Excellence on Selective Terms: Rewarding Series Television at the Peabody Awards

Excellence on Selective Terms

March 31st, 2010

The criteria for earning a Peabody Award, a prestigious honour in the area of electronic media, is listed as follows on the awards’ website:

The Award is determined by one criterion – “Excellence.” Because submissions are accepted from a wide variety of sources and styles, deliberations seek “Excellence On Its Own Terms.” Each entry is evaluated on the achievement of standards it establishes within its own contexts. Entries are self-selected by those making submissions and as a result the quality of competing works is extraordinarily high. The Peabody Awards are then presented only to “the best of the best.”

There’s a whole other post to be made about whether such a blatantly subjective criterion earns the awards the sense of objectivity that they hold, but for the sake of this post I think we can presume that the Peabody Awards have a pretty good track record. They have feted dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and The Sopranos, while acknowledging comedies like 30 Rock, The Office and South Park; they are not limited to only mainstream fare, with cult hits like Battlestar Galactica getting recognition, nor are they beholden to narrative-driven series television, as reality shows like Project Runway and satire like The Colbert Report have been singled out.

This year, the Peabody Awards added four television series to their ranks, and on the surface there’s some nice diversity: Glee and Modern Family are mainstream hits that made a substantial impact on the television industry this year, while In Treatment and No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are shows with smaller followings but with some substantial value in terms of performances (in the case of In Treatment) and (in the case of No. 1 Ladies’) a unique relationship with an emerging film industry in Botswana.

However, rather than simply listing the shows awarded and letting us figure out our own reasonings, the Peabody folks have written short and succinct reasons why the shows in question are being awarded. And it is in these brief distillations of their worthiness that the flaws of this process become apparent, as the qualities they point to for Glee and Modern Family demonstrate a selective gaze into multi-faceted, and still developing, series which fails to capture their true appeal in order to focus on their most hyped, and in some cases divisive, qualities. In the process, we start to understand the challenge of rewarding entire series alongside standalone news reports, and we start to wonder why they would so willingly call attention to those challenges with these short and imprecise justifications.

I will admit, right off the bat, that I am amongst those who are somewhat cynical as it relates to Modern Family. I understand that this places me in the minority, but I just don’t find that the show always earns it heart-warming conclusions, which gives the show a sense of artificiality which clashes against its documentary style. However, I fully understand why it is being honoured with a Peabody award…or at least I thought I understood. Here’s how the Peabody press release defines Modern Family’s “excellence”:

This wily, witty comedy puts quirky, contemporary twists in family ties but maintains an old-fashioned heart.

I’m right with this until the final passage, which is quite honestly the most frustrating part of the show for me. If you were to argue that it is breathing new life into sitcom stereotypes, full stop, then I’m with you: however, by acknowledging that it reverts back to an old-fashioned heart, it’s a reminder of the qualities that bug me about the show and make me question just how revolutionary it really is. I would argue that Community is a far more heart-warming sitcom personally, and that it better exemplifies every one of those adjectives used to describe Modern Family, but I also understand that Modern Family has all of the hype, and that many people feel differently. I do not question that Modern Family deserves this recognition, even if my own personal definition of excellence may be different, but reading this sentence only pushes me to start making comparisons, offering alternatives, and questioning their justification.

But I don’t think the Peabody Awards can avoid these types of responses (there are too many annoying people like me in the world), and the Modern Family description is at least accurate if not quite as definitively positive as they make it out to be. The problem with Glee, meanwhile, is that their criteria is dangerously selective, to the point of calling their entire process into question:

Dependably tuneful and entertaining, the musical dramedy that revolves around the motley members of a high-school choral club hit especially high notes with episodes such as “Wheels,” about the daily struggles of a wheelchair-bound singer.

Forgiving their use of the term dramedy, and forgiving the fact that they used “tuneful” as an adjective, the problem here is not what you might think. When I suggest that they are being selective, I’m not asking that they include some sort of defence of Terri Schuester, or that they take into account the occasional overproduction of certain musical numbers. These are the sorts of problems that plague any show, and while Glee’s problems were perhaps more pronounced than other freshman series (like Modern Family) they are still understandable given its early age.

The problem is the focus on a single episode in “Wheels,” suggesting that it was indicative of the series’ run to this point. If you were to show “Wheels” and only “Wheels,” then I can see how the show would fit into the mode of identifying the daily struggles facing a wheelchair-bound singer, especially considering that Sue’s story with her system with Down’s Syndrome appears in the same episode. However, before that point Artie had been a one-dimensional character without any development, and after that episode he reverted back to that form. While the show occasionally focused on the challenges facing Kurt as a young gay student, other episodes ignored those problems entirely, and there was a fundamental lack of consistency in this sort of messaging (which, as this great discussion on Antenna captures, was pervasive in “Wheels”). This blurb, as Daniel Walters pointed out on Twitter, makes the show sound like a back to school special when, in fact, they spent most of their time undercutting such depictions.

While the majority of the recipients of the Peabody Award are standalone pieces, many of them news reports or documentaries of some sort, Glee is a series, and with that comes inconsistency natural for a show early in its lifespan. Everyone who saw “Wheels” noted that it seemed off, the sentiment more apparent than ever before, but we know that Ryan Murphy was using that episode as a blueprint for the rest of the series, so you know that they will be submitting it to the Emmys and every other voting body. But while that one episode may give us a glimpse into Artie’s life, and a side of the show that respects its characters as opposed to mocking them, does it forgive the fact that the previous six episodes completely ignored the character and used his disability as an unexplored point of difference, or the fact that Artie went back to being that one-dimensional character once “Wheels” came to an end?

