Friday, September 10, 2010

The Emmys Are for Idiots, Part III: Oustanding Actress in a Drama, Outstanding Comedy Series & Epilogue

Continued from Part II.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Pointing out Emmy fuckups shouldn't get easier, but it does. And for some reason, it gets a lot easier with women drama nominees. Maybe the ATAS is just filled with men who make decisions based on dick response, because in some cases it can't be because of any interest in art. Take Mariska Hargitay, who becomes covered with more liquid eyeliner and foundation every season but who also is always supposed to be one sleepless hour away from "losing it" on this next case. There isn't a man in America who would complain about his wife's sleepiness if she managed to tumble out of bed as "exhausted" and fuck-me coiffed.

Maybe this explains the excuses made to get Hargitay's Detective Benson into undercover hooker garb, or a scene during this last season where she, like, totally legally got evidence out of a guy by recognizing that he was a submissive S&M practitioner and ordering him to worship her. Even as a nearly 20-year enthusiast for Law & Order shows, Hargitay hasn't acted a real moment relative to her role for over half a decade. She's makeup, cheap beats and once-a-year Emmy moments written specifically to be Emmy moments. Still, all that Lancôme artifice and over-written crap has to be better than being January Jones, who in interview after interview and in her Emmy talks revealed that, while the willowy blonde nothingness of Betty Draper might be a great character, she might also not be an act.

Damages is a show that continues to elude me, so I can't comment on it. That said, from the ads it appears that Glenn Close plays a brittle hardass, and if there's any role she's owned for 20 years now, it's that one. Despite reviewers' enthusiasm, The Good Wife is more the way it looks on paper, but Julianna Margulies pretty good in it as Nurse Hathaway older and married to someone who's not Doug Ross and a lawyer and victim of adultery, Alicia Florrick. She gets angry about cases and has tension with male counterparts and lives in a supposedly empowering fantasy world of wealthy-person setbacks without real consequence, artificial stakes and constant rescue. Full credit to her, though, for never breaking character, screaming, "BUG!" and trying to smash Christine Baranski with a rolled-up magazine.

The two main disappointments in this category come from missed opportunities. As regards the first, I don't know whether to blame an institutional prejudice against cable or long-time "polite" sneering at Married... With Children, but Katey Sagal's omission from this category for Sons of Anarchy is just plain dumb. As regards the second, it's silly that Connie Britton not only didn't win for her work on Friday Night Lights but was only finally nominated this year. She's consistently done an admirable job bringing a three-dimensional mother and school counselor/principal to the screen. Part of that's great writing at work, but Britton nimbly avoids the traps of self-seriousness and portentous moments of "SPEAKING AS A MOTHER AND AS WOMAN" that these roles so often tend to engender.

Indeed, Britton's Tami Taylor represents the opposite of the artificially empowered women television is so fond of lazily creating. TV wants to give us Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, who taught women that it was okay to not need a man — except for the vast majority of episodes, which were about needing a man — and that self-actualization rises up from inside really expensive shoes. Serious examinations of "equality" come to us in a socio-economic vacuum and wrapped in the sorts of tropes that attend any other job-related procedural drama. The only thing that changes is the backstory. (See: The Good Wife.) Episodes plod along in an absence of any social meaning save for the two or three very important speeches that insult your intelligence and get bundled into Emmy-submission episodes (viz. Hargitay).

There's plenty of that on hand in the performances of this year's winner, Kyra Sedgwick as the eponymous Closer Brenda Leigh Johnson, whose every performance could easily include at least one angry declaration that you do NOT mess with her because SHE IS A SUGARBAKER WAWMAN. There really isn't a single part of the show that is good, starting from the unintentionally funny "serious" Black Screen + Serifed Letters opener, the location shooting that all looks like it was done in software-related office parks outside Dallas and the country-twang guitar soundtrack that never changes and sounds like someone hit upon it after the series creator said, "I want it to sound like ever'one's just gone amblin'."

Seemingly every other episode involves someone underestimating Brenda because she's a woman, despite having a homicide case closure rate of 100% and being the only person in her department exuding anything other than rudimentary know-how. To call her supporting cast a supporting cast is an abuse of the adjective. Oh, sure, they can find shell casings on the ground and interview everyone on the block the dead guy lived on, but they're totally incapable of insight or comparing data. They exist to be not-women, people who are buff and strong and pee standing up, people who aren't as good as the tiny white lady who looks like she could be a housewife, just like the audience the show and its advertisements target.

