Critics say TV Academy voters only go with what they know

Critics have long skewered Emmy voters for sticking with their favorites long after their prime years have passed them by, shutting out deserving newcomers in the process.

But this perception is even more pronounced this year, with aging shows like “Will & Grace,” “The West Wing” and “Six Feet Under” scoring multiple nominations, while newer critical darlings like “Rescue Me” and “Gilmore Girls” got virtually shut out.

“Between ‘Rescue Me’ and ‘The West Wing,’ ‘West Wing’ gets five nominations and ‘Rescue Me’ gets two — that makes no sense to me,” says Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today. “It was an awfully off Emmy year.”

“Six Feet Under” scored five noms, too, and was entered into the best drama race along with “The West Wing.” “Rescue Me” didn’t make the drama series cut, despite having what most critics thought was a much better season than the two Emmy veterans.

For their part, given the critical drubbing they’ve received in what’s likely their penultimate season together, the executive producers and stars of “Will & Grace” were stunned by the show’s 15 noms this year — the most for any half-hour, and tied with “Desperate Housewives” for the most among series.

“It’s like the Emmys work on a name-recognition pattern,” says TV Guide’s Matt Roush. “It doesn’t reflect what the shows are doing at the present time.”

Roush and several of his colleagues complain that voters are sometimes on autopilot. If a show caught their fancy five years ago, chances are it will still get their vote.

“Emmy is at its worst when the list of nominees could be from any year,” he says. “These shows have an Emmy history — but they should be history.”

Emmy’s preference for familiarity is nothing new. Multiple Emmy wins appear to be the norm, rather than the exception — just ask “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer, “Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Doris Roberts or the producers of four-time drama winner “West Wing.”

“Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen won for comedy actress five times. Her turn at the podium had become such a tradition that she finally withdrew her name from consideration.

In the case of “Will & Grace,” familiarity wasn’t the only factor fueling its big haul. The show’s penchant for guest-star stunting — frequently blasted by critics — paid off awards-wise, as five of the show’s nods came from appearances by the likes of Victor Garber, Blythe Danner, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby Cannavale and Alec Baldwin.

The show also manages to eke out a healthy Emmy existence thanks to the dearth of quality sitcoms.

With shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ineligible, and other Emmy staples like “Frasier” and “Sex and the City” gone, it’s no surprise “Will & Grace” has enough of a core constituency to post its biggest haul of noms.

“There was a lack of any real comedy choices this year,” says the Philadelphia Daily News’ Ellen Gray. “If they had to come up with five, ‘Will & Grace’ was a real possibility. … I kind of understand it, but at the same time, I was appalled.”

Still, Gray says she didn’t mind “West Wing’s” continued support from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters. Even though it’s become fashionable to complain that the Martin Sheen drama is past its prime, Gray says the accolades are still deserved.

“Everyone’s so quick to compare it to the early years,” she says. “It’s still one of the smartest shows on TV.”

HBO topper Chris Albrecht, meanwhile, took the “Six Feet Under” noms as proof that the show was still relevant, despite the one-time critical darling’s more recent drubbing.

“Critics gave the show an unfair (hammering) — I’m not sure what that was all about,” Albrecht says. “It’s a terrific show.”

Still, with just five available drama slots, critics would have much rather seen “Rescue Me” or “The Wire” get a mention.

Emmy isn’t focused only on traditional fare, however. Longtime Emmy faves like “ER,” “Law & Order,” and “NYPD Blue” — the latter having just finished its final season — are no longer on the org’s radar.

Also, TV Academy voters surprised almost everyone by awarding the Emmy last year to Fox’s underdog laffer “Arrested Development.”

This year, the two hottest new series, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” are both amply represented.

Shows like “Arrested Development” have managed to sneak their way into the Emmys thanks to several rule changes in recent years. By altering the way shows are nominated and voted on, Emmy has begun to look more hip.

But it takes time — and nothing’s foolproof. Bianco argues that a large chunk of Emmy voters are too busy making TV to watch it. “They’re rewarding the best DVD set or best trade magazine ad, or the show employing the most of their studio co-workers.”

Bianco would like to see the TV Academy adopt an independent panel, similar to the one set up for the Grammys, that would balance out any potentially embarrassing noms.

Regardless of the critical reaction this year, “Will & Grace” exec producer Max Mutchnick is taking the Emmy tally in stride, noting that the show gets its fair share of salvos and love letters these days.

“We’re in the right place about it, having experienced all sides of it,” he says. “When this stuff happens, it’s an incredible morale booster for the cast and crew and writers. We do celebrate it here no matter what happens.”

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