After an entire TV season of speculation, the 2014 Primetime Emmy nominations were finally announced at the ungodly hour of 5:30am Pacific Thursday morning. (Perks of being on the East coast: waking up was no big deal!) As usual, the nominations provoked a mixture of reactions: surprise, resignation, disapproval, even bitterness. As Alan Sepinwall put it in his pessimistic but reasoned analysis, the television business is evolving too quickly for the Emmys to keep up, especially given that the TV Academy has a history of being slow to adjust to major changes in the industry. With a higher volume and wider array of TV shows than ever before, some quality shows are always going to get left behind. But when the Emmys continue to make apologies for shows that they previously loved, it’s worth wondering how long these awards can stay relevant.
1. Downton Abbey is the new Modern Family. The TV Academy spread the wealth in the comedy field this year, nominating only three of the six supporting performers on Modern Family, opening up spaces for new contenders like Kate Mulgrew, Fred Armisen and Andre Braugher. On the drama side, though, the Emmys have a peculiar lingering fondness for the rapidly thinning pleasures of Downton Abbey, which lost me a season ago after one too many soap opera twists obscured one too few attempts at legitimately satisfying character-based drama. The presence of the show in the Best Drama category and performances from Jim Carter, Joanna Froggatt and even the eternally wonderful Maggie Smith in the supporting categories says more about the Emmys’ tendency towards inertia than it does the quality of the show itself.
2. If you’re not HBO or Netflix, good luck grabbing the Emmys’ attention with your new show. As Todd VanDerWerff explained in his Vox piece, the Emmys are far more likely to reward new shows on channels and platforms that entice them with expensive ad campaigns than they are to seek out quality dramas and comedies on the basis of their quality alone. The victims of that unfortunate reality (among others): Tatiana Maslany’s eminently multifaceted performance on BBC America’s Orphan Black; the stellar second season of The Americans (save Guest Actress in a Drama nominee Margo Martindale, always deserving); and Comedy Central’s Key and Peele and Review with Forrest MacNeil, which were funnier and more inventive than half of the Best Comedy nominees.
3. Category fraud is unfortunate but unavoidable. On one hand, it’s ridiculous to draw a serious distinction between the structures of HBO’s True Detective and FX’s Fargo, both of which told a contained season of story over a finite number of episodes and may continue with new stars, a new premise and a new setting. But the conclusion, with both shows racking up nominations for series and for their stellar performances (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for True Detective; Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Alison Tolman and Colin Hanks for Fargo), is hard to quibble with. Similarly, the outstanding supporting women on Orange is the New Black shouldn’t be relegated to the Guest Actress category, but Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox and Natasha Lyonne likely wouldn’t have been nominated if they had competed against the likes of Kate Mulgrew from their own show and Maggie Smith, Julie Bowen and the rest from other shows. Sometimes blatantly manipulating the system is the only way to earn recognition for quality work.
4. Annual reminder: the Emmys do not care what the Golden Globes think. Brooklyn Nine-Nine stunned the TV community with major Golden Globe wins for Best Comedy and Best Actor (Andy Samberg) earlier this year, but the TV Academy relegated the show to a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for Andre Braugher as well as a nod for the show’s superior stunt work. Ironically, Samberg’s performance and the show steadily improved after the Golden Globe win, justifying an Emmy nomination that seemed more ridiculous at the time of the Globes shocker. But as usual, the Golden Globes are chosen by foreign journalists who have probably never watched a show on American television, and the Emmys are chosen by people who make television. Neither one is an ideal voting body, necessarily, but the two certainly don’t overlap in constituency or taste.
5. Some things never change. For the first time in the history of the category, Ryan Seacrest was shut out of the Best Reality Host category for his consistently exceptional work on American Idol. Had Carson Daly taken his place, I might have thrown the nearest remote at the nearest television, but opting for Betty White’s work on a show that has long disappeared from most viewers’ memories is almost as egregious. Nonetheless, the other nominees are deserving. Similarly, the Emmys apparently won’t ever acknowledge that Amy Poehler is not the only actress on Parks and Recreation, or that Elisabeth Moss is the secret glue that holds Mad Men together (not even a nomination this year?) or that Hannibal exists. But the Emmys are good for something. Andre Braugher. Kate McKinnon. Moira Walley-Beckett (though not Rian Johnson, who directed her extraordinary episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”). Amy Poehler. Julianna Margulies/Adam Driver/Lena Headey/Peter Dinklage/Josh Charles/Robin Wright/Mandy Patinkin (I presume, since I haven’t seen any of these actors’ shows.) If we’ll never be able to celebrate the best of television right along with the Emmys, at least we can cheer on these deserving nominees from the sidelines.