Emmys on Trial: The Ageism of Guest Acting

[As part of our continued, if oft-neglected, coverage of the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards next week on September 21st, Cultural Learnings brings a week of coverage designed to shed some light on the key races, the fascinating stories, and the things that are already frustrating to the point of anger even before the winners are even announced. Thus, welcome to Emmys on Trial – don’t worry, I’ll have predictions too.]

The Ageism of Guest Acting

Last night, a lot of people won Emmy Awards. Some of these people were probably not surprised: could the crew of Mad Men truly be shocked to pick up a number of Creative Emmys in categories such as Art Direction, Hairstyling, or Main Title Design? Would the special effects team behind Battlestar Galactica honestly have not prepared a speech this year (Read here for last year’s tale) considering the show’s reputation and improved work in season four? And, after “Dick in a Box” paved the way for late night comedy songs, “I’m F*cking Matt Damon” was a lock even if Silverman and Kimmel’s relationship couldn’t last until the ceremony (Damn Matt Damon).

But if there was anyone at the announcement of the winners of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards not surprised, it was Kathryn Joosten and Tim Conway. Representing two shows with multiple nominations in their respective categories, these stars of Desperate Housewives and 30 Rock respectively have two things in common: they both won Emmys that they don’t deserve, and they both are very, very old.

And yeah, I know: who’s Ageist now? Well, someone’s got to restore a little balance here.

Now, I can’t say I’m surprised by Joosten’s win here: she won the award in 2005, and the only reason she hasn’t won it since is that she submitted in the Supporting category for a little while just to test the waters (very nearly getting nominated last year). She’s also quite good on the show, and the fact that she never quite broke into the awards for her memorable turn on The West Wing means that Emmy voters are showering her with love and attention now.

But when you consider that her competition included three fantastic turns from 30 Rock, including Edie Falco’s pivotal role as CiCi or Carrie Fisher’s hilarious Rosemary, forgive me for being somewhat concerned that age or “pedigree” is playing too much of a role in the decision making. Over the past four years, Joosten is actually the youngest winner of this award: Cloris Leachman and last year’s winner, Elaine Stritch, are both over 80. So, considering that Joosten beat out Stritch this time around, one could even argue that the Emmy voters are embracing a new progressive edge to their voting strategies.

But if you look to the Guest Actor in a Comedy category, things get even worse. There were four nominated actors from 30 Rock, and of them the most memorable and pivotal was clearly Will Arnett’s hilarious turn as a rival GE executive. Now, this is only my opinion, but here’s what I said about Arnett early in the season:

“The return of Will Arnett is certainly a strong development, and he was delightful as usual…”

Okay, so I wasn’t quite as laudative as I remember, but the fact is that he was extremely entertaining and one of my favourite recurring characters on the show. Now, though, let’s take a look at what I thought about “living legend” Tim Conway’s guest appearance:

“However, Kenneth takes Bucky on a tour of the studio, which is essentially the “Oh my, we got Tim Conway on our show, let’s just let him cut loose on everything” plot. There was some funny parts, but it wasn’t a plot per se – I am hoping that he might be returning next week so that the character can actually, well, become a character. It was funny, but did it really go anywhere?”

Now, clearly, one knows my preference, but the difference here is that Arnett is 37 years younger. Conway is a comedy legend, sure, but for the most part fans of 30 Rock shrugged their collective shoulders at his character. While Arnett became part of the narrative, Conway didn’t even register a few episodes later: where Arnett brought a unique comic voice to the rest of the cast, Conway barely interacted with any of the characters. My point is that, at the end of the day, Conway had no business winning that award if we take into account the role that Arnett played in shaping the show as we know it.

This isn’t even to speak of the people who weren’t even nominated: Dean Winters (Beeper Salesman Dennis) overlooked for his turn in the same episode Conway was featured in on 30 Rock, and Amy Ryan and Sarah Chalke for their guest turns on The Office and How I Met Your Mother. All actors on shows that voters seem to like, and all actors whose appearances fundamentally changed and improved the series dynamic in a way that shaped their storylines, their characters. Guest acting, especially in a comedy series, should be about the challenge of entering into this totally new environment and becoming part of a cast, or balancing being the center of attention with the fact that you’re not always going to be there.

And the drama awards are better on that front: Cynthia Nixon is our youngest winner of the night for her turn on Law & Order: SVU (Sex and the City factor trumps ageism, it’s a known equation), and Glynn Turmann for what is considered to be an extremely powerful appearance on HBO’s In Treatment. In the latter case, you have the one award amongst the four to go to the right person, not the person who has the biggest name or the most awards in their closet.

But let’s not let it fool us into thinking the Emmys are changing: chances are, next year will bring more lists that feature almost no performers under 30, something that will grow less and less representative of the true television landscape. While I’m tempted not to call it Ageism, since it also relates to Favouratism and all sorts of other exciting and depressing Hollywood -isms, it seems the most eye-opening: the Emmys don’t care about young people who appear in just a few episodes.

Related Articles

Creative Emmy Awards Winners [FULL LIST, PDF]

Wikipedia: Guest Actress Comedy, Guest Actor Comedy, Guest Actress Drama, Guest Actor Drama

30 Rock – “Subway Hero” [Cultural Learnings]

Dissecting the Emmy Nominations [Cultural Learnings]

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4 Comments

Filed under Emmy Awards

4 responses to “Emmys on Trial: The Ageism of Guest Acting

  1. Pingback: Emmys on Trial: The Ageism of Guest Acting

  2. So true!
    Besides Will Arnett, the other 3 guest actors were the 3 oldest guests on the show all season. Why not nominate Dean Winters, Jason Sudeikis, or even David Schwimmer or Matthew Broderick? While all the gusts on 30 Rock were pretty good they failed to nominate and award the best. Will Arnett was robbed!

    And don’t get me started on the Guest Actresses. Though I’ll mention that Joosten is on the Board of Governors for the Emmys and hosted the nominee luncheon. So…suspicious. She’s a great lady and all, but I’d wish they’d go with the best performances.

    At least both Will Arnett and Amy Ryan will have a chance again next year.

  3. darthmojo

    As a member of the visual effects team for “Battlestar Galactica,” I can tell you with absolute certainty that NO ONE went to the awards assuming an easy win. The competition was excellent and, considering that we won last year, we thought there was an even better chance someone else would take it. It truly was a surprise. Albeit a happy one, of course!

  4. Yes, you’re quite right – I didn’t mean to paint a picture of conceited and cocksure visual effects artists, but rather that we as fans knew that the fourth season, in particular, featured a totally new scale and scope that was unbeatable.

    So we can add humble to creative, talented, exemplary and all of the other adjectives we use to describe your brilliant work. A well deserved victory – you don’t even need me to wish you luck considering “The Hub” could probably win you a 3rd. 😉

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