The 2012 Primetime Emmy Nominations
July 19th, 2012
While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.
Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.
For six years, The Office earned nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series and for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, for Steve Carell. While other nominations and wins in other categories like writing and directing, in addition to some stray Supporting nominations, the show never became a dominant force in the way that its victory in 2006 suggested. 30 Rock swooped in to become the dominant NBC sitcom, and The Office was relegated to the status of bridesmaid, with Carell never winning an Emmy for the role despite seven seasons of rather tremendous work.
This year, we knew that Carell would be gone, but what we might not have predicted was that the show would earn zero Emmy nominations. Even moving into technical categories, the series failed to garner a single mention, even falling off the map in technical categories. It’s a harsh reminder of how quickly the Emmys can abandon a series: Showtime’s Weeds went through a similar scenario in 2009, marking its final nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series with six nominations before falling down to a single Cinematography nod in 2010 and then falling off the map entirely afterwards.
While it’s unclear if Carell’s presence was the only thing keeping the show afloat last year, it wasn’t the only show to disappear from the conversation. FX’s Justified didn’t make it into Outstanding Drama Series last year, but you have to presume it was pretty close given nominations for Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, and Margo Martindale’s eventual win for her work in the second season. It was a signal that FX was again active in major categories after The Shield fizzled out early in its run, and most expected a strong—if less cohesive—third season to keep Justified in the conversation.
However, as much as last year was a win for FX, this year proved a setback: Olyphant and Goggins disappeared, guest villain Neal McDonough failed to follow Martindale’s example, and only Jeremy Davies managed a repeat nod in Guest Actor. While the increased competition from Downton Abbey could be to blame, it still represents the challenge facing a channel like FX in terms of finding that show which keeps them in the competition for an extended period. AMC bought their ticket with Mad Men, and HBO with The Sopranos, but FX is still looking for that Emmy hit which will allow the network as a whole to benefit.
Of course, you could argue FX found that show with American Horror Story, which makes this a zero sum Emmys for the network. While they failed to garner either Justified or Louie—their top two contenders—nominations in the Series categories, their big win was managing to find a way to submit American Horror Story as a miniseries based on its anthology structure (with the entire storyline resetting next season). Sure, it was only revealed as an anthology after the season was over (meaning it was sold as a continuing series at every other stage of its evolution), but FX convinced the Academy, which meant that the series garnered a startling number of nominations by taking advantage of weak competition.
As I discussed in my piece on Downton Abbey, it’s possible FX could use this as a launching pad for future success, although I doubt the genre fare of American Horror Story will fare as well as Downton (nor will it be able to move categories next year unless they really want to give the rest of the industry the finger). However, for now it’s an asterisk on a relative setback in the other categories, a potential area of growth if not for the fact that FX isn’t in the business of making miniseries or TV movies.
HBO is, of course, and picked up its expected nominations for Game Change and Hemingway & Gelhorn. The network also managed quite well in the Drama and Comedy categories, in a year that could have gone very differently for them. Both Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire were vulnerable, while Girls and Veep both making it into Comedy Series was a bit of a surprise (a surely welcome one for the channel). While there wasn’t any love for Mike White’s Enlightened (with even Golden Globe winner Laura Dern snubbed), and the network was not quite as dominant in terms of acting nominations, what could have been a weak year—with potentially only Curb Your Enthusiasm as a series nominee—became another show of dominance over Showtime and Starz (which couldn’t translate Kelsey Grammer’s Golden Globe into any nominations for Boss).
Of course, dominance is relative: Showtime actually beat out HBO in series acting nominations, with the delightful Merritt Wever grabbing a surprise Supporting nomination and tipping the scales in their favor. The problem is that Showtime couldn’t gain any foothold in the series categories, with Wever and Edie Falco unable to earn Nurse Jackie a series nomination, and with Homeland replacing Dexter as opposed to settling in alongside it. The network is still well-positioned, but shows like The Borgias and Shameless both seem like shows that could have earned Emmys in different eras but have been unable to find any traction even with some considerable stars—Jeremy Irons and William H. Macy—with past award success involved.
And yet if you’re a premium or basic cable outlet, you’re probably feeling better this morning than the broadcast networks, who took a symbolic beating. While Modern Family may have dominated the comedy nominations as a whole, last year’s lineup of six broadcast comedies (Modern Family, Glee, Parks and Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock, and The Big Bang Theory) was cut in half by HBO comedies, with Glee and Parks and Recreation joining The Office in falling out of the main race. And on the drama side, whereas The Good Wife offered broadcast at least a semblance of a chance in last year’s contest, this year the series was bumped out, making it the first year ever in which no broadcast series will compete for the award.
To be fair, the losses were mitigated for each network. CBS kept many of its acting contenders for The Good Wife, added Mayim Bialik for The Big Bang Theory, and successfully moved Jon Cryer into Lead for Two and a Half Men. Meanwhile, while NBC did lose some traction with The Office and Parks and Recreation falling off, Amy Poehler remains a contender in Lead Actress, and the network knocked off American Idol with The Voice to compete in Reality Competition Program. FOX probably had the worst time, unable to grab a final Emmy nod for Hugh Laurie and losing Glee so entirely, but Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield gave New Girl a ticket to the show, and a chance to establish itself for future years.
However, if Greenfield and Deschanel don’t repeat next year, their momentum can be lost. Once a show starts to contract, and once a network loses a foothold, it can be tough to get it back. While HBO has a large historical footprint, Showtime’s is comparatively small, giving them less room for error—Homeland debuted well, but not well enough to earn nominations for Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin in prominent supporting roles. AMC might have found success with Mad Men, but not enough for two supporting actor nominations (with Jared Harris replacing John Slattery) or lead actress nominations (with Jessica Pare’s somewhat odd bid shut out), not to mention the fact that the show has never won an acting Emmy.
The one exception this year, and one trend that might seem a bit subtle all things considered, is Breaking Bad. Downton Abbey may have made a big splash in its first year competing in this area, but Breaking Bad managed to expand its nomination profile in its fourth season, adding Giancarlo Esposito and Anna Gunn to Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s nominations. That kind of expansion late in a show’s life is rare, especially after they started with only Cranston, and I wonder if we’re underestimating the value of upward momentum rather than sudden surges of support. I still perceive Mad Men as the clear frontrunner, but a Breaking Bad upset seems more possible given that trend.
- With Jeff Probst being rather bizarrely left off the Reality Host ballot for Betty White of all people, it means that someone else will win the category for the first time. While my heart goes to Cat Deeley, Emmy trends suggest White could actually win, or the Academy’s love of The Amazing Race will give Phil Keoghan a hosting Emmy to go along with his producing ones.
- While Kathryn Joosten’s posthumous Emmy nomination was predicted widely in advance, I have to admit that I have my doubts about rewarding what was really a guest performance in that category. However, given that the actress who passed away is going to submit—well, someone else is going to submit—the episode where her character dies, something tells me she’s going to beat Julie Bowen.
- Nominations for my favorite minor category, Main Title Design, include my personal vote: Cinemax’s Strike Back, which I embed below for your viewing pleasure.