Until recently, it was as if a decree requiring all TV dramas to last an hour had been handed down from on high. “And it was said, that in order to evoke sadness, tenderness, tears, pathos, or anything that doesn’t involve laughter, man must taketh up 60 minutes (44 minutes on thy broadcast networks)” – something like that.
But while plenty of customs — two-year presidential campaigns anyone? — continue despite their inefficacy, irrelevance, or inappropriateness, let us be glad that more and more TV outlets are breaking rules, and the length rule in particular. They’re recognizing the value of the half-hour drama, the power of brevity that short-story writers have always known about. Unlike the Emmys, which still mostly categorize shows according to length, they’re giving audiences enough credit to understand that drama can come in many shapes and sizes.
The current batch of half-hour dramas includes some of the best series that TV has to offer. Amazon’s “Transparent,” which returns on Dec. 4, HBO’s “Togetherness” and “Girls,” both of which return on Feb. 21, and Pivot’s now-airing “Please Like Me” all refuse binary genre definitions. They include moments of humor, of course — so did “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” — but most often they’re steeped in the more problematic aspects of life and relationships, with searching characters who embody a lot more than one or two qualities.
The phenomenon took form in the 2000s, and Showtime was the pioneer. With “Nurse Jackie,” “United States of Tara,’’ “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,’’ “Weeds,’’ and “Californication,” the cable channel ushered the format into acceptance. In 2009, I wrote a story about the then-new phenomenon and chose, for reasons that I can no longer recall or that I am blocking because they were so very wrong, to employ the label “grimedy.” No, not a particularly catchy word, and anyway these shows aren’t always grim, even if they’re grounded in serious themes.
The popularity of the shorter Showtime dramas, driven by auteur-ish talents such as Jenji Kohan and Diablo Cody, meant we could no longer assume half-hour TV shows were automatically less prestigious or emotionally affecting than the list of Golden Era regulars. The shows were filmed very much like those groundbreaking dramas, with the same kinds of cinematic virtues, season-long plot arcs, and dimensional performances. “Nurse Jackie” was the most dramatic of the bunch, with Edie Falco’s central character locked into a relentless downward spiral of pill addiction. The show was consistently nominated in the Emmy and Golden Globe comedy categories, but anyone who watched it knew better.
“I always thought I was signed on for a drama,’’ Falco told the Globe when the show premiered. “And then I found out that Showtime bought a comedy. So there were times when I had no idea what the hell we were making!’’
The half-hour length added an intensity to “Nurse Jackie” that suited the subject matter. The writers did devise some amusing subplots for the side characters, but they were able to keep their focus trained on the subject of their character drama, to dig into the crannies of her problem, to consider ideas about substance abuse and our health system. They didn’t have to fill up the time juggling other plots; Jackie and her ups and downs were the point.
HBO’s two-season wonder “Enlightened” also benefited from the same kind of undiluted close focus. The show, created by Mike White, was a dark and intimate portrait of a woman — played with great passion by Laura Dern — negotiating her way from victimhood to empowerment in spite of the pressures to remain a dupe. Dern’s Amy, like the leads in most of these half-hour dramas, was neither strictly a heroine or an anti-heroine; she was something in between, like most people who walk this earth.
The most creative show in the half-hour drama format may be “Louie,” Louis C.K.’s celebrated FX series. With “Louie,” C.K. has rid the half-hour format of any last vestiges of sitcom conventions, most notably the requisite ensemble of friends. He has shown that having only a half-hour can liberate a TV auteur, enable him or her to turn on a dime, to be thoroughly unpredictable from week to week. He has shown how — as with a short story — enigmatic and quiet material works most effectively in a shorter format. “Louie” has been influential — the wonderful new Aziz Ansari show on Netflix, “Master of None,” is a “Louie” baby, as is IFC’s “Maron” — but it remains unequaled.
It has proven once again that less can do a lot more than we ever knew.