Emmy nomination day this year was like an instant snapshot of the breadth and excitement of today’s television landscape, not to mention — for the recognized actors — a reminder that TV might be where the best roles are these days.
Emmy nominee Laura Dern (“Enlightened”) estimates that of her generation of movie actors — those she’s worked with, or whose work she’s loved — “80%” are doing series right now or about to.
“Our finest actors, those who long for complicated characters and lead protagonists with blurred lines, where once those existed in independent film and Hal Ashby movies, they’re in cable series now,” Dern says.
But when it comes to rewarding that work, the Emmys themselves are still seen as something of a second cousin to the Oscars in terms of historical oomph, hype, viewership, and perceived worth. Could that status gap ever be bridged?
One indicator could be the atmosphere at the Golden Globes, where the awards-season worlds of movies and television meet. Dern, a winner in January for her work on “Enlightened,” says the vibe that night in the Beverly Hilton is remarkably different than years past.
“It’s not like, ‘Let’s get through the TV awards so they can talk about movies.’ There’s equal investment,” she says. “There should be no difference between the two, and that’s a night where you really feel how it’s all just the creative work that we’re getting to celebrate in different formats.”
Of course, the irony has always existed that if you translated viewership for a single episode of a niche, award-winning series like “Breaking Bad” into box office dollars, it’d be like releasing a hit dramatic feature every week. That makes Oscar’s cachet vs. Emmy’s like the difference between something fleeting and something concrete, says New York television critic and rogerebert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz.
“Movies are a date, at best a love affair, and television is a relationship,” says Seitz, and the awards competitions themselves reflect that. “Most people don’t see the movies that have been nominated. (The Oscars are) interesting and exciting and glamorous for reasons that have nothing to do with the movies themselves, whereas the Emmys are actually about the shows. The status gap may never be bridged, but the Emmys should be grateful that it can’t be. It’s a different kind of deal.”
First-time Emmy nominee Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom”) has always given the Emmys extra points for recognizing comedy.
“I’ve always had a problem with the Oscars, who dismiss comedy, then would hire a comedian to host the show,” says Daniels. “Last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks.”
As far as leveling the playing field between the two, however, Daniels says the biggest changes he’s noticed have been in how de-mystified stardom has become in the living room.
“Back in the day, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Brando, De Niro, up until the ’70s, nobody did Carson,” he notes. “You were larger than life. Since then, we’ve all had to promote. Thirty years ago, I had to go to a movie theater to see a movie. Now it’s video on demand. Why is that different from any show on television? It all ends up on your television anyway, and good acting is good acting, wherever it is.”
FX president John Landgraf remembers the coup in landing Glenn Close for “The Shield” in 2005. It wasn’t the case of an acclaimed movie star slumming on “at that time a relatively dinky cable channel,” he says, but an actress responding to an ambitious, exciting role.
Close eventually was Emmy-nominated for “The Shield,” which proved meaningful enough of an experience that she told the network she’d consider any project they developed for her. The result: “Damages,” and two Emmy wins.
Landgraf sees the same trajectory in Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange’s Emmy-winning turn on “American Horror Story” that he saw in Close: the open-ended nature of television acting becomes liberating.
“It reconnects the actor with some of the spontaneity and risktaking and improvisation they had in the earlier part of their career as an artist, which went away as they became more technically accomplished, and as they had larger burdens placed on their shoulders in the film business,” says Landgraf. “I take nothing away from film, I am a huge film fan, but I do think any actor entering the craft today is probably going to tell you they want to do both.”
The Emmy might need a bit more time to catch up with Oscar’s global resonance and storied history, but Dern says look to where artists want to take chances. Lately, the excitement is more about a “Breaking Bad” than what’s at the multiplex.
“An award for television is absolutely becoming equal to an award for film,” she says. “Wherever the artists are experimenting will be the most important place to celebrate for people who try to do it and love it, for sure. That’s where it’s becoming equal.”