While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.
Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.
I did a Top 15 shows as part of The A.V. Club’s Top 25 Shows of 2010 list – which is really fantastic, and features my writeups on United States of Tara and Cougar Town – earlier this month, so I technically thought about what my Top 10 was, but looking back on it I didn’t like it. Knowing that the list was going to be aggregated, I think I steered clear of series I knew didn’t have a chance, or at the very least ranked them lower than I might have otherwise, and the result was a list that wasn’t wrong so much as it was unrepresentative of a broader view of the year in television.
And yet, since I have this particular outlet and have been in a list-making mode of late, I did put together a Top 10. It’s largely the same, although I’ve made a few changes to make it slightly more representative. This does not imply that series were elevated above their station in order to add a sense of diversity: there is no hierarchy here, and I consider these 20 series to be on more or less similar levels (outside of those shows which I clearly label within the writeups as the finest within their respective genres, which should not come as a surprise to anyone).
And I like the sense of diversity. These shows aired in different countries, at different times of year, and on a wide range of networks, and represent the ten shows which make me very glad to have been both obsessed with and paid to write about/study television in the past year.
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
When I first noted that I was limiting this list to a single episode per series, someone (it was either Jeremy Mongeau or Timothy Yenter – you should be following both) noted on Twitter something approximating “Heh, you should pick “Fly” to screw with people’s heads.” I should have saved the tweet, because I had already decided on “Fly” at that point, and got a good chuckle out of it.
I am aware that not everyone will agree with this choice. Those paying close attention may have noticed that, in going in chronological order, I passed over the sheer intensity of “One Minute,” and in picking “Fly” I’m ignoring the stunning pair of “Half Measures” and “Full Measure.” I love all of these episodes, just as I loved Breaking Bad’s third season as a whole, and yet some part of me gravitates to “Fly.”
You may have also noticed that I am attracted to episodes which are somewhat different – in fact, to this point, everything but “Sweetums” could be defined as distinctly atypical for the show in question, suggesting that I’m easily distracted by gimmicks. And yet with “Fly” the gimmick is the lack of distraction, the degree to which the show is stripped down to its most basic qualities in an effort to find something that might have otherwise gone unseen. The result is a fascinating glimpse at what it means to be contained, what it means to be contaminated, and definitive proof that Breaking Bad is simultaneously one of the darkest and one of the most hilarious shows on television.
So, the Top 10 Episodes of 2010 series will be taking a hiatus as I head into paper mode over the weekend (which means it will finish on Christmas Eve, in case you hadn’t done the math), but in ruminating on the subject I wanted something to spur some discussion over the weekend.
And, I think scenes are the way to go. While every episode is technically composed of various scenes, there are often scenes which make an impact distinct from their larger context and linger in ways we wouldn’t normally expect. Sometimes they are conversations which seem to resonate beyond the episode into the series’ larger context, whereas other times they are simply scenes which make us laugh or feel some sort of emotion whenever we think about them. Others, meanwhile, are simply incredibly inventive or exciting – there are just an infinite number of criteria, and so I figured this is a job for all of us rather than just myself.
So, I’m going to start with five, and then I very much encourage you to nominate your own selections in the comments. There are, however, two rules:
1) Avoid Detailed Spoilers
There are some shows people haven’t seen, and so I would appreciate (and I’m sure everyone would appreciate) that you don’t go into explicit detail with spoiler-heavy analysis. If you think something (whether it be a death on Dexter or a major event on Lost) could be construed as a spoiler by someone who hasn’t seen it, see if you can’t use other signifiers (episode title, omitting character names) which could at the very least limit the damage.
2) This is Not a Contest
I don’t think we’re going to have this problem, as you’re all pretty civil, but this is not some sort of elimination contest to decide the best scene of the year – rather, it’s a chance to collect an assortment of scenes that people really enjoyed. Like I said, don’t think it will be an issue, but I wrote that I was going to have two rules, and then discovered that I really only had one rule, but decided that the impact of there being two rules may be in some way helpful. Also, whether or not anyone comments on the inanity of this particular paragraph will test and see whether people bothered to read the rules in their entirety, which is always fun.
One final note: I participated in a feature going up at The A.V. Club next week which recognizes scenes of this nature – I wrote about a couple of scenes there, and so I’ll be sure to link to that when it goes up next week. It also means that I likely didn’t include certain scenes here because I’ve covered them elsewhere in other capacities (whether in A.V. Club Features or in my Top 10 Episodes list). My list also tends to lean towards comedy, but “scenes” can mean pretty much anything you want it to be, so don’t feel limited by that.
Five of the Top Scenes from 2010
Fairy Janette performs “Iko Iko” – Treme
[Sorry for the awful quality – better than nothing?]
Treme had numerous high points, but for me the scene which most reflected the infectious spirit which it both embodied and disembodied over the course of its first season was Kim Dickens’ Janette drunkenly dancing in the streets of New Orleans trying to turn cars into carriages with her wand and absent-mindedly belting out “Iko Iko” at the same time. The scene doesn’t become anything sinister, nor does it seem at all self-destructive: it is just a woman, freed of her responsibilities, letting loose and bringing passerby into the revelry – when Janette responds to the teenager that she’s “Me,” it’s sad and beautiful at the same time, which seems to be Treme‘s modus operandi.
As a whole, the Emmy Awards live and die on surprise: sure, there’s always favourites, but the idea that “anything can happen” is what keeps us watching a show which so often punishes us for becoming emotionally involved. For every pleasant surprise there has been soul-crushing complacency, and so we watch hoping that something will cut through the pain in order to give us some sense of hope for the legitimacy of these awards.
