One reason I’m looking forward to the premiere of Dollhouse, in spite of all the gloomy stories about its production and time slot (and therefore its potential for lasting much longer than Firefly) is that Joss Whedon is the king of a particular type of TV that I love, and that hasn’t been seen much on television lately: the show that is funny and serious at the same time.
Many if not most hour-long dramas have their comic moments, but they are usually bisected into “serious” scenes and “comedy” scenes. Each scene has its own overall tone and mood, and apart from a joke as a treacle-cutter near the end of a serious scene, or an earnest dramatic surprise at the end of a funny scene, you will not see much overlap between the two types of scenes. Even on a show like Mad Men, where the moments of humour are more unexpected and unpredictably placed, the writers won’t usually risk destroying the serious mood of a scene with a joke. What made Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer so unusual was that in its first few seasons it almost did away with the division between drama and comedy, with scenes constantly bouncing back and forth between funny and serious, goofy comedy lines occurring in the middle of very serious scenes. (The movie also had this weird mix of styles, which is why it’s an underrated movie.) The definitive Joss Whedon speech is from a Buffy episode in the second season where Buffy confronts a friend who betrayed her:
I am trying to save you. You are playing in some serious traffic here, do you understand that? You’re going to die, and the only hope you have of surviving this is to get out of this pit right now, and my God, could you have a dorkier outfit?
Buffy eventually lost this wonderfully bizarre mix of styles, particularly after Whedon turned over some of the showrunning duties to Marti Noxon; in the last two or three seasons, most of the episodes were much more clearly divided into scenes with specific, unvarying functions (either a scene that’s supposed to be funny or a scene that’s supposed to be serious, rarely both). You can get a clue to this in the seventh season episode “Conversations With Dead People,” with four plots written by four different writers; only Whedon’s scenes, with Buffy talking to an ex-schoolmate who’s now a vampire, are funny and serious simultaneously, rather than just being one or the other.
Another show that was deservedly famous for a mix of tones and styles was The Sopranos. While that show would not usually inject corny jokes into a serious scene, it would often present us with two ways to read a scene; we’d ask ourselves, is this supposed to be serious or just silly, and we’d realize that it was both. Take the famous scene in the pilot, when Tony Soprano succumbs to his first “panic attack” near the pool while an opera aria is playing. On the DVD commentary, the eternally-sycophantic Peter Bogdanovich says that the scene has an “epic feel.” David Chase corrects him, saying it’s “epic silliness” — and those two words are as good a summary of The Sopranos as I’ve ever heard.
Of course, when we talk about this technique, we’re talking about Irony (not to be confused with Richie Rich’s maid). The two shows I’ve mentioned, Buffy and Sopranos, both had ludicrous premises and were aware of the fact; a lot of the comedy comes from the awareness — the writers’ awareness, and our own — that we’re being asked to get seriously involved in a show about a Valley Girl who fights monsters, or a mob boss getting in touch with his feelings. These shows knew they could sometimes be implausible and ridiculous, and they also knew that there was emotional truth and realism in these ridiculous, implausible stories; we could laugh at a scene and see ourselves in it at the very same moment. You don’t have to do it that way — J.J. Abrams has shown that you can be very successful by taking a ridiculous premise with complete seriousness and making us take it seriously — but it’s a very satisfying, rich mix, if one that’s very hard to achieve.
I don’t see a lot of shows that have that elusive quality — of being serious and ironic all at once — now that Sopranos and Veronica Mars are gone. That other Mars, Life On Mars, has some of it, but even that show seems pretty clear about where the serious leaves off and the funny begins. One reason I was kind of sad to see Boston Legal go, even though it’s a complete mess, is that its messiness came from its attempt to be really silly and really serious at the same time (the problem is that the stuff David E. Kelley thinks is serious is often sillier than the intentionally silly stuff). I’m sure we’ll get others, though, even if Dollhouse doesn’t pan out. These shows are tough to do, but they’re irresistible when they work.