Stories of the 2011 Emmy Nominations
July 14th, 2011
My favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the sense of hope.
It lingers in the air before the 5:35am PT announcement – last night, as both coasts drifted off to sleep, people on Twitter were posting lists of contenders that they were crossing their fingers for, still believing that shows like Fringe or Community had a shot of breaking into their respective categories. This is not a slight on either show, or on their fans who choose to believe. As always, some part of me wishes that I didn’t know enough about the Emmy nomination process to logic away any chance of sentimental favorites garnering a nomination.
My least favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the moment the bubble bursts. When the nominations are actually announced, it’s this constant rollercoaster: one nominees brings excitement while another brings disappointment. The bubble hasn’t burst yet, at that point, as there are often enough shifts in momentum that no one emotion wins out, leaving us struggling to figure out just how we feel.
The moment it bursts is when you open the PDF and see all the nominations laid out before you, and when the math starts adding up. Twitter has quickened this process: you don’t need to wait until critics and reporters break down the nominations, as everyone is tweeting the sobering details by the time 8:45am rolls around. Excitement in one area turns to disappointment in another, with one favorite’s surprise nomination becoming deflated when you realize that other favorites were entirely shut out.
As always, I was one of those people sorting through the list of nominations, and the bubble did burst at a certain point. It was the point when I remembered that surprise nominees are often unlikely to be surprise winners, and that for every category with a surprising amount of freshness there’s another that reeks of complacency and laziness. These are not new narratives, of course, but they’re narratives that overpower any sense of hope that could possibly remain after a morning of sobering reality, and that temper any enthusiasm that might nonetheless remain.
Although we cannot say that there is no enthusiasm to be found. While there are no real dominant narratives at this year’s Emmys, I do want to focus on a number of stories that I consider important based on the nominations, some of which involve excitement and others which involve that defeatist Emmy spirit we cynics hold so dear. One deals with how a network fights to remain relevant after giving up its Emmy bait, while another deals with the failings of an oft-derided set of categories. The others, meanwhile, look at the difference between being nominated and being competitive, as well as why it might be that an entire set of categories can’t help but feel like a disappointment.
Justified has the perfect name for its Emmy narrative. FX came into this year’s Emmys in an awkward position. While it broke into the Drama Series category with Damages two years ago, Damages has since been de-branded in its exile to DirecTV, marked as a show that FX did not see as part of its future. From an Emmy perspective, though, the plan was self-destructive: with the high-profile supporting players brought in for seasonal arcs, and Glenn Close and Rose Byrne’s previous nominations (and wins, for Close), the show represented the network’s only recent success in major categories. While the show’s low ratings and high cost provided more than enough reason to cancel the show, whoever runs their Emmy campaign must have initially felt as though they were having their legs cut out from under them.
And then the second season of Justified landed on their desk, and all was good in the world. While last year would have suggested Sons of Anarchy as the heir apparent, that was never a good position for the network: Sutter is too volatile, the show is too dark, and it unfortunately had its best season in a year when breaking into the nominations was nearly impossible. This year, with two major Drama nominees sitting out (with Lost having ended and Breaking Bad not being eligible), FX was in a position to contend, and Justified became the perfect show on which the network could hang its hat (if you’ll excuse the pun).
Timothy Olyphant was never nominated for Deadwood, despite accruing some goodwill for his time on a high-profile HBO series. Walton Goggins has credibility from his time on The Shield, a show that fell out of favor after Michael Chiklis’ win but likely lingers in certain circles. Margo Martindale is a journeywomen, a true character actor in a meaty villain role (not unlike those on Damages, if you think about it). Even Jeremy Davies, submitting in Guest Actor, was never recognized for his work on Lost. And these aren’t nominations based solely on previous work, as the show’s second season was largely (and rightfully) considered a triumph. These nominations were, to give into the easy line, justified.