That's really the purpose to the whole thing: this is someone who owns a teakettle and uncomfortable shoes, who sticks it to murderers and won't be ignored, but who also every now and again needs to be cuddled by a fella because she's not all hard edges either. The show doesn't exist to solve good mysteries. Almost every case is "closed" by Brenda stumbling on a contrived insight and then inducing someone — against their own self-interest and constitutional rights — to confess to a crime in the face of underwhelming circumstantial evidence and her being all, just, Ooo!, puh, foof, goshdarnit, just tired of yew laiyin' tuh hurr.

I hate to harp on an accent as an indicator of acting talent, but if you've ever put one on for a school play, for a prank or for serious theater, you can spot what she's doing right away. Most people can't flawlessly do an accent, but they know which words they can nail to really "sell" it. I don't know what the technical term is, but for the sake of argument, let's call these keywords. For someone doing a Woody Allen impression, the first keyword you need to nail is "Jesus." Once you get the sort of half-snort he does and the "Jeeezus" whine, the audience is pretty much sold, and it doesn't matter what the rest of the words sound like. Or take Scottish: most people with a slight facility for accents can do a passable Scotsman by underlining the keywords that they'll make sound great. In that case, "great" is a great example. Most people wouldn't have the first idea how to say "towel" like a Scotsman, but they know to try to roll the Rrr or otherwise to try to make it sound like, "g'layt"

If you know about this, Sedgwick's portrayal of Brenda is almost unbearable. You can tell she just lives for these words and loves to roll them around her mouth like the many bonbons her character inhales every episode. (There's something else for the ladies! Not only is it a victory for women to see someone in floppy skirts and a business jacket baiting people into one of the most unreliable parts of a criminal investigation and a common tool for wrongful imprisonment and violation of civil rights, she's got a sweet tooth! She just can't stop eating candy. What a gal. She carries the candy around in her bigass purse where she can never find anything she wants. Also, I might be misremembering this, but I think she's late for stuff all the time. It's a minor miracle that they didn't make her character a shitty driver. Or maybe they did. It's pretty much totally insulting already.) There's no need to chew the scenery when she's doing it with words. Any time there's a T sound before the word "you," she barks it out as "CHEW." Like, "I'm going AH CHEW. And I'm gonna GEH CHEW." Their is won thing yor gawna do, Mister, aind thait's cunfess becaws Ah am a Sugarbaker Wawman. She mangles the accent like she mangles the Fifth Amendment.

And that's it. The Closer is amblin' music, an accent, bonbons and a bunch of buffoonish strawmen and their male prejudices facing off against a woman with a big purse who can't stop snacking on chocolate and busting perps in what looks like an extended Shania Twain video starring a PTA mother. The only way they could make it worse is by pairing her up with Vincent Donofrio's autistic-asshole detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent and having the two of them solve crimes by being so colossally unappealing that crime scenes just vomit clues at them to get them to leave.

It's so bad that I don't even feel circumspect about busting on Kyra Sedgwick's looks. Every time I see her, the first thing that draws my eye is her bizarrely large clownish mouth. In any scene in which she opens it, I expect a car to screech to a halt in front of her and a man to lean out and order a Boo-Boo Burger. Then there are her eyes. Black, like Tony Romo's. Sometimes that Closer, she looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about The Closer... she's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When she comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until she bites on your alibi, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched accent.


Outstanding Comedy Series
Ugh. This category. We should be able to take care of this one pretty quickly. First, there's Nurse Jackie, which we've already established isn't even a comedy. Then there's Glee. Really the only thing funny about it has been watching women and gay men explain that they really like it for reasons other than the fact that women and gay men like showtunes. I appreciate that there was a segment of the population that was sitting out there, helpless, saying, "I really love American Idol and the shitloads of melisma it brings to my life, but I also want clumsy acting and vicarious triumphs related to high school," but that doesn't have anything to do with being funny. Which makes sense, since Glee isn't.

At best, you can claim that Glee has a heartening unfunny message of self-actualization, but that comes via a stunningly insipid medium. These people find out who they really are by singing hits from Top 40 Radio. They find identity and strength in the lowest-common denominator. It's like looking deep within yourself and saying, "I know who I am, world, and I am proudly beige." Speaking of which, I think a strong case can be made for not awarding a best writing honor to a show that eats up huge chunks of time with people performing covers of songs the staff didn't write.

