Last season on “Shameless,” the Showtime series about a poor family struggling to survive on Chicago’s South Side, a toddler accidentally ingested cocaine and nearly died, his alcoholic father wasted away from liver decay, and a promising young woman wound up in prison.
Are you laughing yet?
It’s worth asking, because “Shameless,” along with Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” is competing in the comedy categories at Monday night’s Emmy Awards. Since the drama categories are weighted with big deals such as “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” Showtime and Netflix chose to submit these other shows as comedies to improve their chances. They shopped around for the easiest category, if not the most appropriate.
And their questionable method worked, big time. “Shameless,” submitted by Showtime as a drama but not nominated for its first three seasons, finally won a major nod this year, for William H. Macy as lead comedy actor. And “Orange Is the New Black,” a prison drama with black humor, racked up an impressive 12 comedy nominations.
These examples are only part of the growing Emmy category fail that’s facing the Television Academy, which administers the awards. While FX’s anthology shows “American Horror Story” and “Fargo” were nominated as miniseries, since each season includes different stories and characters, HBO entered its eight-episode anthology series “True Detective” in drama categories. And if you scan the guest-acting nominations, you’ll see networks nominating series regulars in those slots instead of in the more crowded supporting categories.
This summer, Television Academy chairman Bruce Rosenblum danced around the category problem at the Television Critics Association’s annual press tour. “As an organization,” he said, “should we look and try to maybe define the rules a bit more carefully? It’s something we should definitely take a look at.”
According to Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” and founder of GoldDerby.com, which covers all show business awards, disagreement over categories “went nuclear this year across Hollywood. There was far too much strategic gerrymandering.” After talking to academy bigwigs, he says, he is confident they will address the issue before next year’s nominations. “The whole ‘Shameless’ thing is — shameless,” he says.
O’Neil says the academy needs to enforce the current rules more stringently. This year, HBO submitted “Treme” as a miniseries instead of a drama, because its fourth and final season was only five episodes — too few to qualify as a series.
“If a show doesn’t exactly qualify for one category,” O’Neil says, “they just move it over to a different category. But it should not be eligible at all. Period. ‘Treme’ simply didn’t qualify for the Emmys this year, so they should have let it alone. That’s just the way it goes.”
But if the Television Academy does try to stop category gerrymandering, it will probably not find an easy solution. The problem is about loopholes in rules, yes, but it also speaks of a broader and more complicated issue — one as positive for viewers as category-shopping is negative for the Emmys’ reputation. While the category problem pushes the Emmys toward the Golden Globes end of the meaningless award show spectrum, the strategizing behind it also speaks to TV’s current level of excellence.
In the past 15 years, since the premiere of “The Sopranos,” scripted TV content has become more sophisticated and less likely to fit into conventional boxes. TV writers work to bring realism and invention to series, to make them more like life, and so they’re adding jokes to serious material — “Breaking Bad” could make you laugh out loud — and adding serial drama to comedy.
“Nurse Jackie” on Showtime is half an hour long, which makes it seem like a comedy and has led it to be nominated as such, but it’s truly a bleak drama about addiction. “I’m not funny!” Edie Falco said to the Emmy audience in 2010 when she won the best comedy actress statue. The small bits of comedy in “Nurse Jackie” are there solely as a relief from Jackie’s relentless self-destruction. The expansive scope and the tone of these hybrid and tri-brid shows defy the simple labels of comedy, drama, and even “dramedy,” the kind of show for which David E. Kelley of “Ally McBeal” is famous.
Another significant change in TV narratives in recent years: Many of today’s TV executive producers and storytellers recognize the virtues of shorter seasons. Not every series delivers 22 episodes per year anymore: On cable, the business model allows for the more creatively efficient option of a dozen or so episodes, a number that more easily lends itself to seasonlong story arcs. And yet these series nonetheless go up against one another, with, say, the 10 episodes of “Game of Thrones” competing with the 22 episodes of “The Good Wife” for a best drama nomination.
Some argue that the academy should create more categories to accommodate these length issues — two sets of drama categories, for example, one for series under 13 episodes and one for series over 13. Rosenblum is wary of that option’s effect on the Emmys show: “New categories is always challenging, because the show will run five hours long and that’s not anything anybody wants. We also want to maintain the sheen of what the award is. And as you expand categories unnecessarily, you diffuse what that brand is.”
Emmycast executive producer Don Mischer agrees. “There is a blurring of the content now with all the shows that are airing on all these different platforms,” he said during the TCA press event. “And it’s really difficult to have straight, ironclad procedures that clearly delineate where every show falls. . . . And the solution to that, at least in my opinion, is not to simply add more and more awards.”
Like most Hollywood awards, the Emmys are flawed, and the telecasts are bloated. But they remain the mainstream TV prize with the most impact. Despite their famous oversights — including a serious shortage of nominations for classic shows such as “The Wire” — they continue to have value, as they recognize the best of the medium that reaches into our homes. Let’s hope the academy can evolve to suit the times, maintain our trust, and avoid sliding into pointlessness.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.