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The Emmys: What Are They Good For?

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The Emmys: What Are They Good For?

There’s been a lot of complaining about the Emmys this year, and with good reason. The Emmy nominations have often ranged from puzzling to incomprehensible, but this year’s crop seems worse than usual, featuring numerous examples of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater (nominating, for example, House the show, but not its star Hugh Laurie, who holds even mediocre episodes of that show together through sheer force of acting will).

A quick look at Emmy history shows that unless you’re a massive, out-of-the-box hit in one of Emmy’s favorite genres (cop show, medical drama or workplace sitcom, please), you’re doomed to never gain recognition (which would put you in league with several critically acclaimed series that could only muster a writing nomination at best, including The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire) or to gain recognition several years after you broke through (it took three seasons of critical badgering and ratings improvement for Everybody Loves Raymond to break through—and by then, the show was starting to slip).

But if, perchance, a show manages to crack the Emmys, it’s likely to stay in the game as long as it’s on the air (For instance, Raymond and Will & Gracethe, the most recent example of egregious Emmy over-rewarding). Emmy even hangs on to shows that are legitimately entertaining, groundbreaking and interesting for far too long—in the late 90s, it seemed that it would take an act of God to get the Academy to ditch NYPD Blue and ER, much less their performers.

Moviegoers spend a lot of time complaining about the Oscars, but the Oscars at least make a halfhearted stab at credibility. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates respectable, middle-of-the-road movies far too often, but there’s often least one film in the Best Picture lineup that’s worthy of discussion by passionate cineastes. In this last year, the Oscars nominated such hotly debated titles as Munich, Brokeback Mountain and (yes) Crash, which probably provoked the most discussion of all. But in an age when people passionately debate what, exactly, the numbers mean in Lost or which political parallels are being drawn in an episode of Battlestar Galactica, what does it benefit anyone to nominate The West Wing yet again for doing the same old thing it has every year? The West Wing is a thoughtfully written, handsomely-produced show, but in the past few years, what, if anything, has it added to discourse on either politics or television?

To answer these rhetorical questions, let’s back up a bit and consider the mechanics that result in these nominations.

For decades, the Emmys relied on blue-ribbon panels. These panels, mostly composed of people in the television industry who had the time to sit and spend a weekend screening various episodes of television—read, the retired—would dutifully watch the submitted episodes for the various categories, then vote for what they found to be the best. The winner was chosen in this manner. This was how people like Candace Bergen (Murphy Brown) and Helen Hunt (Mad About You) won year after year after year, even though their performances rarely varied. The panelists knew what they liked, and they were loathe to ditch it. To some degree, these wins had to be blamed on the Academy as a whole, since it nominated these people year after year (this is an unfortunate motif throughout Emmy history). But after the mass outcry when Dennis Franz beat James Gandolfini and The Practice beat The Sopranos in 1999, the bigwigs at ATAS decided to do something about it: they opened up the voting for winners to anyone with a VCR who would watch the submitted tapes in a given category.

The result was gratifying, if only for one year. Unexpected programs and stars took home statuettes. Will and Grace and Raymond, two mainstream shows that seemed fresh at the time, began to rake in awards. The Sopranos won acting trophy after acting trophy, only to see The West Wing win the series trophy two years running. Even Michael Chiklis won for The Shield, something that never would have happened under the old system.

But then, it seems, new favorites were chosen. Allison Janney triumphed twice in the supporting category for The West Wing, then won in the show’s third season in the lead category for a 10-minute, largely supporting performance. Edie Falco won for the Sopranos finale “Whitecaps”—an episode where she got to scream a lot—but then quickly succumbed to Janney yet again. Both of Janney’s lead wins were upsets, which suggests that when push came to shove, voters were more comfortable with Janney. (Parenthetical shout-out: I’m grateful to the people at The Backstage for their copious amounts of awards data, including which episodes of which shows were submitted to win awards, without which this article would have been almost impossible to write.) Gradually, however, the new system seemed to settle in. Shows that never would have won under the old Emmy system, like Arrested Development and Lost, won series trophies. Indeed, Frasier won the last of its five consecutive best comedy series trophies in 1998, and then six consecutive shows that had never previously claimed the series trophy before won before Everybody Loves Raymond finally broke the streak last year with its second series win. And while the home-based voting system had its quirks and blind spots in the acting races (Janney, James Spader for The Practice and Boston Legal, Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett), it did allow actors to play parts that were essentially unsympathetic (Gandolfini, Chiklis). But the problem remained that the same people and series kept getting nominated over and over and over (just like Helen Hunt), often well after their performances had ceased being noteworthy (Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, nominated yet again for Will & Grace, are the most recent beneficiaries). What’s more, actors and series the critics loved were getting ignored as well—Lauren Graham, Kristen Bell, Battlestar Galactica and Rescue Me, to name a few.

So the Emmys decided to shake up the nominating process. The initial stage would stay the same—ATAS members would watch For Your Consideration tapes at home and fill out nominating ballots based on that (or they would vote for friends). But then, the academy would cull the top 10 series and the top 15 lead acting candidates and one representative sample for the series or performance in question would be screened for…a blue ribbon panel.

