It's been a, well, breakout run for "Orange is the New Black," the show about a women's prison whose first season notched three Creative Arts Emmys this past weekend and is up for some major awards in Monday's main event.
Netflix's latest hit, by Jenji Kohan, turns quirky and deadly serious, and is as hard to label as any of the program’s richly defined jailhouse characters whose commonality rests largely in setting and dress.
As much as "OITNB" deserves recognition, its inclusion in the Outstanding Comedy Series category seems, in some respects, as ill fitting as a standard-issue prison orange jumpsuit. This year's humor nominees, which also include the benign nerds of "The Big Bang Theory” and the more cutthroat geeks of “Silicon Valley,” make for odd cellmates, reflecting the changing world of – and perhaps a shifting definition of – TV comedy.
It's a move that started 43 years ago with "All in the Family," even if the many of the current crop of anti-sitcom sitcoms are more recent and direct descendants of "Seinfeld" – not there's anything wrong with that. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's celebration of unlikable characters led to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's original UK version of "The Office." The brilliant, cringe-inducing BBC show carried the mockumentary to the TV comedy forefront – current Emmy comedy nominees “Modern Family” and “Veep” employ the form.
If “Seinfeld” broke rules for sitcoms fronted by stand-up comedians, then Louis C.K. took a sledgehammer to the genre in this past season of “Louie,” which notched an Emmy nomination in the comedy category despite turning dark and even violent at times. “OITNB” packed more laughs, by comparison.
Credit Emmy voters with making some bold choices – even if the Emmys aren’t ready to go the route of the recently revived American Comedy Awards, which created an Alternative Comedy Series category (“Key & Peele” beat out “Drunk History,” “Archer,” “Kroll Show” and “Portlandia”) to supplement its Comedy Series grouping (“Parks and Recreation” triumphed over “Modern Family,” “Veep,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).
For the "OITNB" creative team, entering in Emmy’s comedy category probably came down to practicality. The drama race is packed with high-quality programs – including farewell favorite “Breaking Bad” – leading to snubs of worthy contenders like “Masters of Sex,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Good Wife.”
The only drama surrounding “OINTB” is how it will do on Monday's NBC Emmys broadcast – and whether the exposure will increase the captive audience that gets a wide range of entertainment value out of a show that won’t be boxed in.
Watch the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards live on Monday, August 25 at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on NBC.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.