I hate the phrase “dramedy.”
Every half-hour TV show that isn’t quite a comedy has been given that title. NURSE JACKIE? WEEDS? TRANSPARENT? GIRLS? Dramedies, despite the fact that the spine of these shows are unequivocally dramatic. If you added a meaty B and C storyline to NURSE JACKIE, the show would become HOUSE, something that has never been called a dramedy despite its moments of humor and lightness. Classics like GUNSMOKE and THE TWILIGHT ZONE were half-hours, so by the definition of run-time shouldn’t it be classified as a comedy, or worse, a dramedy? (The correct answer, as I hope you know, is definitely not.)
We’re in an era where dramatic storytelling no longer needs to be relegated to an hour, and the streamlined, nimble storytelling of the half-hour format can be just as dramatic as its 60-minute companion.
So what makes a show a drama?
- Subject matter.
- Approach to subject matter.
- Scene composition.
Let’s compare VEEP and HOUSE OF CARDS. Both are about Washington D.C. and politics, sure, but more specifically VEEP is about the powerlessness of the Vice Presidency and the incompetence of Selena and her staff, whereas HOUSE OF CARDS is about the power struggles in D.C. and the viciously cunning Frank Underwood and his power maneuvers.
The tone of these two shows are continents apart: HOUSE OF CARDS is brooding and stylishly dark, and VEEP is a cynical farce. Their approach to subjects like power (and lack thereof) are what sets them apart on genre lines.
In a typical VEEP scene, you can expect sharp witticism and barb-filled dialog, with an undercurrent of comedic suspense as we watch something fall apart thanks to the incompetencies of the characters.
In a typical HOUSE OF CARDS scene, we expect chilling hints at Frank Underwood’s latest scheme for power, and an undercurrent of suspense as we wait for dark dealings to bubble to the surface.
Structure of a Half-Hour Drama
The nimble, fluid structure of a half-hour drama gives writers a lot of room for flexibility. However, even as these half-hours seem to be able to buck the norms of structure, they still do follow patterns of structure similar to their hour companions.
- Half-hours have one or two major plot movements. Whereas hours have several big movements that culminate in end-of-act cliffhangers four or five times an episodes, half-hours usually only have two major plot movements at most, one of which turns the story to the other.
- Three acts and a teaser is the structure, but there’s room to mix it up. Hours usually fall along the lines of four or five acts plus a teaser. Half hours can fall along three acts and a teaser, but you’ll rarely see act breaks in the script. Struture is more fluid in half-hours.
- Scenes often run shorter because they no longer have to service multiple plotlines, with scene lengths running on average 1.77 pages. There are also a scarcity of exterior shots, and exteriors are mostly only used for establishing. In terms of scene length, if a scene is longer than two pages, it’s usually a central plot point (usually a pivotal dinner or party scene.)
- Rather than juggling A, B, C storylines with a D runner that hours have the time to tackle, most half hours focus on an A-Story (like NURSE JACKIE, ENLIGHTENED, I LOVE DICK), or have equally-weighted A and B and C storylines that track an ensemble cast that have a culminating plot movement that ties them together (TRANSPARENT, TOGETHERNESS). Overall, there’s more flexibility with the form, as long as the focus of each individual episode is made clear (in thematic or character terms.)
- Dinner is the most dramatic meal. In almost every half hour I read, the major plot points revolved around a dinner (or two dinners, like GIRLS and CATASTROPHE). If you want to break the form, have a set piece revolve around brunch which never has any drama.
I broke down a handful of half-hour dramas to make the below infographic to give you an idea of what the average half-hour drama looks like:
Now go, reinvent short form television and make some great dramatic television!