Both Glee and Nurse Jackie could easily — and should — have been replaced in this category on the basis of:
a. not being funny; or, if you're feeling generous,
b. at least being nowhere near as good as Parks and Recreation and Community, two of the funniest shows of the year, with indelible characters, incredible writing and genuine heart.
The other nominees are harder to explain. 30 Rock had an extremely disappointing down year, but even their flops packed more laughs than the two shows above. The Office drifted terribly and lost focus, but the same statement applies. Then there's poor Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I can acknowledge as tremendously clever and funny despite personally loathing its embarrassment comedy and a cast of characters easily summed up as "alienatingly soulless and amoral." Despite its quality, it's difficult. Curb challenges people and makes them feel uncomfortable. Both of those inspire thinking, which obviously is anathema to the ATAS. Besides, it's on cable, which most people in the ATAS still seem to view as the enemy. None of these shows was the equal of Parks and Recreation or Community, but each was superior to the other three nominess in terms of the parameters of the category they were in.

Which, naturally, brings us to Modern Family. I don't think I "get" the show, but that's probably because I'm a fan of comedy. What I get even less is reviewers' compulsion this year to fall all over themselves in praise of it as an original and hilarious piece of work. And it's neither. But what's interesting is that even its name tells you the former. It's a story you've seen a bunch of times before, but it's modernized. Take every convention of big-family sitcoms and add jokes about iPhones, May-December marriages that produce children, gluten-free meals, Bieber and OnStar, and there you go.

Ed O'Neill plays a sixtysomething patriarch married — with no credible explanation — to a smoking-hot Latina thirty years his junior. They have a fat dopey kid, from her previous marriage. From his previous marriage, O'Neill's character has a daughter (married to a complete putz, with whom she had a bitchy worldly older girl, a girl who's "still a girl," and a boy) and a son, who's gay and married to a fat gay man, with whom he adopted a child. O'Neill doesn't sufficiently respect his wife's culture, nor does he understand his fat, dopey sensitive step-son. He also doesn't understand why his daughter married a total goober, nor is he really fully comfortable with his son being gay, although he tries. A lot of this information is revealed in confessional moments one-on-one with the camera.

There you have it: O'Neill's a slightly nicer Archie Bunker, who married one of these hispanics who frightened him and sired one of the gays that confused him. His version of All in the Family gets filtered through the saccharine dynamic of having tons of kids everywhere that recalls the Brady Bunch, the doomed earlier Parenthood series or Eight Is Enough. Finally, when the producers are worried that you can't understand the complex layers of two or even three ideas per episode, they have the characters tell you exactly what they feel about exactly what is bothering them. So in that respect, it's The Office written by eighth graders, for eighth graders. Of course, I realize now I could just have said, "It's The Real World."

However, the Office comparison springs to mind in large part due to the character of the putz son-in-law. Actor Ty Burrell is saddled with two problems in the putz role. First is that the makeup department of the show seems determined to make him gray. Like, it looks like he has a terminal blood disorder. Second is that he's Michael Scott working from a home office. He's oblivious, emotionally needy, chronically unfunny, meddlesome and aching to sound or look hip. Replace the cast of The Office with children supposedly sired by Michael Scott, and the shows would be identical in this respect. It's too bad, because Burrell seems game and talented, but he's being asked to replicate a role already being filled on another hit show that's still currently running.

There's really not much to be said about the character of the bearded ginger gay son, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, except that I hope the gay community is glad they finally have their own Timothy Busfield. The character offers a bold step forward by finally having the guts to portray a gay man as brittle, fussy, obsessive-compulsive, judgmental and completely ignorant of anything about sports. But don't think it's a stereotype, because he's married to a fussy, panicky flaming queen with ridiculous hair, who really breaks the stereotypical mold by having another vector for gay jokes also be a vector for fat jokes, hair jokes and clothing jokes. I'm looking forward to the day that we can all finally acknowledge that some gay men are manly, physical, familiar with sports and oozing with confidence while preferring to have sex with men. And that day is in 2001, when Six Feet Under premiered and made all this mincing-prancing silk-robed spastic "fag" characterization come off like a cheap comedy crutch of homosexual minstrelsy.