So the Academy went from having the retired and unemployed decide who would win Emmys to having them decide who would be nominated for Emmys. No wonder many of this year’s acting nominees were on much more popular shows in the 90s, when the panels last ruled.

So, how does one fix the Emmys, exactly? Tom O’Neil, the resident awards guru for the Los Angeles Times and the operator of Goldderby, one of the first awards-centric Web sites out there, has some ideas.

To wit:

(1.) Extend the lists of series and actors from 10 and 15 to 20;
(2.) make series and actors up for consideration submit more than one episode;
(3.) allow voters to evalute the candidates at home, via screener DVDs.

I think O’Neil is on the right track, and if ATAS implemented these rules next year, it would surely shake up the categories once again, fixing some of this year’s more egregious snubs (which run, in order of TV fan anger, Hugh Laurie, Lost, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco), and letting in some fun and fresh new stuff.

But the biggest problem with O’Neil’s plan is that it relies completely, once again, on the television academy. And people who work in TV rarely, if ever, have time to watch TV. This is getting better with the advent of TiVo (a quick perusal of longtime writer Jane Espenson’s blog reveals that she watches nearly everything with an ounce of critical acclaim under the sun from Project Runway to Veronica Mars—but she has a TiVo and is a writer who needs to keep up with hot or critically acclaimed series in order to have spec scripts ready). But most people who make TV for a living openly admit they only have time to watch the very biggest shows that happen to be airing at the moment. Want to know why West Wing won those four years in a row? Because everyone was watching it and knew what was going on. Once a show goes in the rotation, TV industry employees, like all other viewers, tend to stick with it until it becomes absolutely awful or something better comes along in its time slot, though that can take a long time. (ER still draws well over 10 million viewers a week.)

There have been other proposals through the years for series and actors having “term limits” or even for TV critics to get involved with the process, but maybe there’s a better way.

Just leave the Emmys be.

Occasionally, the Academy members get something right, and when they do, it’s a cause for excitement. But most of the time, they don’t. And in the end, it’s better to just let them do their own weird thing.

Because, you know what? Any serious TV fan is going to know that awarding the best of TV is going to be impossible. The most that dedicated TV critics and fans can hope to follow maybe 40 series in a given year (and that’s not to mention made-for-TV movies and miniseries). And that level of involvement virtually requires getting paid to watch TV. Even serious TV fans who have day jobs and families can seriously follow maybe 15 series each series, if they have a TiVo. The fact is, “the best of television” is a nebulous concept anyway. Your set brings you dramas, sitcoms, unscripted series, the nightly news, talk shows, football games, infomercials and countless other options. The Emmys try to combat this by forcing incompatible programs into categories together, but who really thinks that the aims of The Daily Show and The Tonight Show are at all similar? Or, for that matter, CSI and Deadwood?

The only way to accurately grade the best of television would be to pay an army of people to watch every show on every network, then have them vote on what they liked best. And that’s just logistically impossible. Even the Parents Television Council, with its phalanx of employees dedicated to seeking out content it deems reprehensible, spends much of its time covering the five broadcast networks.

It’s a dirty little secret, to be sure, but TV critics are offering up a very limited set of opinions, based on a very limited number of shows, often ones that other critics have praised or that had excellent pilots that reeled critics in. In contrast, a film critic, even in a movie-saturated city like New York City or Los Angeles, could conceivably see every new film released that year (even if it meant to going to three or four per day). But TV is a medium that never sleeps. How do you know that the best show of all time isn’t airing on BBC America at 3 a.m.? Even those with TiVos have to sleep sometime.

So let the Emmys be. They’re trying to pin a ribbon on the best science fair project, but the fair they’re trying to judge covers an area the size of Alaska. The assumption behind the Emmys—that they’re identifying and rewarding the best of this or that, based on a broad and deep study of the entire medium—is specious at best. Which leaves regular viewers with just two choices: play along or opt out. Better to recognize that the Emmys themselves are a bogus response to an impossible challenge. To some degree, that’s hard to do for the most hardcore TV fans. We form weird relationships with our favorite shows, puzzling them out, living and growing with the characters, bidding them a fond farewell at the end of the season or the series. You can, of course, passionately love a film or novel, but even if that film or novel is a flop, you can own a copy eventually, return to it whenever you need its nourishment. With good TV, even in the age of DVD, so much of it is ephemeral, disappearing immediately out into space. We often have only memories of the program to keep us company, so cling to them, perhaps too tightly, and take personal offense when they’re denigrated, whether by a fellow TV fan or by an awards-giving body.

But if the traditional Aristotelian methods of criticism don’t quite apply to TV, then neither do other methods used to quantify other media. And that includes awards. I would hope—even though I know this will never be the case—that someday we’ll all be able to laugh at the Emmy nominations and then move on. It’d be nice to see the best of TV recognized, but the merits of the medium’s various offerings are so hard to pin down that we can’t fault a bunch of folks sequestered in a Beverly Hills hotel room for liking what makes them feel comfortable.

Besides, half the fun of having award shows is violently disagreeing with them. Isn’t it?

Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark. The 58th Annual Emmy Awards telecast airs Sunday, August 27 at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.