No, the show didn’t manage to make it into Outstanding Drama Series, but that’s a different battle altogether. If you look at that category, you have the show of the moment (Game of Thrones), the legacy nominee (Friday Night Lights), and shows riding previous nominations or, in the case of Boardwalk Empire, previous pedigree. Justified doesn’t really have any of that, too different from Damages to be seen as an heir apparent and too subtle to benefit from “hype” in the same way as Thrones. However, if FX is interested in establishing another bulkhead, they have the start they were looking for: a great show earning great actors nominations. Drama Series is going to be a horrifying category next year, with Breaking Bad back in the mix and HBO likely adding David Milch’s Luck into the mix, but Justified will officially be in the conversation, and that’s half the battle these days.
Despite winning a Golden Globe, Sundance Channel’s Carlos wasn’t nominated for Outstanding Miniseries/TV Movie. It’s a bit of a surprise, especially considering that it grabbed nominations for Directing and Lead Actor, but it indicates what we’ve known all along: the problems in the Movie and Miniseries categories at the Emmys go far beyond a lack of contenders of the latter persuasion.
That was the problem cited by the Academy when they combined the Miniseries and TV Movie categories for this year’s ceremony, a decision that now seems a bit silly: with four Miniseries nominated, and one prominent Miniseries snubbed, the category could have easily had five viable nominees (with one contender even sitting out, given that the new Upstairs Downstairs was also in contention).
But the real problem is that these categories have become ground zero for the trend of Emmy nominees being decided based solely on their reputation. Paul Giamatti is barely in HBO’s Too Big to Fail, for example, but he garners a Supporting Actor nomination because he’s an Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actor. Now, many of the other nominees are deserving despite being famous: James Woods, in the same film, has a more substantial role and does quite a nice job with it. However, TV Movies and Miniseries often feature large casts that are remarkable in their depth, and yet if you don’t have any name recognition you have no legitimate chance at a nomination.
This issue is highlighted, as it has been in the past, by the presence of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, British miniseries competing in a largely American awards show. They’re only allowed to compete in two areas, though: Movie/Miniseries (where Abbey garnered a nomination) and Supporting Sir/Dame. Despite strong performances from Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle, only Dame Maggie Smith and former Oscar-nominee Elizabeth McGovern garnered nominations for Downton Abbey, with the acting categories dominated with “famous” people from the largely panned The Kennedys and HBO movies.
I understand that HBO makes its name in these categories by casting famous people, with Kate Winslet about to move a Tony away from an EGOT with an anointed Emmy victory in Lead Actress for Mildred Pierce. However, it concerns me that the Emmys are following the same principle, with no nomination standing out as seeming like the Academy actually bothered to watch the movie or miniseries in question. I’d argue this is most clear with Brendan Coyle, who has a prominent role in Downton that manages to be both subtle and showy at the same time – if they had truly watched Downton Abbey, and were truly looking for who gave the best supporting performance, I have to feel that he would be there.
I feel the same about other categories, but the logics in those categories are wide-ranging: other shows might be more popular, or more entrenched. However, in the Movie/Miniseries categories, the only logic is the domination of the HBO star model in categories that deserve a more nuanced consideration of the performers involved, a logic that I find far more concerning than a small number of eligible miniseries.
A Hold on Hope
Going into the awards, I wrote about the chances of both Game of Thrones and Friday Night Lights, two shows that were potentially going to be snubbed in the Drama Series category. Instead, both shows made it into the category, which raises another question altogether: does either show have a chance?
It’s a question that resonates across the awards: yes, Parks and Recreation got a much-deserved nomination in Outstanding Comedy Series, but could it actually win? Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler are nominated again for Friday Night Lights, but do they have the material to take home the award? The nature of the Emmy submission system is that it now comes down to individual episodes, which means that it becomes an entirely different game.
It’s also a difficult game to play, given that there’s no clear formula – sometimes great tapes win awards, and other times great tapes get ignored in favor of something else entirely. Lead Actor in a Drama seems like it’s Jon Hamm’s to lose, given that he has three previous nominations and his strongest tape yet in “The Suitcase,” but Buscemi won the precursors, neither Hall or Laurie have ever won the award despite countless nominations, and Chandler has some great material and the “Last Chance” factor that Emmy voters often jump for. Only Olyphant seems entirely out of the race, a nomination that is much-deserved but will be as much recognition as Olyphant can expect to receive.
