The Search for Significance: The Television Industry and the Golden Globes

Earlier this evening, my brother directed me to a piece at Slate defending the Golden Globes, something that we don’t see particularly often. Indeed, that is very much the impetus behind Tom Shone’s argument, praising the Globes relative to the Academy Awards for a collection of strong choices that the Academy would undo a month later (such as, for example, the Globes honoring Brokeback Mountain only for the Oscars to choose the turgid Crash instead).

Shone’s argument is interesting, primarily because it does little to hide its anecdotal nature. He argues that while we might contest many choices that the Globes have made over the years, they have done enough good in enough instances to be “worth it” in the end. While some might question the value of their existence, Shone believes that looking at even a handful of examples where they were legitimately ahead of the curve, or where their whims happened to match with how cinematic history would remember a particular year in film, justify any travesties they might otherwise commit.

My brother’s question to me, upon informing me of the article, was whether I would suggest the same could be said for television, a thought that I was preoccupied with throughout tonight’s Golden Globes broadcast. Whereas the Golden Globes line up comfortably as a precursor for the Oscars, the Globes’ relationship with the Emmys is complicated by their differing eligibility periods and voting structures. However, building on Shone’s argument, there was evidence within tonight’s broadcast that some of the Globes’ voting habits that we might otherwise vilify in particular contexts proved to benefit shows that I like, and shows that may not necessarily be lauded to the same degree come September.

My takeaway from this is not necessarily a validation of the Golden Globes or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but rather an increased belief that our assessment of award shows needs to become more nuanced, both in terms of how we perceive them as cultural entities and in terms of how we consider their industrial – as opposed to cultural – significance as a framework for understanding their greater “meaning.”

This is not to suggest, of course, that there weren’t the typical Globes disappointments during tonight’s broadcast, with the increasingly tepid Modern Family winning its second-straight Globe for Outstanding Comedy and Kelsey Grammer taking home the Best Actor Drama award over both Bryan Cranston and Damian Lewis. In addition, it seems difficult to laud the Golden Globes for their commitment to television programming so long as they lump together supporting performers from dramas, comedies, miniseries and TV movies as though that is an even remotely logical thing to do (and the opposite of Shone’s argument regarding the Globes’ commitment to honoring both comedy and drama within the film categories). As Ricky Gervais pointed out at one point in the broadcast, it’s very clear where TV stands at the Golden Globes given the seating arrangement which has them sectioned off into the outer edge of the audience, and it’s tough to get past that to see a particular value in their contributions to the medium.

I will say, however, that this was the kind of year when the Golden Globes seemed to serve a real “cultural” purpose within the world of television, or at least a purpose beyond providing valuable advertising space and legitimacy to pay cable networks. In the case of Mike White’s Enlightened, a little show that no one was watching, a surge in support from the Golden Globes played a huge role in earning the show a second season, and won Laura Dern a Golden Globe during tonight’s broadcast. Her win was not necessarily a shocking development for the Globes, as she has won twice in the past (and is even a former Miss Golden Globe) and thus is quite familiar to the HFPA voters, but it’s a case where a Golden Globe can make a difference to the future of a show that might otherwise be canceled.

Also, this year’s Golden Globes must be singled out as particularly interesting given that it will be the only awards show in which Mad Men will be ineligible over the course of that show’s run on AMC. Because of the Emmy eligibility periods, Mad Men‘s fourth season (airing in the fall of 2010) was eligible in 2011, while the show’s fifth season (which airs this Spring) will be eligible in 2012. However, the show’s complete absence in the 2011 calendar year meant that it sat out tonight’s Drama categories, making way for Showtime’s Homeland to win a much deserved award for a tremendous first season. In truth, Homeland will remain competitive at the Emmys later this year, setting up an impressive horse race against both Mad Men and Breaking Bad (which was, inexplicably, not nominated for the Golden Globe, but let’s focus on the positive here for a moment). However, this award means that even if Mad Men‘s Emmy streak goes unabated and the Emmys continue to (whether justly or unjustly) shovel Emmys into the hands of Matthew Weiner, this year’s Golden Globes assured that someone, somewhere had a chance to reward Gansa and Gordon’s stellar work (along with Claire Danes’ extremely strong performance).

