It might not seem like it when watching them, but the Primetime Emmy Awards are far from the most meaningless in Hollywood. For that distinction, you can choose from any number of more qualified candidates.
Of the major ones, the Grammys easily come to mind, for being a joke that gave Jethro Tull a "Best Metal Album" award over Metallica, for giving Pink Floyd no awards until 1995 and for being so worthless that Homer Simpson's bellhop once threw one off a balcony before an angry bystander hurled it back at him and knocked Homer out. The Oscars deserve a whole column on their own, so it's best to skip them here. It's an open secret that votes are for sale at the Golden Globes. And the Tonys — nobody cares about them.
Then you have the awards obviously created to give awards to people and product that would never win any in a mainstream competition. The Cable Ace Awards were ginned up back before most cable channels even made anything. The Teen Choice Awards have an obvious institutional bias toward content so shitty that teenagers will like it. Finally, you have awards that were created not to give recognition to creative endeavors that couldn't earn distinction on their own but to further brand the award-givers themselves: the ESPYs or any MTV award for anything.
Think of all the children in this world who one day hope to grow up and win an award from the basic-cable tastemakers of the lowest-common denominator, having the shiny thing placed in their hands by MTV VJ Sway wearing a diaper on his head — or by someone with one eye that wanders off like a GUNS/BUTTER demand curve and an IMDB "Memorable Quotes" section that has four different entries, all of them "BOOYA!" spelled in different ways. Okay, you can't, because there aren't any, but it's important that we tried.
So, really, the Emmys aren't that bad, which is why its interesting how they feel so consistently idiotic. They're by no means the dumbest awards, but I always read the results with the expectation that they're going to fuck everything up. As I said last week at SomethingAwful, largely the fuckup is institutional. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (hereafter, "the ATAS," the people who award the Emmys) tends to back itself into a corner with nominees, where any person or show that garners multiple nods eventually almost has to win an award or else risk making the ATAS look foolish for suggesting their excellence so many times.
Once a person or show actually wins, the pressure increases, because any output of identical quality the following year makes the show/person's failure to win conspicuous. If they're just as good in 2010 as they were in 2009, why didn't they win again? Questions like these lead to ossification of nominees and winners, which makes the unexpected wins more questionable and more liable to send the ATAS into a frenzy of self-doubt the next year. Ultimately, the best way for shows and actors to stop getting nominated — and the best way for new shows and new actors to get nominated — is for older shows to reach their end, get canceled or for the actors to leave the shows or die.
Again, those are institutional problems already outlined. To see them in practice, we have to turn to this year's Emmy Awards, which were as bad as ever. Obviously there isn't time to discuss each winner and nominee in every category (I'm skipping the Supporting Actors/Actresses awards), so let's look at the interesting ones, proceeding from ones that spark questions to ones that spark just total bewilderment. By looking at them in depth, we can also see one other institutional problem with the Emmy awards, one that I didn't go into last week. It's this: most people in television don't watch a lot of television.
There are all kinds of reasons for this. They're too biased; they're too busy; when something is your job, you don't use it to recreate as much, etc. Narcissistic indifference toward creations that are not your own also probably plays a significant part that those in question would prefer to pretend does not exist. Thus you have people familiar with only a small sample size of television — and perhaps prejudiced toward their own field, e.g. laugh-tracked sitcom writers nominating things like The Big Bang Theory — making decisions about actors from single-episode selections and ignoring the evolution of a performance over a full season, judging Best Drama from a field of shows across all kinds of genres that they may not even bother knowing much about as a whole, picking names of shows and people they recognize because it seems like an educated guess and in any case isn't work. Perhaps then the question shouldn't be how people within the industry so regularly fail to recognize the best writers and performers in their midst but rather how the few just and indisputably deserving wins even happen at all.
Outstanding Drama Series & Outstanding Lead Actor
There's really nothing to complain about here, with the tremendously smart Mad Men winning for the third year in a row and the we-no-longer-have-to-call-him-underrated Bryan Cranston winning for the third year in a row. That said, this pair of threepeats inspires a few odd questions. First of all, does the ATAS really think the writing and the rest of the cast of Breaking Bad sucks this much? It's good enough to get nominated for two years — and in fact has improved during that span; it has the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama this year (and really, this was a no-brainer: he was that good), and the show's major focus is on evidently the best actor in the TV business. So what gives?
Conversely, how can John Hamm get nominated for his acting for three years and not win? It almost suggests that the show has an amazing cast, writers' room, set design, costuming, scoring and direction; it's just that he's the one thing about it that doesn't measure up. Granted, it would be far lazier to have Mad Men and Hamm win every year, but these other questions seem perfectly reasonable. While Mad Men is the stronger ensemble, a lot of its social commentary has more of the illusion of insight than anything concrete. Sometimes they get the big themes just right, but often those stabs at commenting on racial and workplace equality feels like window-shopping for moral depth. And while Breaking Bad is much more intensely dramatic and "televisiony," it brutally speaks to immediate concerns with an incredibly strong core character while doing so via arguably the best cinematography in the business.
