If the big banks were notoriously too big to fail, the TV awards process might finally have become too big to wrangle.
Granted, it’s now expected Emmy nominations and awards will yield gripes from fans and critics, lamenting programs and performers who were “snubbed,” along with the Television Academy’s historic blind spots toward areas like science fiction, fantasy — basically anything with aliens, zombies, vampires and dragons.
But even allowing for an element of hyperbole and ginned-up outrage, the cries about apples-and-oranges comparisons and category shopping seemed to crest this year. And when practically every major award chase can come with an asterisk, one has to wonder if we’ve moved beyond the customary Hollywood nips and tucks to the process, and require something more closely resembling an extreme makeover.
Host Seth Meyers took aim at the problem in his opening monologue, joking that the comedy field included shows that made you laugh and made you cry, “because they were dramas submitted as comedies.”
Yet this year’s results almost felt like a collective pushback against those practices, as few of the programs perceived to have misidentified themselves were rewarded. And while some sought to couch that as a snub of new players like Netflix and its “Orange Is the New Black,” or the resurgence of the broadcast networks, voters might have stuck with the Old Black of five-time winner “Modern Family” because it’s clearly a comedy; and embraced “Breaking Bad,” whose last episode aired 11 months ago, because unlike “True Detective,” nobody could confuse it with a miniseries.
Even an Oscar winner like Matthew McConaughey couldn’t derail the industry from showering a final accolade on “Breaking Bad,” the Sony Pictures TV/AMC drama that has come to define the new golden age of television.
The tradeoffs, though, were Emmy selections that again made the academy look old and stodgy — a frequent complaint registered by its critics — rewarding talent who have made so many trips to the podium (Jim Parsons, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bryan Cranston) that many felt compelled to gracefully begin their acceptance speeches with what almost sounded like apologies to their fellow nominees.
In the bigger picture, it’s hard to overlook the arbitrary nature of these competitions — of what constitutes a miniseries as opposed to a series, or how many laughs a program ought to have to be deemed a comedy.
The Television Academy’s board does an annual post-mortem at its first post-Emmy meeting, which sometimes produces rule changes. In early 2014, that included the wise step of reinstating the miniseries category as a stand-alone award, after several years of being lumped in with movies.
Actors in those two areas, however, remain conjoined, which made those races awkward, with some rightly citing the inherent unfairness of placing Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton’s 10 hours of splendid work in “Fargo” in the same field with those featured in stand-alone movies, such as HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” or the latest season of PBS’ “Sherlock” movies, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Nobody can really blame producers and managers for steering their nominees into categories where they will have the best chance of succeeding, especially if that’s what the rules allow. But it made for some strange bedfellows.
Complicating factors range from new players that have squeezed into the awards derby to ambitious twists on old formats. Due to a genuine sense of experimentation that’s likely to continue pushing and stretching parameters in unforeseen ways, simply dividing the world into comedy and drama, or miniseries and series, hardly approaches the number of permutations available.
None of the possible solutions, admittedly, looks particularly attractive. While there have been mutterings about whether it’s time to re-divide broadcast and cable — the CableACE Awards went away in the late 1990s, before the modern explosion of original fare — nobody is begging for more reasons to dress up and hire hair and makeup crews.
Creating categories, meanwhile — carving out space for dramedies, say, or new programs — certainly would run counter to the wishes of the major networks that televise the event, who have made clear that they want to hold down the number of honors within the broadcast, following the Grammys’ lead in approaching the evening as a big variety show where, incidentally, people occasionally receive a prize.
The Golden Globes, notably, have already made one move designed to quell some of the criticism that strafed this year’s Emmy nominations, altering the definition of a miniseries in a way that would encompass any closed-ended story, no matter how many episodes there are.
Setting aside the improbability of the Globes emerging as a voice of sobriety, it’s a good start, although even that doesn’t necessarily address the fast-changing nature of the business, such as the short orders and anthologies that have become increasingly popular vs. full seasons and serialized storylines.
Weighing all these factors, the uncomfortable truth is that television — and indeed, all TV-like platforms, with more likely on the way — might have grown too unwieldy to be winnowed down to an awards season anywhere close to the existing model. The problem is the vast and growing ecosystem of media outlets (yes, including this one) that feed off the existing system, and have little interest in doing anything that threatens to rock the boat.
With the Emmys in the rear-view, and the Globes a few months away, now might be the time for soul-searching to devise a strategy to meet some of these challenges. The Television Academy, after all, is receiving its own splashy facelift at its North Hollywood headquarters, which offers at least a symbolic incentive to place the whole process under the microscope.
The alternative, it would seem, is to keep playing Whac-a-Mole with the new controversies and mismatches that spring up. Of course, there’s always the couch-potato approach: Just kick back in front of the TV or laptop and enjoy all that great programming, with the understanding that by sticking with the status quo, we’ll probably have even more for folks to get riled up about next year.
Or as one network executive tweeted after the show, allowing for next year’s likely return to a post-Labor Day telecast, “Only 385 days until the whining starts about the 2015 Emmys.”