My suggestion is not that shows like Modern Family and Glee should not be recognized by the Peabody Awards: they have full control over what defines “excellence,” and I happen to like both of these shows enough to congratulate the creative teams on their accomplishments. However, I have to wonder if awarding an entire series, rather than a single episode, actually reflects the complex and often conflicting nature of the television series as compared to a special or a miniseries; awarding Glee based on ‘high notes’ like “Wheels” despite episodes which undercut its message feels a bit strange, especially when the criteria for excellence is so open to interpretation that you would hope would lead them to expand, rather than contract, their consideration. There are, of course, problems with trying to pick a single episode to capture a show’s defining qualities, which is why I wonder why they bothered singling out “Wheels” at all; by doing so, they bring out all of the potential conflicts within their criteria, conflicts which are unfortunately plentiful with Glee.

While these single sentences are convenient for the press release, and work nicely as blurbs in news reports, they fail to capture the complexity of these decisions. I think, with 250 words or so, you could convince me that Modern Family occasionally feeling “over-worked” or Glee struggling to be consistent with its messaging are part of their charm, signs that the writers are taking extra care in order to get the right jokes or give time to all members of an ensemble cast over the course of only 13 episodes. However, by trying to capture their “excellence” in such succinct statements, the earned objectivity of the Peabody Awards becomes more muddled than perhaps it deserves to be, which is unfair to the shows who did more than a sentence can capture in order to get to this point.

Cultural Observations

  • Really pleased to see more recognition for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency; while the show got shut out of the Emmys outside of C.C.H. Pounder’s nomination for Guest Actress in a Drama Series, it picked up a spot on AFI’s Top 10 List and is well-awarded here. Last I heard, the show was still in limbo regarding a second season due to co-production details with the BBC and concerns over getting the cast back in Botswana, but I found the show captivating and hope they get a chance to spend some more time in that world.
  • Looking back over the list of past winners, it’s clear you need to separate shows from the year in which they were given the award: Scrubs was into its awful years by 2006, so while I’m glad the show was recognized it’s unfortunate it had to be only after Braff became a “movie star” and the show fell apart.
  • As for shows that have a good shot of picking up a Peabody for this year (as in, a year from now), we can presume that HBO’s Treme, HBO’s The Pacific and Discovery’s Life are pretty much guaranteed spots on the list, the latter two in particular.
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6 Comments

Filed under Award Shows

6 responses to “Excellence on Selective Terms: Rewarding Series Television at the Peabody Awards

  1. You are on to something very interesting in pointing out that the Peabody folks have singled out “Wheels” (which was a fine episode) but that this distorts the show’s themes. It is not an exemplar of the series, even if Ryan Murphy thinks that’s where the show *should* be going. But it is a successful musical on TV, with interest extending to those beyond the ones who typically are okay watching high school kids on TV. And that seems to me a fine reason to reward it.

    We share most of the same criticisms of Glee and Modern Family, but (unlike you) I actually think Modern Family’s problems are much more pronounced than Glee’s. Besides falling into “Will and Grace”-style exaggerations of gay life in the name of being liberally minded, it does not (as you say) earn its sappiness. (But I don’t think Scrubs did, either. Community and Gilmore Girls do/did.)

    I haven’t watched In Treatment yet (hard to get excited to watch that one), but I thought awarding No. 1 LDA was an excellent choice. It’s the only one of the three that I’ve seen that I would have no reservations in saying was groundbreaking, smart, important, and under-appreciated television. And those are pretty good criteria for a Peabody.

    (And “tuneful” has been a perfectly fine word going back to Milton, and maybe earlier.)

  2. Wish I’d seen this earlier. The Peabodys sometimes single out specific EPISODES of series, rather than the series themselves, and it seems like that’s what they’re doing with “Wheels.” It’s a way to jump on the Glee bandwagon without feting the entire show. (A recent example I can think of is when they singled out Scrubs specifically for the 100th episode.)

    • The thing is, at least looking at the Scrubs example, there’s no real record that this is only for a single episode: the list of winners doesn’t list “My Way Home” from Scrubs, it just lists Scrubs. And in the paragraph explaining its worthiness, they wrote the following:

      “Six seasons into its run, Bill Lawrence’s hellzapoppin’ hospital comedy’s creative pulse is as vital as ever.

      If it was JUST for the episode, then I don’t think they would have included such a blatant lie.

      • The full write-up, found here: http://www.peabody.uga.edu/winners/details.php?id=1468 , talks at length about My Way Home. The Glee write-up seems similar. “Glee is really fun! Especially Wheels!”

        • But it’s not like they actively say “Scrubs’ fifth season was a complete mess creatively, but it had one really great episode.” In not doing so, they’re running into the problem of extrapolating a single episode’s quality into the season as a whole – if they’re going to make it for a single episode, it should read as such (in the way that Ferguson’s Peabody, for example, is VERY specifically for his Desmond Tutu episode).

          • As I recall, the initial press release DID make that very clear, but I can’t be bothered to dig through my e-mail and find it. I don’t KNOW that that’s what’s going on with Glee, but I do know that’s what was going on with Scrubs.

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