Things are always more open in the Supporting Categories, where “frontrunners” can be replaced more easily. Margo Martindale might seem like a long shot, but I’m getting a real Zjelko Ivanek vibe from her nomination that gives her a definite chance. Similarly, Peter Dinklage is the lone acting nominee from Game of Thrones, but it’s a standout role, and in a category where standout winners (like Ivanek) are quite common – of course, it’s also a category where everyone has a fighting chance, and precedent to back them up. Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson each won this category in years where they were considered less competitive, so it’s not as though weak tapes would stop John Slattery from taking it home, while everyone else has at least some claim to the award (with Braugher and Cumming maybe having the strongest).
As for the Series contenders, that becomes a different story. If we look at Drama Series, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire has been considered the big showdown at the major precursors, with The Good Wife in the dark horse position as a network contender, and that hasn’t changed. However, I’d argue that Game of Thrones is in a position where it could legitimately contend, something I don’t think Friday Night Lights can do. I love the latter show, but Emmy voters are aware enough to nominate but not devoted enough to give it the award. By comparison, people are still in the process of discovering Game of Thrones: when people watching for the first time see the tape of the first two episodes, they’ll want to see more, and when they see tapes from later in the season they’ll want to know what came before. While Friday Night Lights is a well-made show even if you haven’t seen the show in its entirety, it isn’t an Emmy-winning show without the emotional connection that we share. Game of Thrones is in a position to make that emotional connection with voters through the voting process, something that could make it the potential spoiler (even if it remains a long sot).
No Laughing Matter
You’ll notice that I have only barely mentioned Comedy in this piece, which is something I noticed myself as I was writing. I’d like to say it was because I wanted to wait until I got to this point, but the truth is simpler: the Comedy nominations are incredibly boring.
Yes, I am excited for Parks and Recreation getting a much deserved series nomination, and elated that Hot in Cleveland garnered only a nomination for Betty White despite numerous intelligent prognosticators logically but hatefully suggesting it could break into Series. I’m also glad for Pamela Fryman garnering her first Directing nomination for How I Met Your Mother, Martha Plimpton breaking through to Lead Actress for Raising Hope, Melissa McCarthy doing the same for doing fine work in a thankless role on Mike & Molly, Louis C.K. being honored for his work both acting and writing on the tremendous Louie, and the fact that five different series were nominated for Writing after some dark years of 30 Rock domination.
However, the categories taken as a whole are enormously bleak, at least in terms of interest. Four Modern Family Supporting Actor nominees are not undeserved, perhaps, but they are relentlessly dull, and definitely borderline lazy. Supporting Actress is even worse, to be honest: I understand all of the nominees on some level, but there is not a single surprise to be found. There are no bright spots in the comedy categories, and not a single new nominee unless we’re counting Hot in Cleveland and Betty White which we are not. Ed O’Neill is actually the closest thing to a breath of fresh air in the Supporting categories, a sad commentary on what the Modern Family/Glee domination is doing to these awards.
Lead Actor in a Comedy was supposed to be the category to show some sign of life, but that sign of life proved to be Johnny Galecki and Matt Leblanc (and Louis C.K., but I’ve already noted my opinion on that matter). Galecki’s nomination reminds me of Kevin Connolly’s Golden Globe nomination in this same category for Entourage, and not just because both characters could be seen as having a Napoleon complex. It’s one of those nominations where the logic just runs out, where you find yourself grasping at “residual Roseanne appreciation” as an actual thing that exists. It isn’t like Jon Cryer remaining in Supporting Actor over Neil Patrick Harris (or Nick Offerman or Danny Pudi or etc.): there, we see someone who is entrenched, someone who is a former winner, and someone who remained in the public eye because of his co-star’s meltdown. In Galecki, we have a second fiddle lead who is consistently overshadowed by both Parsons and even by supporting players, especially female cast members if I am to believe those who stuck around this season.
