid, comedy drama. Further information about Sirens, in TV guides and other promotion, lumps it in that fluid category.
Again referring to Channel 4’s YouTube description:
A team of world-weary paramedics are forced to confront the dregs of society in forthcoming comedy drama Sirens.
Behind the uniforms, the sirens, and the incredibly fast driving, they are three ordinary blokes trying to make it through yet another shift. But once they’ve finished saving other people’s lives, will they be able to salvage their own? British Comedy Award winner Kayvan Novak (Four Lions, Facejacker), Rhys Thomas (Bellamy’s People, Star Stories) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Worried About the Boy) star.
Here we see a few things pointing to what I would class as a sub-subgenre: the ordinary comedy drama. These programmes, like Sirens and Shameless, draw most of their comedy from interactions of ‘ordinary’ people. There are no high-level comedy situations, and the comedy is not the focus of the programme. Rather, they look at situations that are not inherently comedic, but at the same time do not remove the natural comedy that occurs in even the most dramatic setting. (Not that this is entirely new, of course.)
The massive amount of televisual output in the satellite TV era forces us to define and redefine the content of genres, and to accept a certain fluidity of genre. Were we meant to laugh? Maybe the more important question is whether the intention actually matters. If the intention doesn’t matter, though, how can we know what to watch? If genre is dissolving, where do we find interpretive cues within a programme?