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The Case for Further Separating Some Emmy Categories (Column)

Let’s make one thing clear from the start: No one, including me, wants a longer awards show. NO ONE.

But when the categories just don’t accurately reflect the breadth of work that’s being done, maybe it’s time to give them another thought.

This year featured a range of powerful, resonant performances from women across the medium — from trenchant hourlongs to hilarious half-hours, from searing movies to compelling limited series, from scripted to improv. Women proved they could do everything men could (and maybe even a bit better, dare I say?). The year’s most talked about performances came from the female side of the ledger — from “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Elisabeth Moss’ ever-more-complicated Offred/June, who tells us all we need to know with just one flicker of those eyes, or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” Rachel Brosnahan, whose word-perfect delivery of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s scripts makes us all wonder if she isn’t really a standup comic at heart.

And to be sure, the Academy did its best to recognize as many of these thespians as it could — invoking that 2% rule (if 2% of the vote separates the last place nominee from the next, more nominees can be added, up to nine) to include seven women in the supporting actress in a drama race, while eight will vie in the comedy race.

But it’s worse than apples and oranges — at least those are both fruit. Consider the comedy race, which features three cast members from “Saturday Night Live” competing against five actresses from scripted shows. Yes, I know that “SNL” technically has a script (hastily scribbled on cue cards, often mere minutes before air) — but that on-your-feet, straight-outta-standup skill set could not be more different from the creative process of, say, Alex Borstein in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Both make us laugh, but they take infinitely different paths to the punchline. Borstein has to create and inhabit her role for weeks on end, while Kate McKinnon — a national treasure, to be sure, when it comes to impersonations — slips in and out of character multiple times within a given episode.

Their work is different enough that the shows they represent compete in completely separate categories — sketch vs. comedy — so why should the performers be lumped together? Why value the work more than the actual people doing it?

Those vying in the limited series or movie category suffer the same fate. Once again, the projects themselves have been deemed important enough to merit their own categories (and yes, we can certainly debate whether it’s time to collapse TV movies back into limited series, a ruling that’s jockeyed back and forth over the years). But in the meantime, their stars are mercilessly lumped together.

Laura Dern delivers one of the year’s most riveting performances in “The Tale” — in her review, Variety’s TV critic Caroline Framke wrote, “Dern, as always, finds a way to take on a difficult role that reveals its nuances.” But what Dern does in two hours, her competitors did in projects four times as long at least — Michelle Dockery covered herself in mud and grime in her first Western, “Godless,” while Edie Falco donned that unforgettable blond moptop to humanize Leslie Abramson in “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.”

That same disparity trickles down to the supporting races, where Dockery’s co-star Merritt Wever will battle it out against Sara Bareilles, who soared in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” But while only one of them will win, both their shows stand a chance of grabbing Emmy gold, since one’s a limited series, and the other is a special according to Academy rules.

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the roles for women in television, and whether the phrase “smart and strong” is redundant. That may well be true. Women aren’t just smart and strong. They’re silly and funny and complicated and messy and flawed and cranky and, well, you get the idea — and they can do far more than just simply service the plots of the male leads. Now they just need categories that better reflect the impressively wide range of work they’re doing.

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