As for the other nominees, it's hard not to argue that Kyle Chandler and the almost sneakily (but undeniably) great Friday Night Lights haven't been consistently hosed. Matthew Fox finally made LOST's Jack Shepherd likable again, but ANGRY-resigned-ANGRY isn't much of a range, and even though the writers are partially to blame, it's hard to ignore how much his character has been over the map for years before this one.
Dexter is basically a cartoon that seems to appeal primarily to internet men who enjoy any good vicarious outlet for their continually thwarted but genuine sociopathy. (For those whose sociopathy is less general and more directed, say at Arabs, there's always the torture-riffic 24.) It's murder porn for the terminally impotent. Further, Michael C. Hall seems like a good dude — the fact that he's dating his talentless and nearly sexless co-star seems like charity — and I feel horrible for him that he got cancer. But both the writing and direction of the show are strangely insistent that he remain a cipher onto which anyone can project their own ugly fantasies. He's not a bad actor, but the one-note writing and static structure of the show keeps him from being a great one. It's not his fault, but that's hardly a criterion for an award.
There are three items on the baffling end, and only one reflects anything good. The first two are the nominations for The Good Wife and True Blood, both undeserving in different ways. The Good Wife feels smarter than the bland network-fare stakes it trades in. While the subject matter is modern and seemingly progressive (a wronged married woman can desire someone other than the husband who betrayed her while also enjoying work), it suffers from easy victories, sudden chessboard friendships/intimacy and soap-operatic large strokes that send the main character pinballing into new plots. Don't forget the saintly patience of those surprisingly adult and precocious children!
Meanwhile, True Blood is the sort of show that deserves at least 1,000 words to identify the elements of its badness before even explaining them. In a pinch, though: drawling and terrible accents, one-note performances, the constant selective and thundering idiocy of its characters, huge pacing problems unforgivable in a show with only 12 episodes per season, leaden elementary-school-level social insights and the shameful wastage of a few outstanding actors in a show with such throttlingly inane dialogue, motivations and character development make it pretty much totally fucking incredible that it got nominated for anything other than an award based on contempt.
The third baffling item belongs to Hugh Laurie. Is there any show on television that would fall apart more completely without its lead actor than House, M.D.? As great as Hamm and Cranston are, it's not really a stretch to think that another unknown or character actor could have been found to fill their roles. But Laurie owns House to such a degree that the role is totally indivisible from his performance. Go back and watch the first two or three episodes, and it's clear how painfully humorless much of the writing was. You can hear all the medical clichés ("When you hear hoofbeats, think horses!—not zebras!"), and so many of Laurie's lines could have been delivered with a commensurate purposeful focus that would have killed the subsequent dynamic of the show. Laurie's pulling faces, physical comedy and almost flawless comic delivery made the show evolve around how he acted its main character. It can still be an intense and moving show whenever it likes (Robert Sean Leonard is shamefully underrated), but it can also be one of the best comic shows every week, while still hitting beats that manipulate viewers' emotions.
Of course, this argument is itself sort of silly, because both he and the show probably should have won for "House's Head"/"Wilson's Heart" two years ago, capping off the amazingly funny and well-written season four with a two-episode arc whose bus-crash reveal is probably one of the most moving moments in recent TV memory. Still, the point stands: it's hard to think of a better definition of Outstanding Actor than one whose absence would make a good show collapse into complete failure. House is nothing without Laurie. How is that not outstanding?
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
You can see the Emmy nomination/win bind at work in this category in the case of Alec Baldwin. He was nominated for the previous three years and won for the last two, and it's anyone's guess how his performance dipped this season. 30 Rock's writing dipped overall, but it did so while highlighting his character, Jack Donaghy, in both a love triangle and the sale of his TV empire to a cable company indifferent to innovation. After winning for a strike-shortened season and for another season in which he only had two story arcs at different parts of the year, this year he lost for a season in which he had the most to work with and played it brilliantly. Oh well.
Still, this isn't a bad field by Emmy standards. At least five of these six series are actually comedies. The nominees are still sort of confusing. You have Larry David nominated for an acting award for playing "Larry David," who is actually Larry David, who is apparently an asshole. You have Tony Shalhoub nominated for probably the least funny episode of Monk ever, which says a lot, since the "Monk finds something gross and then spends five minutes doing pointless physical comedy while everyone in the room watches and doesn't put a stop to it within ten seconds by helping him" schtick stopped being funny about six episodes into the first season, back in 2002. ("Haha! Don't you get it? It's a police procedural where people who are so determined to solve a murder spend days dicking around not stopping someone they've known for years from doing something they know how to prevent or alleviate because, I don't know, it's fucking funny!") On top of the absence of the typical Monk non-funny, there's the fact that the show was mostly emotionally wrenching, with the character driven almost to vengeance, finally capped off by something sweet and barely played for a chuckle. It'd be a confusing nomination, if it weren't for the fact that the ATAS lazily nominated Shalhoub for this award eight times since 2003.
