New voting system, infusion of new members, same old Emmys? In some respects, yes, but with a very significant – indeed, one might say dragon-sized – asterisk, in the outstanding drama award that went to the hugely popular but heretofore overlooked “Game of Thrones,” representing a rare and welcome breakthrough for a genre series. Beyond capping a splendid and dominating night for HBO, the Television Academy finally recognized a fantasy epic that is, by any measure, no pretender to the throne — the series scooped a record-breaking 12 Emmy Awards this year.
Combine that with stellar and crowd-pleasing honors for Jon Hamm and Viola Davis in the lead drama categories, and Jeffrey Tambor on the comedy side, and Emmy organizers should wake up feeling pretty good (or at least relieved) by most of the choices, while leaving behind ample room for the inevitable griping about snubs.
The perception that the academy is old and fusty (just ask “Sons of Anarchy’s” Kurt Sutter, or “The Walking Dead” fans) hasn’t been helped in recent years by its consistent refusal to acknowledge programs in the sci-fi and fantasy realm, even with “Lost” winning a decade ago. And while there’s no way to know if procedural changes in the voting smoothed the way for “Thrones’” victory, the fact that the mega-hit finally made it over the wall – sweetened by its Sunday-night wins for directing, writing and Peter Dinklage – clearly seemed overdue.
For all that, much of the ceremony still felt in keeping with Emmy Awards past – that is, a few new faces thrown in with a plethora of familiar ones, including repeat winners and a few near category-wide sweeps.
The abundance of first-rate programs and performances gave voters a lot of ways to go without embarrassing themselves, although the parade of talent associated with HBO’s splendid miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” couldn’t help but come at the expense of some very worthy players, none more so than Mark Rylance (“Wolf Hall”) and Queen Latifah (“Bessie”).
As for variety series, “The Daily Show’s” sweep of program, directing and writing honors was an appropriate valedictory sendoff for Jon Stewart’s tenure, balanced by a newly introduced sketch award to Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” Like a lot of categories Sunday, the real shame was that David Letterman couldn’t share in the glory.
Certainly, the comedy voting exhibited some of the academy’s more hallowed tendencies, returning to repeat winner Tony Hale and perennial favorites Allison Janney and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who should have the steps to the Nokia Theater stage memorized. That’s not to say they didn’t deserve more hardware, only that repeat awards can’t help but feel a trifle deflating excitement-wise with so many admirable contenders. (Even switching from comedy to drama couldn’t stop “Orange Is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba).
If “Modern Family’s” best-comedy run had to come to an end, “Veep” – which had what was likely its best season – felt like a much safer choice to swing the axe than “Transparent,” which would have represented an enormous coup for Amazon’s fledgling original-series efforts. As it was, the streaming service didn’t exactly settle, earning awards for series creator Jill Soloway and Tambor, perhaps the clearest-cut acting selection in a night filled with races that could have reasonably gone in different directions.
After all the buzz about greater diversity at this year’s awards, the academy also delivered on that score, with Davis’ overpowering work in “How to Get Away With Murder” marking a milestone for African-American actresses, joined by Aduba and Regina King, who made the most of a relatively small role in ABC’s “American Crime.”
In terms of the amended rules, the big change involved dispensing with Blue Ribbon panels, which as conducted shrank the voting pool but insured that those who choose, say, best TV movie actually watched all the candidates. Instead, the selections were opened up to the entire membership, making the process more democratic on its face. What nobody can know, of course, is how many of those members cast ballots based on reputation, in much the way people check off Superior Court judges and school board members on election day.
Still, even if the Emmys turned into one big popularity contest, “Thrones” – a landmark drama – can finally enjoy a feast where no one gets killed, and most of the right folks won. While there’s no such thing as an awards show now that’s going to satisfy everyone in our fragmented media landscape, when was the last time the Television Academy – or just about any large group that votes on stuff – could say that?