TV has a nomenclature problem that is downright silly when it comes to the designation of sitcoms or dramas.
Despite the wide variety of TV content being produced today, the industry seems to still be hung up on defining sitcoms and dramas narrowly in terms of their length -- either a half-hour or hour. Is the show a half-hour? Then it must be a comedy. An hour? Oh, definitely a drama.
Years ago, a wan attempt was made to bridge this gap with a third category designated with the newly coined word “dramedy” -- combining “comedy” and “drama.”
In my career, the word first appeared in the 1980s to categorize a handful of half-hour shows that were not particularly comedic nor dramatic, but a little bit of both -- among them “Hooperman” and “Doogie Howser M.D.” (both Stephen Bochco shows).
Today, video content comes in so many types and takes on so many forms that you would think we would have evolved past this dramedy business.
But here it is again, in the publicity material for this new half-hour scripted series called “American Woman,” premiering this week on Paramount Network.
The network is describing this show -- whose episodes are a half-hour in length -- as a dramedy, but in the first two episodes I watched, there was nothing comedic about any of it.
It was thoroughly dramatic, however. It also happens to be great, which is a much better word than “dramedy” to describe it.Technically, then, it's a drama that happens to be a half-hour. So what's wrong with that? When it comes to this show, nothing is wrong with it.
I fully expected to have the completely opposite reaction to this show than the one I had. As one who is old enough to have experienced the 1970s in person, I feel irrationally proprietary about that decade.
Whenever I come across a new TV series set in the ’70s (and there have been more than a few in recent years), I find myself thinking: Hey, you young people who are in it, and those who are watching it, the ’70s belong to us -- you can't have it!
“American Woman” was different, however. Not only does the show get the look and feel of the decade right, but its performances and storylines feel authentic.
Some of the show's success can be laid at the feet of Alicia Silverstone, who is the series’ star -- the top-featured of the three women who are the focus of the show (the other two are played by Mena Suvari and Jennifer Bartels).
Silverstone surprised me too because before watching this show, I was already primed to try and detect signs that she was not up to the role. On the contrary, in the two episodes I watched, Silverstone gives one of the most rewarding performances seen on TV this year.
Her character is a wealthy housewife and mother in Beverly Hills in 1975 whose world collapses when she discovers that her husband is having an affair and also perpetrating financial frauds that leave her bankrupt and filing for divorce at the same time.
The show deals with the social position of women in the mid-’70s, both domestically and in the workplace. Paramount says the series is “inspired” by the childhood of Kyle Richards, who is one of the women in Bravo's “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” She is an executive producer on the show.
Another executive producer is John Wells, known for such series as “ER,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Shameless” and others.
The success of a period piece like “American Woman,” which deals with an era that at least some of its audience will have known in person, depends greatly on the quality of the atmosphere it creates. This show gets an A+ in this department, including wardrobe, locations, cars and interior décor.
The show's soundtrack is also surprising. The songs used in the show range from the obscure to the iconic. One of the former -- “If You Don’t Like My Apples (Don’t Shake My Tree)” by the Minits -- is so obscure that the year of its release could not be readily learned in a Google search (but it is obviously from the 1970s).
Other songs include the old country song “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” “Misty Blue” sung by Dorothy Moore (1972), the ’70s classic “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate and “Ooh La La” by the Faces, with its lyrics “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.”
The one song not heard in the show in the two episodes I previewed -- other than a tiny snippet that is so brief you might miss it -- is “American Woman” by The Guess Who, from which the show gets its name.
Perhaps they will get around to that one eventually.
“American Woman” premieres Thursday (June 7) at 10 p.m. Eastern on Paramount Network.