False Pluralism: Emmys go from 5 to 6, but not from Wrong to Right

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False Pluralism:

From 5 to 6, but not from Wrong to Right

If you’re the kind of person who is reading this article, there are certain hopes you have in life.

They were once personified by Lauren Graham, critics’ darling and star of Gilmore Girls, who went seven seasons without an Emmy nomination. Then, you had The Wire, a low-rated but critically acclaimed HBO series that despite being hailed as the greatest series of all time failed to garner any non-writing nominations. And then there’s Lost, which after winning an Emmy in its first year out faltered due to its genre elements getting in the way of its taut and well-constructed drama, only returning in 2008.

The last decade or so of the Emmys have been defined less by who was winning (dominated as it was by The Sopranos and The West Wing), and more by who wasn’t even getting invited to the dance. In the internet age, this is to be expected: internet chatter is always more focused on the negative than the positive, and when the Emmy system is a complex unknown to most people assumptions are made and grievances are aired. The three above examples, and countless more, will go down in the annals of message boards or blogs as those shows which represented a black spot on the Emmy Awards – and, unfortunately for the Academy, their record is getting spottier every year.

But hope is not gone for a show like Lost, or shows like Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, for the Academy is making another change to its nomination structure:  they’re taking all Drama and Comedy series and acting categories into six horse races. Once reserved for a tie, the six-way battle is now the standard, and to quote Academy president John Shaffner this move “exemplifies the academy’s awareness of the amount of great television and fine individual work that is seen across the enormous spectrum of the television universe.”

Of course, what Shaffner is really saying is much simpler: “Dear Internet fans, *Insert Favourite Show* now has a better shot at being nominated, aren’t the Emmys relevant again?”

And sorry, Mr. Shaffner, but this wasn’t the only change, and your statement is an inherent contradiction of the OTHER methods taken by the Academy today. While the Emmy system was before extremely complex, (which I try to explain here), they’re going back to the drawing board: gone are the Panels that made up 50% of the final standings, replaced by, in the case of series, nothing but the popular vote of the entire membership and, in the case of acting races, by small, selective sections of the membership.

Which is officially the most egregious example of “one step forward, two steps back” that I’ve ever seen.

This is not a new suggestion, just so we’re clear: Emmy pundits have been suggesting for quite some time that more nominees would give more people a chance to shine. And it’s true: just this past year, the Best Drama Series category was stretched to six nominees, allowing representation from both Damages and Mad Men, two basic cable series, along with Lost and Dexter as more genre-driven fare, in companion with network stalwarts Boston Legal and House. That’s a very diverse lineup at the end of the day, and it was better for having six nominees.

But if the critics had their way, The Wire would have been the show to take that sixth slot. But, despite making the Top 10 run-off, the show wasn’t in sixth place, and as a result was likely in a distant 9th or 10th place finish thanks to its highly serialized nature not playing well in a single episode. While a sixth nominee made the category better, offering more choice and diversity, this does not mean that the category has become right, or correct, in the way that some fans might want it to.

Alright then, you ask: who exactly is this going to help?

The answer is simple: the same people who are already finding success. When you add a sixth nominee to the Supporting Actress Drama category, you’re tossing another nomination to one of the stars of Grey’s Anatomy. When you toss a bone to the Lead Actor Comedy race, you’re guaranteeing that Tony Shahloub is getting another nomination, and if you add another Lead Comic Actress you’re just making sure that America Ferrera doesn’t fall out of favour as her show does.

And the thing is that this is now even MORE problematic with the changes to the voting structure.

Before, a show could perhaps land in 7th place in the popular vote, but have an extremely good episode submission to send it over the top. No more: now, if you don’t make the Top 6, you’re not getting into the category. Essentially, there are no more Top 10s: they don’t even exist. It’s just a question of breaking into the Top 6, which offers absolutely no room for movement.

More importantly, it offers absolutely zero room for shows that are never going to crack a Top 6 due to various factors a chance to find their way onto the telecast. Is there really any chance that one of Lost’s lesser known supporting players is going to break into a category when the show has two perennial nominees in Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson? And what are the chances, realistically, of Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton finding her way into a category dominated by veteran actresses whose pedigree alone will gain them popular support?

