Do the Emmys accurately represent the TV revolution?
Since the late 1990s, the medium has rebelled against its early reputation as a wasteland, and it has become a home to outrageously good scripted storytelling. The canon of potential “Sopranos”- and “Wire”-level greats grows yearly, thanks to ambitious “content outlets” such as AMC, HBO, FX, and, now, Netflix.
So when the people of the future thumb their way to Wikipedia’s lists of Emmy Award nominees and winners for the 20-teens, will they see the best of the best reflecting back at them from their screenless screens? Will they get a true picture?
I’d say yes, for the most part, in terms of nominations. Sure, there have been a few outstanding shows and actors in recent years that, famously, have been under-nominated or completely ignored. “The Wire,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Oz,” and “Friday Night Lights” are all in the Emmy Shame Hall of Fame. Those shows have stayed alive in our culture, thanks to fan love and post-TV platforms including DVDs, and no thanks to Emmy immortality.
But going into this year’s ceremony, which will air on Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS, the list of nominated shows and actors is actually a pretty fair representation of our era. There are one or two missteps, of course. The absence of FX’s “The Americans” is too bad; the drama was among the year’s most exciting newcomers, with sensational performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Russian spies in 1980s America. And the exclusion of Tatiana Maslany in the best actress category is tragic. Her turns as a group of clones on BBC America’s “Orphan Black” are dazzling. But still, the nominees all taken together do approximate The Best TV of 2012-13. And odds are that those shows and actors will make it next year. Often, the Academy is a year or two or three behind; “Friday Night Lights” got no significant notice until its last two seasons.
It’s surprising to call the Emmys accurate, in a way, since complaining about the Emmys is such a popular sport. The fun of the Emmy nominations and winner lists, like almost every year-end, decade-end, and Buzzfeed-style countdown, is to inspire outrage as much, if not more, than agreement. What a total yawner that would be, if we all agreed that the finest shows were honored every year. But generally speaking, we are quibbling, rather than profoundly disagreeing. Nearly all of the current TV elites have been nominated for something major in the past few years.
“Breaking Bad” is here in a big way, along with “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones,” a trio of all-time excellence. “Game of Thrones” probably won’t ever take home a best drama statue; the voters don’t tend to favor drama. But the fantasy-history series has certainly left a mark on most of the drama categories. And none of the “Mad Men” actors and actresses has ever won, but many of them have been nominated — the show has dominated the supporting acting categories in drama for years. “Nurse Jackie,” “30 Rock,” “Louie,” “Veep,” and “Parks and Recreation,” they’re all Top 10 list regulars, and they’re all in the running for Emmys. In its first year of creating series in earnest, Netflix has already made a mark on the nominations with “House of Cards” and the “Arrested Development” reboot.
Even “Enlightened,” a show too small to survive more than two short seasons on HBO, has been registered by the Academy. The series has two nominations this year, including best actress for Laura Dern.
Winning Emmys is a different story. If our future friends look solely at lists of those who’ve taken home the gold in the last decade or so, well, they’ll get a skewed perspective on what we think is good TV — with all due respect to last year’s best comedy actor Jon Cryer. Sometimes just being nominated puts you in the best of company.