Rounding out the category are the three bafflers again. First is the fact that Steve Carell has unjustly never won this and probably never will — unless he unjustly gets awarded for a sentimental final season with diminished writing, taking the trophy over someone probably more deserving. Second is the fact that someone from Glee was nominated. I assume I can get away with a blanket statement like that, since if you like Glee, you surely aren't still reading this article due to shock at its opinions, the fact that someone stopped helping you sound out the words, or your mouth got tired from moving so much. Third is that the person who won is on The Big Bang Theory, which I wasn't aware was even comedy except to people who like making fun of things that nerds watch.
In fact, I've only ever met two people who had anything nice to say about the show, and both made me doubt my own impressions. One is an avowed nerd with excellent taste in many things, who in fact persuaded me to give How I Met Your Mother a shot, which proved him totally right and resulted in my sending him both a mea culpa and a thank you. The other is one of the least nerdy people I know, who I've spent countless hours getting shitfaced and grilling and watching sports with, and who once was dragged laughing behind a motorcycle while doing ether. I think he's the second-biggest badass I've ever met, despite also being one of the laziest people I know.
Of course, the latter has a degree in math, and so he and the other guy both watch for the nerdiest of possible reasons: to hear math jokes. This leaves most of America in the lurch, because the show's basically a formulaic 1980s sitcom coupled with 1990s snark and post-2000 referentialism. It's hip riffs on the same tired structure. But because the jokes are about ostensibly smart things, viewers mistakenly assume that it's a smart show, when it's still a dumb thing namedropping abstruse concepts — like someone in a Girls Gone Wild video vacantly reading Gödel, Escher, Bach aloud while having her sorority sister perform cunnilingus on her. On top of that, the winner of Outstanding Comedy Actor, Jim Parsons, plays a variation on the now-common "Aspergian" character who doesn't relate to people and says stilted and awkward things because, well, whatever: he's got Aspergers or something. I liked this show better as Head of the Class, because at least then I could watch Dr. Johnny Fever and a redhead who helped me discover irrepressible yearning sensations emanating from my pants.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Here's a fun Emmy tradition: when the winner and nearly half the nominees of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series are neither comic actresses nor in a comedy series. I was chatting about this category with my brilliant buddy JShap — who could have written these articles himself if only he shared my complete lack of priorities, and who last turned up during the liveblog of World Series Game Two. His suspicion was that this distinction goes back to Susan Dey winning as the comic relief of L.A. Law, which probably happened. I agreed with him that it was possible, since Susan Dey sucked and thus would immediately qualify for the Comedy Actress nod for being so bad as a dramatic one. It's hard to believe that anything on L.A. Law could have been intentionally funny because otherwise someone would have done something about the hair, makeup, costumes and Harry Hamlin.
An uncharitable person or an outright misogynist could have a field day with this category, riffing off the old conceit that "women aren't funny." I don't think that's true, but the Emmys and other award shows seem to try their hardest to give ammunition to this kind of ugly gender dismissal.* There really is no excuse not to have five or six nominees from comedy shows every year, and yet the Emmys love to extend the definition of comedy for actresses beyond any conception of the form. Then again, I don't know what to think from an institution that still considers Lucille Ball to be the gold standard of hilarious women. Maybe they really think that the funniest ladies are ones who are stupid, easily confused, prone to whine a lot and scream at men, then have to eat food in quick succession, then scream and almost cry. How liberating of them. (She was a genius. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Riiiiiiiiickyyyyyyyyyy. Bob Cummings.) Whatever.
* — There's no place to put this, because it really deserves its own article, but during an email exchange JShap made a note of tallying up all the funny non-Tina Fey actresses in comedies since 2000 and then tallied up their Emmy nominations. My math may be off, but here is the result: a stunning 4 nominations out of a possible 48 seasons of different shows. The list of potential nominees includes actresses like Sarah Chalke, Jessica Walter, Portia de Rossi, Jenna Fischer, Cobie Smulders, Kristen Schaal, Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, etc. Women are funny. Going by Emmy nominations or awards, you'd never know that.
Let's get the actual funny people out of the way first. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has had great timing and expressions for ages, but she gets bogged down in doing the same stuff again and again. She really shines as a guest star, coming in for a one-off performance that doesn't have to be repeated. Tina Fey is funny, too, but she already won twice, and at least one of those was generous. She is doubtless the funniest writer on her show, but she's probably only the fifth-funniest actor. It's a pity she got awarded early and has only gotten better.