And while we eventually leave each evening lamenting numerous mistakes, comfortable in our superior knowledge of what is truly great in television in a given year, I don’t want that to obfuscate the moments of transcendence. Sometimes, moments come together that defy our cynical expectations, moments that find the spontaneity in the scripted or make the spontaneous feel as if it was planned all along. And while I remain the jaded critic that I was before the show began, any chance of carrying that attitude through the entirety of the show was diminished at the sight of Jon Hamm booty-dancing towards Betty White, and all but gone by the time Top Chef finally ended The Amazing Race’s reign of terror over Reality Competition program.
It was a night filled with surprises, whether in terms of who was winning the awards (with a huge number of first-time winners) or in terms of emotional moments which resulted from those winners – sure, there were hiccups along the way, and there were still a number of winners which indicated that the Emmys are still stuck in their ways, but there was enough excitement for me to designate these Emmys as “not boring.”
In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were more “not boring” than usual.
Despite being the biggest awards of the evening, I’ll admit that this is one of my least favourite categories to analyze: yes, this is where things should become even more interesting, but more often than not this is where the complacent power of inertia kicks in worst of all. While a good actor being killed by a bad submission has nuance, and a great submission can truly change the nature of a category, there is a sense with the Series awards that the episodes themselves are more or less irrelevant. If they submit tapes that resemble the series’ cultural influence, then it will be enough to make this a race of hype vs. hype rather than actuall quality.
Of the legitimate competitors for these awards, there is nothing that would cause me to become outraged or anything – while there are certainly some contenders which I would prefer, it’s more a question of which series have the quality to go beyond the hype, and whether or not the voters will actually see through those layers to find the actual most outstanding series on television.
The complete lack of a frontrunner in neither Supporting Actor nor Supporting Actress in a Drama Series isn’t particularly surprising: these categories are always fairly stacked, and so predicting them is always a bit of a crapshoot.
This year, though, the lack of a frontrunner should prove particularly interesting, and potentially quite frustrating for the majority of television viewers.
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age)
Martin Short (Damages)
Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
Terry O’Quinn (Lost)
Michael Emerson (Lost)
John Slattery (Mad Men)
On the Actor side of things, it’s a problem of too much talent: while many are right to complain about John Lithgow getting dropped down to (and winning) Guest Actor from Supporting on a technicality, I think this category is better for his absence, as it allows people like Aaron Paul (still looking for his first Emmy win for this spectacular work on Breaking Bad) to have a legitimate shot at the trophy instead of appearing as also-rans. However, when he’s alongside someone as respected as Martin Short, and when former winners Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson are riding the momentum of Lost coming to its conclusion, Paul still seems like a small fish in a big pond (Slattery, as good as he is, is simply not going to be the Mad Men actor to break the series’ drought in performance categories).
And Your Winner, by Submission…: Analyzing 2010’s Emmy Tapes
July 15th, 2010
Last week, I wrote a piece for Jive TV which described the next step in the Emmy Awards process, and the ways in which this post-nomination period is honestly more interesting for me than the pre-nomination period: as my Twitter followers have noted, I’m a bit obsessive about the submissions process, where the nominated series and performers choose episodes to represent their work over the past season.
It fascinates me because of how unnatural it is: performers can’t simply put together a reel of their strongest moments from throughout the season, they need to find a single representative episode (which, for supporting players, is cut down to only their scenes), and so what they choose is incredibly telling. For example, the cast of Glee have very clearly been instructed to submit episodes which feature big musical performances: Chris Colfer submitted “Laryngitis” because of the show-stopping “Rose’s Turn,” while Lea Michele submitted “Sectionals” based on her take on “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” These might not be their more consistent episodes in terms of overall material, but musically they are character-defining performances, and Glee has decided that this will be its Emmy focus. And yet, for Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch, their submissions don’t work as well when oriented around their most show-stopping musical performances, and so sometimes a series’ approach doesn’t match with each performer.
It’s a delicate balance, and one which I think best captures the equally maddening and addictive nature of this process, which is why I will now take a closer look at the submissions strategy from a number of series: for a look at how they look as categories, and for more submissions I don’t talk about here, check out Tom O’Neill post at Gold Derby.
The Trick is to Actually Watch TV: The 2010 Emmy Nominations
July 8th, 2010
The Emmy nominations (which you can find in full here) are less a sign of what’s truly great on television and a more a sign of what the Emmy voters have actually been watching.
Series and performers are nominated for Emmys for one of two reasons: either the Academy members watched episodes carefully and saw them deserving of an award, or they looked at their ballots and chose a familiar name, a much buzzed-about series, or the first name on the ballot. And, frankly, most years the latter seemed to be their modus operandi, to the point where I’ve started to disassociate voters with any notion of television viewership – I’m not even convinced most of them own televisions.
However, for once, I’d say that the 2010 Emmy nominations seem to have been made by people who actually enjoy the medium, with plenty of evidence to demonstrate that voters actually watched many of the shows they nominated and discovered not only the most hyped elements of that series but also those elements which are truly deserving of Emmys attention. There are still plenty of examples where it’s clear that Emmy voters didn’t truly bother to watch the series in question, and all sorts of evidence which indicates that the Emmy voters suffer from a dangerously selective memory and a refusal to let go of pay cable dramedies, but the fact remains that this is the most hopeful Emmy year in recent memory.
It isn’t that every nominee is perfect, but rather that there is evidence of Academy voters sitting down in front of their television and watching more than a single episode of the shows in question, making them less like soulless arbiters of quality and more like actual television viewers – it might not stick, but for a few moments it’s nice to finally see some nominees that indicate voters aren’t so much different from us after all.