Indeed, these are two potential instances where we might look back and think that the Globes got something right, making a decision that would prove them to be more prescient than their other nominations might suggest. In fact, Shone’s thesis is proven on the television side quite easily in recent Emmy history, with Steve Carell winning a Golden Globe for the first two seasons of The Office but never winning the Emmy he deserved for that performance. Indeed, if we go back a few more years, Jennifer Garner won for Alias before being defeated by Allison Janney (jumping categories to Lead Actress for the first time) at the Emmys. If you wanted to make Shone’s point on the television side, you simply need to sift through the lists of winners, and you could likely discover countless instances where history will remember the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as the people who got it right.

However, I still can’t entirely get behind Shone’s thesis, a hangup that has a great deal to do with the fundamental lack of transparency behind the Golden Globes. To be clear, I don’t mean the HFPA itself, although their shadowy nature is probably playing some role here. Rather, what I find so compelling about the Emmys is the way their legitimacy is visible throughout the process, as submissions are made, ballots are distributed, and then nominees are chosen to in some cases submit to extensive, relatively transparent processes through which winners are selected. While all awards are inherently flawed in their inability to prove that voters have objectively considered the best in television on a large enough scale to make their vote a comprehensive one, the Emmys seem built (with the screening of nominated performances for panels, and the distribution of episode submissions from nominated series) to ensure that at least some level of comparison is present in the final selection process.

I don’t think this necessarily leads to better winners, and can think of numerous cases where it has led to winners that I was quite frustrated with at the time. However, I find there to be solace in the science offered here, giving us the ability to understand why a decision might have been made rather than prescribing it to the whims of a voting body known for their love of whims. We respect the Emmys more than the Golden Globes not because their winners are necessarily better, but rather because we can better predict, analyze, and understand those winners. The lack of clarity regarding the Globes immediately throws the questions of “How” and “Why” into disarray: reading through Shone’s argument, for example, I found myself wondering whether the HFPA made those decisions for the right reasons, or if they just lucked into a decision that history would vindicate relative to the Academy Awards. It’s a silly question that doesn’t particularly matter, as a search for logic feels like a futile one with award shows, but it’s not necessarily a question I would ask of the Emmys, in part because I feel I have a better understanding of the “How” and “Why” of it all.

What I like about Shone’s piece, though, is that it does force us to differentiate between that which can be easily dismissed and that which could take on a greater meaning within awards like the Golden Globes. I feel confident that Matt LeBlanc’s “Hey, you played yourself on a premium cable comedy, and we never gave you a Golden Globe for Friends” victory will be proven a shallow reflection of the HFPA’s membership, but Idris Elba’s win feels significant both for the actor himself (deserving of a break of this nature) and for BBC America (looking to make a larger impact on the awards circuit with its imported programming like Luther and The Hour). Similarly, while Downton Abbey‘s victory over Mildred Pierce feels like another drop in the bucket in the former’s domination of the latter on the awards circuit, it is also the first time in at least two decades that PBS has won this award, a breakthrough for public television in a space recently reserved for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood stars slumming it on premium cable.

The cultural significance of these “victories” is hollow, I’m aware, but it’s not insignificant within an industrial context. Even Kelsey Grammer’s win for Boss, a victory that I identify above as a point of disappointment, is significant for its reflection of the foreign success of the Starz series, which so prominently flopped with American viewers. It’s a vote of confidence for the network’s decision to order a second series primarily – according to speculation – in order to be able to sell both seasons as a package internationally, where it’s clear that the HFPA have become attached to Grammer’s performance (and the show, given that they nominated it for Drama Series as well).

Shone’s argument very much rests on cultural significance, on some sort of moral sense of “right” and “wrong” when it comes to who is given a shiny trophy, something that I’m not convinced you can build an argument on when it comes to any awards (and that includes both the Oscars and the Emmys). However, I would agree with the takeaway of Shone’s argument, which is that we should investigate the winners of even the most maligned awards further in order to reflect on the significance they do have, within the industry if not necessarily within some sort of historical record of great television. Let us understand a show like the Golden Globes not as a source of legitimation but rather as a site of legitimation, a space where discourses of televisual quality are shaped and reshaped over the course of an often tedious broadcast, and a space that we should be analyzing beyond valuable, but ephemeral, breakdowns of winners and losers.

The result will not likely prove the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to be geniuses well ahead of their time, but I think it will prove the Golden Globes are worth more than the standard dismissal might indicate, an important step towards engaging with these awards on a deeper level.

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6 Comments

Filed under Golden Globes

6 responses to “The Search for Significance: The Television Industry and the Golden Globes

  1. Annoying Pedant

    Ahem. This was Modern Family’s first win for Best Comedy Series. Glee won the last two years.

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