Then there's Amy Poehler. Her first-season stories for Parks and Recreation as do-gooder Leslie Knope made her too much like Michael Scott from The Office: high ambition, low self-awareness, extra-delusion, little competence. It was a terribly unsympathetic note to strike for a new series, and those first episodes of Parks and Recreation often struggled because they resulted in 22 minutes of extended agony for a well-meaning person who was a colossal bozo. Surrounded by other people who weren't really nice, the one person we were supposed to like was hard to relate to because she made herself unlikable by assertive and under-informed blindness.
The writing staff — headed by Michael Schur, the best non-Joe Posnanski baseball blogger ever — realized how badly they'd miscalculated how the ensemble would work for audiences and started turning things around by the end of the first season. During the second, they came out firing on all cylinders, deepening the supporting cast, while making Leslie just as assertive but procedurally savvy. She still put her foot wrong in extraordinary circumstances, but day to day she owned her office. Coupled with a boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), whose libertarianism was so severe that he not only wanted to see his job dissolved but actively campaigned for its dissolution with state budget mercenaries at the end of the season, her character emerged as the heart and soul of what communities should do for their citizens.
Poehler also managed to hack it while being RIDICULOUSLY pregnant — given how hard it is to just be yourself while pregnant, imagine how hard it is to be someone else — hitting big notes, slapstick, serious, emotional and deadly subtle silent moments in a way that made the season, while putting a huge toll on herself personally. Parks and Recreation started season two as a show without a core and without a lot of appeal, and Poehler not only became the former but amply delivered the latter, bouncing off an ensemble cast that was able to show warmth and goofiness by riffing off her character's good intentions and her open, non-hogging comedy.
Probably the standout role for the season is Offerman's Swanson (who was, of course, not nominated), because of his ruthless deadpan. What makes it work so well is that Poehler didn't try to help him stand out by being hysterical or "big" over him, but rather by trying to play down. The sincere and failed attempts to meet his deadpan just made his all the more tremendous. It's a rare case to see two actors regularly trying to be funnier by agreeing to go lower in intensity at each other as much as possible.
As for the rest, again we have Glee. There was a nominated person in it, but who cares? There was a model who tried to show the Edsel at a car show, too. I'm sure she's dead now. Then there's Toni Collette, who plays a woman with multiple personality disorder on the show The United States of Tara. I guess this is comedy. The ATAS sure thinks so. Mostly, I think about what a nightmare this must be for people who live through it. And if you watch the show, that's pretty much the baseline concern. The people involved are not happy, and they react in self-destructive ways as a means of coping with mom/wife/sister's inability to be one person. The show is slapstick on top of psychological unhappiness, like a Band-Aid on top of an infected cut.
Really, it's not a comedy show. It's funny because people use humor to cope with things that make them miserable, as with many dramatic moments in the real world. Also, Toni Collette gets to have big slapstick showpiece moments because these are the things you write for actors or actresses to give them meat: they're the moments they get to chew on to feel like they're owning a scene. But they're moments that exist as counterpoint. Her brawlin' man personality, Buck, and her fuck-crazy young personality are the comedy garnish on the wound of a family already broken in terms of everything fundamental. Making her funny is a way of making good drama, which is, you know, not a comedy.
Even so, it's light-years funnier than Edie Falco's role on Nurse Jackie. First of all, it's a show about a put-upon nurse. Second of all, it admits it's a "dark comedy," which is "serious" cable television cop-out language for "not funny" but also "not rigorous enough to take 100% seriously as drama." It's that neither-fish-nor-fowl distinction that hopes that it can enjoy approval for both forms without having to meet the standards of either. And it's a smart decision. The show lacks urgency and humor. Mostly the latter. But if you need more confirmation for the silliness of the nomination, look for the episode choice that netted it. It's the pilot.
Pilots suck. Pilots are almost never funny. This was no exception. Go through TV history in search of a great comedic pilot, and usually you'll turn up shows that failed because they were too weird or unpleasant. In searching the successful shows, you'll find a lot of pilot failures. Seinfeld's pilot sucked. The Simpsons wasn't even good for a whole season. 30 Rock's is clunky and expository; it only gets good if you go back and watch it again, knowing what you know about the characters. The only nearly perfect pilot in years — besides Arrested Development's, which was flawless — belongs to Community, which was also the best comedy this year, which you'll also notice wasn't nominated for anything. That's the Emmys, which are stupid. Instead, you get Edie Falco nominated and winning as nurse in a mostly-drama, for a pilot episode that's pretty much all exposition. There's really no plausible explanation for her winning other than, "[Emmy voter] voted for Edie Falco because she's Edie Falco, and Edie Falco wins Emmys." But what else is new?
Continued in Part III.