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.