Publication Date

April 2017


Lisa Dombrowski


Film Studies


English (United States)


Between 2005 and 2012, Showtime Networks premiered several female-driven half hour shows that mix drama and comedy, including Weeds, Nurse Jackie, The Big C, and United States of Tara. These shows, which I term “female-led dramedies,” changed Showtime’s history forever. This time period marked a moment of incredible growth for Showtime, as, suddenly, critics sat up and paid attention to the oft dismissed premium cable network. Its investment in series centered on powerful, complex women paid off. With strong lead performances and edgy, provocative storytelling, the female-driven production trend won the network its first string of Emmy nominations and wins. At the same time, Showtime’s viewership sky-rocketed, jumping from 13.8 million subscribers in 2005 to 21.3 million subscribers in 2012. Showtime had popular programming before 2005, but the dramedies centered Showtime’s place as a competitive “high-quality” channel. In my thesis, I aim to expand the premium network conversation beyond HBO and its legacy to examine how the Showtime female dramedies and their variants utilize generic hybridity to align us with deviant women and develop Showtime’s brand as an edgy, provocative channel with, as their slogan suggests, “no limits.” The dramedies are undeniably connected: they are all half-hours, mix drama with comedy, and feature A-list actresses, high production values, explicit content, and flawed yet relatable mothers. Additionally, they all feature protagonists and families that are antinormative, or, in other words, divergent from socially acceptable norms: a pot dealing mother in Weeds, a pill-popping nurse in Nurse Jackie, a selfish and deceptive mother with cancer in The Big C. The upper middle class “bad mothers” that populate the dramedies make questionable and difficult choices at times, including adultery and criminal behavior. They are women who hit their children, threaten their rivals’ lives, and disappear from their families for days on end. At the same time, the women are ultimately celebrated within their narratives for their differences and transgressions. Thus, they are cultivated by Showtime to support its distinct brand identity as a network that is always “surprising the audience,” according to former Showtime President Bob Greenblatt. Showtime revels in the edgy and taboo. In the first chapter, I examine Showtime’s history and branding strategies by tracking its programming and promotional materials. I focus specifically on the marketing strategies of Weeds and The Big C to demonstrate how the dramedies fit into and expand Showtime’s image of being edgy, alternative, and intoxicatingly bad. I then turn to three case studies to see how generic hybridity is deployed within the Showtime dramedies themselves: Weeds, United States of Tara, and Shameless. The second chapter looks at how Weeds merges anarchic comedy and serial melodrama in its construction of narrative consequence, demonstrating how the series allows Nancy Botwin to refuse change and repentance. The third chapter focuses on internal and external conflict in United States of Tara, using generic hybridity to tell a very different story than Weeds. Rather than depicting an expansive and violent world of drug dealing, it looks inward as a meditation on the Gregson family to align us with Tara’s unruliness, as she battles her varying personalities to win control of her body and mind. In the fourth chapter, I turn to Shameless (U.S.) as a variation on the dramedy format, functioning as a more explicit social critique by focusing on a low-income community in Chicago. Finally, I conclude by situating the dramedies within the broader television canon, examining how they both fit into and fall outside of exclusionary notions of “quality television.” In various ways, both the network and its dramedies claim to be gutsy and fearless. Before watching its programming, Showtime’s current slogan warns us: “Brace Yourself.”



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