It also doesn’t help, of course, that Modern Family and Glee are just so dominant at this stage that it all seems a bit moot. Even in the categories where they’re not competing, with both Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison rightfully left out of the lead categories this year, only Lead Actor has a compelling narrative, and even that’s just whether perennial runner-up Steve Carell can finally win for his last year on The Office. Showtime, shut out of the series category for the first time since breaking through in 2009, should still walk away with its third straight Lead Actress Emmy as Laura Linney and Edie Falco face off. Only Modern Family and Glee have a chance at winning Outstanding Comedy Series, and even then it seems unlikely that latter can muster enough momentum to derail the warm comforts of the traditionalist hipness of the former.
I listed a number of things I’m excited about in the Comedy nominations, so it’s not as though my interests are entirely unrepresented. However, I think the Comedy categories seem especially disappointing because Comedy is such an exciting space right now. While I lament that Community and Cougar Town were overlooked, and never expected them to be nominated in the first place, their absence creates a huge gap between what makes me excited about the state of television comedy and what the Academy thinks is particularly notable. That gap doesn’t exist to the same degree on the Drama Side, where you need to go to specific genres (like science fiction, most notable Fringe) or specific creators (like David Simon, whose Treme was shut out) to get the same feeling. Perhaps it is simply that comedy is more subjective, or that comedy tends to skew younger (and thus further away from the bulk of Emmy voters), or that comedy is more apt to develop niche followings; regardless, it has meant that any sense of the hope I mentioned at the start of this post is to be found on the dramatic side.
- I am elated that Cat Deeley has finally earned a nomination for her work on So You Think You Can Dance, joining Ryan Seacrest and Tom Bergeron to shift the balance of the category towards those emceeing live broadcasts. Jeff Probst will probably still win, given that he hasn’t lost yet, but I’m excited for Deeley (and for her show, which picked up its first nomination for Reality Competition Program as well).
- The biggest snub is probably Kyra Sedgwick not returning after winning Best Actress in a Drama Series, but it’s a hard snub to feel all that concerned about: TNT is likely lamenting her absence (although Mary McDonnell, who is taking over as the lead on the Closer spin-off, did grab one), but she got her trophy and made way for Mirielle Enos (who, despite my thoughts on The Killing’s creative failings later in the season, was arresting even if a bit arrested).
- While Game of Thrones got its expected nomination for Main Title Design, it was snubbed for theme song, which is a bit of a surprise. However, the Music categories are juried and thus unpredictable, and have created some strange nominees in the past. In truth, the larger Game of Thrones snub is Art Direction, where the fantasy setting did the show no favors against real history (Mad Men, The Borgias).
- Showtime isn’t going home empty handed, but that William H. Macy and Jeremy Irons couldn’t break into Lead Actor in a Drama Series suggests that Dexter has not given them enough goodwill to dominate as they might like. Dexter is keeping them afloat, but the thinness of their programming lineup is beginning to show in the nature of their nominations (which include zero supporting nominations).
- Guest Acting categories are diverse this year: Paltrow/Leachman/Fey should be an interesting showdown, fun to see some Guest Actress contenders from Mad Men (Go Mrs. Blankenship!), and Michael J. Fox might as well prepare a speech (even if it’s a bit strange he’s the only Good Wife contender). It’s also the only place where Shameless got any love, as Joan Cusack garners a nomination (as all Oscar nominees are wont to do).
- Outstanding Music and Lyrics has officially become “Outstanding Music and Lyrics on Saturday Night Live,” with only Family Guy sneaking in otherwise. First off, I am delighted that “Jack Sparrow” is among the nominees, and hope it bests “3-Way,” “I Just Had Sex,” and Timberlake’s monologue song. However, second, were Glee’s original songs eligible? We never got a music eligibility list, as they are juried, so I’d be curious to learn whether they were even submitted.
- This is the bullet where I note that I can’t possibly talk about everything, even when I try. So, as always, would love comments to fill in the gaps.