Why Take the Emmys Seriously?

Despite quibbles, TV Academy deserve kudos for many picks

Not gonna lie to you: More than once, I’ve heard people around the office say (cue voice of J. Walter Weatherman), “And that’s when I learned not to take the Emmys seriously.”

More than once, I’ve even had the same thought myself.

It’s easy to slide into cynicism about the Primetime Emmy awards during the moments when personal favorites go unrewarded in favor of the seemingly inexplicable or unconscionable. But largely speaking, the Emmys do serve as a worthy barometer of the best in television, and in the end (heck, in the beginning and the middle, too), I take them pretty damn seriously.

What stands out, above all else, is this: The playing field, if not completely level, passes the eyeball test. The size of your distribution doesn’t dictate your Emmy chances.

Showtime’s Homeland won last year’s drama series Emmy, after AMC’s Mad Men won the previous four, with typical hourly audiences roughly a tenth of what NCIS averages on CBS. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences might be accused of elitism, but when it comes to celebrating the best, that should be a badge of honor.

Three-time defending comedy series champ Modern Family, on the other hand, is a ratings Andre the Giant, but there was little question about its critical appeal out of the gate. With its 2012 victory, you could hear some grumbling that the ABC comedy no longer deserved such laurels, but many of the murmurs came from such diverse and niche fan clubs — Louie, Parks and Recreation, Veep — that you could explain the Modern victory as one of plurality.

More to the point, as you look ahead to possible successors to Modern in comedy, you’d be hard-pressed to predict which of the following has the better shot: good-humored CBS ratings machine The Big Bang Theory or the ultimate small-aud bee in everyone’s bonnet, HBO’s Girls.

Perhaps the biggest argument against the Emmys is that they force the TV Academy to walk a tightrope that in many ways is doomed to unravel. On one side are those who believe the Acad hasn’t been bold enough with its selections, whether it’s ignoring a Sons of Anarchy here or a Dan Harmon-era Community there. On the other come those who find the Academy getting too cute with its picks, at the expense of such popular but intelligent fare as The Walking Dead.

The credibility of the Emmys will forever be haunted by never giving The Wire a single nomination of note — the belief that there were at least five dramas better than the landmark HBO series each year is TV’s version of WMDs in Iraq. The truth is the truth, and a single mistake of this magnitude is enough to permanently discredit a body in the eyes of the betrayed.

But since the Emmys aren’t literally life or death, I can forgive, rather than forget how often the Emmys do recognize a TV underdog.

It was the Emmys that made Hill Street Blues a program that NBC couldn’t possibly dispense with, that gave The Ben Stiller Show post-cancelation validation, who, better late than never, found Friday Night Lights worthy of awards.

It is rare that the TV Academy makes a truly bad choice, rare enough that when it happens, I’m genuinely surprised and dismayed. Never giving Steve Carell an Emmy for The Office is as big a comedy sin as you can find in the past decade, and I’ll bitch and moan until Amy Poehler gets her Parks and Rec kudo — but almost as often, their alternatives are sincerely defensible.

Even when the Emmys can’t seem to break free of a repeat winner, it makes sense. My daughter was born the night of the 2002 Emmys, and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has won the variety-music-comedy series trophy every year since. With all respect to Stephen Colbert, I’ve never felt any of the wins were undeserved.

Given that you’re never going to validate everyone, the Emmys do an above-average job of validating the efforts of an industry that produces more above-average content than almost anyone could watch. The stakes are real.

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