The whole point of the panels was to keep name recognition from overwhelming quality, but now we’re back where we started: even in “small groups” Emmy voters will pick people who really have no business being in categories. This isn’t going to fundamentally change the Emmys, just as 6 nominees won’t fundamentally change any categories. The two current critical darlings, Mad Men and 30 Rock, will still dominate their respective categories, and runners up like Boston Legal or The Office are likely to stick around.

But despite the populist language of adding more nominees to each category, read between the lines here: if a show is not in the top six most popular amongst voters, it has no chance of winning an Emmy. This means that How I Met Your Mother, which has never even made the Top 10, will never be nominated for an Emmy. It means that the chances of Edward James Olmos getting an Emmy nomination for his work on Battlestar Galactica has become something approaching an impossibility. And it means that someone like Zjelko Ivanek, who won an Emmy for Damages on the strength of the tape viewed by the panel and likely the tape alone, would never have been a winner in the first place.

And that’s a problem, because it seems like the Emmys are making a decision designed to support that which is popular over that which is actually good. Don’t get me wrong, I get the impulse: with The Dark Knight and Wall-E absent from major categories at the Oscars, concerns are rampant in Hollywood that people won’t tune in, or worse, won’t care. But television is so much broader a medium than film, with so many shows on performances on dozens of networks that are already having trouble getting noticed. They could stretch their list to 10 nominees and there would still be countless people screwed over, but now even four of that Top 10 won’t get tapes screened, or any face time, or any real recognition.

In increasing the number of nominees, the Emmys are pretending to be some sort of populist group; in ending the panels and taking the first six shows and names that come to them, they’re bowing to the whims of their membership in a way that could come back with the least representative Emmy nominations of the past decade.

Cultural Observations

  • As my brother pointed out, the notion of having more nominees goes down as another in a long list of changes made to make sure that more  critically acclaimed/popular shows are nominated (Lost is credited with the switch to a half panel/half popular vote formula, Lauren Graham with the existance of panels in the first place). I have to wonder if perhaps the Motion Picture Academy will start considering something similar when the ratings for this year’s Oscars, without The Dark Knight or Wall-E in the running, tumble.
  • You may notice that this post is dramatically changed from its original form, wherein it wasn’t yet clear that the Top 10/Panel process was being eliminated. So, congratulations eagle-eyed readers: you got two rants for the price of one!
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4 Comments

Filed under Emmy Awards

4 responses to “False Pluralism: Emmys go from 5 to 6, but not from Wrong to Right

  1. Ray Wise not being nominated for Reaper is all the proof I need that the Emmys are a one-trick pony (as opposed to all the other proof out there.) You never really see a standout from a genre show nominated for their acting. It didn’t happen with Buffy or Angel, didn’t happen with Avery Brooks…
    What you don’t have are people nominated for their performances. You see people nominated for being on whatever critical darling show they’re on. Tina Fey may be the driving force behind 30 Rock, but I’ve never understood the push to give her as many lead actress trophies as possible. (Then again, I’ve never figured out how 30 Rock could win that many statues. Not that it’s a bad show, but it doesn’t seem better than everything else to me, especially The Office.)
    But Ray Wise is just the key to making my point; his portrayal of The Devil should probably be one-dimensional. As a character, The Devil usually is. But his performances manage to range from Charming, funny and scary as all hell within a few seconds of each other. It’s amazing nuance. But because he’s on a genre comedy on The CW that’s been picked by the network to fail in it’s second season so that 9021-D’oh can stay on life support, he’ll never get recognition for it. I may dislike the Oscars, but at least you’ll find Robert Downey Jr’s amazing work in Tropic Thunder nominated this year. There are almost never true Dark Horses at the Emmys.

  2. The Emmy’s are a crock of shit, and I’m not afraid to say that out loud. They have nothing to do with talent. (The day I learned that was a really sad day.) Pardon my swearing.

  3. Dan

    With all of those complaints, the politics involved, the reactionary rule changes, the drive for ratings, the consistently lackluster nominations, etc., at what point do you give up following these awards? After all, their relevance is directly related to the attention paid them.

  4. Pingback: Musings on the Emmy submissions and the importance of the awards « TV Surveillance

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