Modern Family is a triumph of mediocrity, glossed with handheld camera work, no laugh track and the confessional format that have all become hip in recent years. The gay people are caricatures, and the hispanic woman shrieks, "Ay, Papi! Madre di Dios!" and the kids all speak like adults. There might have been a wacky neighbor in the early mix, but the producers just made him part of the family instead. Somebody dressed up a standard three-camera laugh-track sitcom with a bunch of neat devices that make it seem more sophisticated than it is, for about five minutes, until you realize that you're watching every conventional family sitcom for the last 20 years. Gawker almost nailed it when they said, "Modern Family is Arrested Development for the Hard-of-Thinking," but it really seems much more like a merging of Will & Grace and The White Cosby Show for people who desperately want to seem sophisticated without going to all the extra work of getting jokes.

This probably explains the ATAS's love for it. It's a show on a major network that breathes life into the clunky, predictable and bland comedies that so many of its members have probably written. It's periodically humorous without ever posing any danger of subversion or cleverness. It's about an unusual family, but they do normal TV family things, like pack up 20 people and all go to Hawaii together. (It's a wonder the producers didn't have them accidentally leave a cute kid named Kevin at home to fend off burglars.) And in case the humor gets too arch by venturing outside the safe realm of jokes about the fat kid, or the sensitive kid, or the fat gay man or the thin gay man or the dad identical to Michael Scott or Ed O'Neill's old fart, there's a confessional at the end with heart. How do you know? Because the characters directly tell you that they have heart. Modern Family isn't just unfunny, it declines even to be rigorous about it.


Epilogue
So who cares? No one really should. The real gag of this is that even in recognizing that the Emmys are for idiots, I still easily wrote nearly 7,500 words about them. Because I care about them, because I am an idiot. Even though I recognize that they are historically mistaken, currently breathtakingly stupid and so horribly subjectively flawed that it amounts to a verdict of their being objectively broken, I'm still fascinated by the winners.

I think this goes back to what I said in Part I: that we all recognize that the Emmys are like meaningless office awards like "employee of the month," but even though we know they won't change our salary or career track, we all want to win one or see someone we care about win one. Nothing highlighted this for me quite like how pleased I was when Arrested Development won an Emmy for Oustanding Comedy Series. I knew the show had ratings problems and might be canceled, and I also knew that it was brilliantly written and acted. So when it won, I took the Emmys seriously, as a legitimate thing, as certification of the excellence I'd already perceived. Then, the next year, when they honored Everybody Loves Raymond, I took that as confirmation that they were a broken and dumb award voted on by morons. Then 30 Rock won twice, and suddenly they were valid again.

This is why the Emmys will probably never change: because they don't need to. As infuriating as they are for reviewers both amateur and professional, everybody likes the vicarious or peripheral validation of seeing something they admire or are involved in recognized with one. The hit feels just as good — probably better, actually — for being unexpected and intermittent. Besides, people who are content don't deconstruct contentment. They're too busy enjoying it. But the misgiven always invites discussion, if only to find out why it exists. Probably the most important factor in keeping the Emmys relevant is keeping them stupid. In that respect, they'll never stop being worth talking about.

Continued next year in Part IV.

15 comments:

  1. The sad thing is that they overaward Modern Family, which is a glorified three-camera sitcom in an intelligent show's body, while continuing to snub How I Met Your Mother, which is a deceivingly smart, deep, and well-written show in a three-camera sitcom's body.

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  2. Wow, a lot of work there. But the damn things still hurt my head.

    Or, as they would say on Closer: mah haid.

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  3. "Imagine+How+Many+Minds+and+Facebook+Profiles+You+Could+Permanently+Destroy+by+Overdubbing+Glee+Dialogue+So+a+Conversation+with+the+Disabled+Kid+Turned+into+3+Minutes+of+Jokes+About+How+He+Can't+Walk.jpg"

    I love these jokes hidden in the filenames. How long have you been doing these?

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  4. I think I did them intermittently starting at the beginning last year, but I don't know if I did it every time. At first I was using really descriptive captions so that the pictures would be searchable via GIS, but I switched to doing funny ones when I started thinking of multiple "decent" captions per photo and didn't want to waste a joke.

    I can't pinpoint when I started doing it full time as a "policy," but it definitely was well underway by February of this year and something I liked doing as an Easter Egg for people. Brendle's are really good. Thankfully he thinks of five captions per picture.

