Critical darlings fail to score Emmy nominations

Moments after the Emmy nominations were announced on July 19, TV critics surveyed the list and, collective mouths agape, simultaneously uttered, “Oh, no, not again.”

As much as the TV Academy continues to tinker with the rules process, every year there are glaring omissions and startling inclusions. Hey, voting is an imperfect science — just ask Al Gore — but why are so many of the performances and shows championed by critics overlooked by Emmy?

Giving it more thought, maybe a bigger question is not why certain shows are included or rejected by the Academy but whether anyone listens to the TV critics anymore.

Certainly critics have influence in the movie community. Indie “Little Miss Sunshine” rode a critical wave after its Sundance Film Festival launch all the way to four Oscar nominations, including best picture.

So how is it possible that a series such as HBO’s “The Wire” doesn’t draw a single nomination? Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tom Shales — not one to use hyperbole — called it “the most authentic epic ever on television.”

“The disconnect is a direct result of the fact that people who make TV don’t watch TV, and if they do watch screeners of DVDs, they’re often seeing one performance out of context,” says Chicago Tribune critic Maureen Ryan. “The Emmy folks need to look to the AFI top 10 list, the Peabody Awards and, yes, even the Golden Globes. Those people appear to have watched enough television to make informed choices about who should be nominated for best-of awards.”

Yes, one would think that voters would have watched the shows they are voting for (or against), but that’s not often the case. Conversely, rarely do you see an Oscar voter marking a ballot for a film he or she never saw. But it’s been known to happen in the TV world, when the full Academy membership is voting.

It’s not meanspirited or venomous, per se. Television professionals are often on set 16 hours a day and/or working in the office 60 hours a week. There’s no reason to apologize for not having the time to see so much TV, but there may be a better way to round up the most qualified shows.

One suggestion heard at the recent Television Critics Assn. confab was that the critics should come up with a list of the 10 most worthy series in the comedy and drama categories, and the Academy could whittle it down to five from there with no clunkers in the mix.

But critics already give their own awards, which differ from both the Emmys and popular-vote shows such as the People’s Choice Awards. At this year’s TCA Awards, only three of the five shows nominated for the org’s top “program of the year” prize showed up in any of the Emmy categories (“Heroes,” “American Idol” and “Planet Earth”).

As the current Emmy system allows, shows with lots of viewers often are nominated even if there’s a collective agreement that the quality has fallen. But that’s not necessarily a knock on widely popular programs. There have been many series in years past that were both Nielsen giants and creatively inspired — think “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Desperate Housewives” (at least during the first season).

“I get it that ‘The Wire’ being the best show on television isn’t enough to get it a nomination,” says incensed Philadelphia News critic Ellen Gray. “But ‘Friday Night Lights’? How can anyone who’s seen that show turn around and cast a vote instead for ‘Boston Legal’?”

But voters who haven’t had a chance to see a broad scope of shows can be lulled into thinking that Nielsen powerhouses are also Emmy worthy. Returning to the film analogy, “Transformers” was a box office monster, but nobody’s thinking best picture.

“The Emmy system is skewed toward rewarding the familiar and the pseudo-original cute-quirkiness,” says editor-at-large Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly. “Watching a series such as (the little-seen) ‘The Wire,’ if you’re not predisposed to enjoying drama whose humor is also bleak, whose passion is despairing, is difficult, if not impossible, for the average TV viewer, let alone an Emmy voter.”

FX president John Landgraf says his reaction to the Emmy noms doesn’t lie so much with how critics’ voices are being shut out of the process but, with his own network in mind, how some shows have an automatic head start.

If Acad members who are unfamiliar with many of the eligible programs vote for shows on their own network, which is sometimes the case, then networks with much smaller staffs may be at a disadvantage.

“I find it surprising that ‘The Shield,’ which most critics agree is a top-10 show (among dramas), didn’t make the list,” Landgraf says. “Small organizations like ours have less than 20 people qualified to vote, so unless you believe that other people in other organizations vote their conscience and not the priority their organizations cover, it can be tough.

“My question is: Wouldn’t you want to start the process from an equitable place, with each show judged on its creative merits?”

Certainly, critics and voters, who often don’t see eye to eye on many things Emmy, could agree on that.

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