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  5. I don't agree with you that Breaking Bad has the best cinematography in recent television. Breaking Bad is over-stylized, with Indie Film 101 flourishes like handheld, closeups, and shallow focus. It just tries too hard. I remember in the last season there was a scene at the dinner table where the family was split up by the window frame, symbolizing their fractured relationships. I recognize that even that level of thought puts it way above almost everything else on tv, but it's just way too on-the-nose.
    Mad Men is more impressive because it is almost all done on sets with artificial lighting. It's really not hard to make Arizona look beautiful: point a camera at a sunset and color-correct that shit and you'll have a desktop wallpaper. With the opportunity in tightly controlled sets to go for extreme stylistic excess, Mad Men has the discipline to keep its cinematography elegant and smart. Read this: http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2010/08/mad_men_how_to_direct_an_actio.html . Mad Men doesn't shove your face in its efforts like Breaking Bad, it makes you work to appreciate it. Sorry for the huge wall of text, it's just that Mad Men has been such a big influence on me visually (I'm a student filmmaker) that I felt I should chip in.

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  6. I won't speak of your point about Glee not being funny. Sometimes it's amusing. Sometimes it's not. I will comment on the fact, however, that there is more to it than just showtunes or even the finding strength or something message.

    Arts serve an incredibly important purpose to schools and the youth, but programs are constantly facing cutbacks. Glee fights on the side of the children, attempting to keep the nation invested in art programs by showing the wonderful things that it can do. Furthermore, it inspires future generations of teachers to be that caring, devoted teacher that we see in Glee.

    You may not find it funny, but it isn't without heavy merit.

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  7. I still think it's without heavy merit. I mean, if you want to argue on its behalf as socially beneficial, they could produce a similar product and do more with it. Reality TV shows cost fractions of an original series. Why not make an American Idol: High School and showcase Glee Clubs/Singing Groups from schools competing against each other? That would directly address the issue, while directly promoting school arts programs, with the added benefit that they could drop the facile high-school plotting and then just cut a check to the NEA for the per-episode production difference.

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  8. @Nathan: I still mean to get back to you, homeboy, but I'm about to sit down to dinner and run off to a party.

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  9. The number one goal of Glee is entertainment. There are plenty of people who enjoy that story who would otherwise not care for the message behind it. If they could make a show like the one you describe, that would be absolutely fantastic, and I mean that with the most sincerity I can muster.

    With the education system the way it is, these programs need all the help they can get. While it may not be based entirely in altruism, Glee helps. It gives a pretty face to supporting an issue, and some people really need that as a first step.

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  10. Is there any award worth a damn? Even the Nobel Peace Prize has Kissinger's blood soaked paws on it.

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  11. Heh, I used to love reserving a talentless Scottish accent for character parts when reading to my kids. (Here's for Scrooge McDuck!) They've never seen the Dana Carvey bit, but we often sadly express our negative opinions of things as "not Scottish." My own approach to accents has been to try and get the mutter right, and honest diction can come later, not that it ever has.

    Thanks for picking on Glee. That show, like American Idol, at its best could capture the pure joy of singing. I mean, if people can find the threadbare emotional of your typical top 40-ish non-Scottish tune, then I see that as something of an artistic accomplishment. I am not sure how quickly it turned into the Melrose Place After School Musical, but it wasn't long. I think the Madonna episode might have done me in.

    I had to wait three years after the last episode aired before I could brace myself against The Wire's (at least the first season's) cop cliches. And that's the show that evolved into somehing good enough to retire the whole genre. But sadly, I see it hasn't. Thanks for confirming my decision to not watch that stuff.

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  12. I knew the Emmys were dumb, but even so I was surprised Community was passed up entirely. There is so much love behind that show, it has to be unhatable.

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  13. Hey, I only read the first couple sentences of Part II but I absolutely agree that Pink Floyd rule! They should have gotten all the awards, in this reader's humble opinion.

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  14. This is spot on, and I especially like your analysis of Modern Family. Someone once described it to me as a good show because "it makes fun of everyone," and while it's certainly easy and common to have a show where all of the characters are criticized on some level (like 30 Rock), that this is at the core of the show's premise doesn't speak highly of it, I don't think. (Granted, I've only seen a couple of episodes.)

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  15. Thank you for taking the time to completely disassemble Modern Family. Your words seemed to encapsulate everything that sprang to my mind about that show while trying to watch it. (if my mind had the pedigree of a decent college education, and not the kind of self-taught education that makes me immediately associate the word "pedigree" with a pro wrestling finishing move) Really enjoying this blog in a retroactive fashion, having just discovered it not long ago. The whole piece was really spot on. Keep it up, Seku.

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.