Some Critics Want To Eliminate The Categories Drama And Comedy at the Emmys
People Like Them Just Don’t Want to Do The Work
Last year around this same time I relayed an article that someone had suggested to the Emmys that we should stop separating the acting categories by gender in order not to offend those performers who identified as binary. I think I wrote roughly two thousand words dissecting the other idiocy of this idea in that it would historically tend to exclude far more performers than it would include, and that if it had been acting out previously, it would have immensely favored white males ahead of any other performer. I naively thought that was the dumbest idea anyone would ever suggest for the Emmys or any awards show in general.
I stand before you in awe of the stupidity of some of the people in my profession.
Last week, I read an article discussing that given the fluidity of so many series to cross the boundaries between drama and comedy — Succession and Ted Lasso were held up as the prime examples — that it might not be the worst idea for the Emmys to start eliminated genre considerations altogether.
Let’s start with the fact that for decades there have been series where the boundaries of comedy and drama frequently are hard to fathom. During the Aaron Sorkin years of The West Wing in particular, I thought it was one of the funniest series I’d ever seen. At no time would I ever have considered listing in the Comedy category. It was a Drama, and deserved to be nominated and win in that category. Nor is the only series which has had issues with genre over the years — Lost was a brilliant blend of drama and comedy for much of its run, Dexter mined a lot of humor out of the performance of Michael C. Hall in its initial run and House spent as much time dealing with the cruel comedy as the medical mysteries it pursued. No one even blinked when all three series were listed as Dramas. Indeed, some people couldn’t understand why Monk which was ostensibly a mystery and drama first, constantly nominated Tony Shalhoub in the Comedy category. So to pretend that this is something that the Emmys have never dealt with shows a complete lack of an understanding of the history.
Second, why is it only television where everybody seems more inclined to give fewer awards than any other medium? When the Oscars wanted to give an award for Best Box Office film, the backlash was so intense it was immediately scrapped. Writers and directors have been complaining for years how comedies are never given their due, but no one will consider giving this as a category for the Oscars. No one has ever objected that Plays at the Tonys are divided among Dramas and Musicals and new shows and revivals. But television always gets the short end. I’ve been complaining for decades that it is wrong for all the Supporting Actors and Actress in television — Drama, Comedy or otherwise — to compete against each other. But no one blinked when Kim Catrall was nominated alongside Nancy Marchand. Ever since the SAG awards were founded more than a quarter of a century ago, all of the actors and actress in TV, whether they are lead or supporting, compete against each other. In films alone are their differeniations. No one has so much raised a shout of protest. Why is that even as the level of quality of television has expanded in the past twenty years, not only does everybody cringe at the slightest expansion of nominees, but actually seems to want the number to shrink? I honestly think that some of my colleague would be happy if the Emmys simply gave prizes for Best Show and Best Performance and then everybody went home for another year.
I find this fundamentally galling because every other aspect of the Emmys — by which I mean the creative awards — is willing to acknowledge some level of differentiation in programming. Dramas and Comedies are given awards based on whether they are single camera or multi-camera. There are often no differentiations between genres if the series is half an hour long or an hour long. In the past ten years, the Creative Arts acknowledged the number of period pieces and fantasies when it came to its hair, makeup and set-design. They already give many of their makeup awards based on whether they are prosthetic or non-prosthetic and visual and sound effects based on the genre there in. Now I know that most of my colleagues don’t even bother to watch the Creative Arts Awards — probably don’t even know what channels broadcasts it when they air the highlights — but this indicates that the technicians are willing to differentiate between all the various genres out there.
And the thing is, there needs to be more differentiation between the dramas in particular. The Emmys need to accept that they have flaws. For most of their history, science fiction has been regulated to technical awards — masterpieces like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica never got their due from the Academy in any major category. They nominated The X-Files but never gave it the grand prize, and an argument could be the Emmy they came to Lost only came before the true sci-fi nature of the series became obvious to the masses.
Sure, they’ll say they’ve reformed and now they nominate series like Stranger Things and Westworld regularly, but they have never gained the grand prize. And as much as they will claim credit for Game of Thrones (they shouldn’t, by the way) I have a feeling most of the voters viewed it not so much as sci-fi or even fantasy but a medieval period piece with dragons. And as we all know the Emmys love their period pieces and will nominate even the worst of them over the best contemporary drama. I don’t know any other explanation why Downton Abbey dominated the Emmys for six seasons but The Good Wife never saw a Best Drama nomination after that.
Yes, Mad Men and The Crown were works of art and triumphs of the best television can do, I will not deny that. But let’s not pretend that they were given excesses of awards over the years, even in the case of last year. In hindsight, it says a lot for the quality of Breaking Bad and Homeland that they managed to break through when they did and the fact that equally brilliant series like The Americans and Better Call Saul can’t even get the time of day from the Emmys.
The thing is the Emmys and critics need to do more work, not less. Series like The Mandalorian and Succession don’t take place in the same universes or play by the same rules. Why should they have to compete in the same category? Why does a dystopian future series like The Handmaid’s Tale dominate the Emmys well past its expiration date but a series that depict as dystopian present like Mr. Robot barely get acknowledged? The former series was infinitely more creative in its final season than The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been, hell in its last year, Handmaid’s Tale hadn’t even aired a full season, but the latter show got lots of nominations and the former got none. Where is the logic?
I know why my fellow critics are essentially advocating for this approach — there’s simply too much television and too many places to watch it and according to all of them, we need fewer shows and fewer categories to make our job easier. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t make such blanket statements.
I have raved in the past about the Hollywood Critics Association first ever TV awards last year, how they managed to slash the Gordian Knot about the difference between broadcast TV, cable and streaming I have spent the past decade ranting about with a solution I never considered — giving each service a separate category for Drama and Comedy. (They combined the acting categories for the first two, but given that they gave the Best Drama prize to Cruel Summer, complaining would be petty.) I spent the better part of two months extolling everything they did from the nominees to the eventual awards.
Next week, in their second year, they actually intend to expand on their work. Limited series from all services were all in the same category in the first year; this year, they intend to differentiate between broadcast and cable and streaming. They intend to give awards for writing and directing (something no other major awards group that isn’t a guild has done) in every service in every category. They’re even willing to make differentiations like this for late night and reality programs. All of this will make their jobs infinitely harder, and they don’t seem to have even flinched at it. Organizations like this make me proud to be a critic. People who make statements like the one that led off this article make me ashamed.
Look, I get that being a TV critic is a thankless job and I can’t imagine that trying to nominate shows for any awards group is any more fun. Every time you do, no matter how hard you try Monday Morning quarterbacks — and I’ve been one of them for twenty years — blame you for who you chose and who you leave out, say you always repeat yourself or recognize too many programs that deserve and basically say that a trained seal could do a better job. But trying to say that somehow things would be easier for all consider if fewer awards were given to series and performers isn’t even close to the right solution. It’s the inverse of it. We need to give more awards, we need to differentiate genres, and we need to acknowledge that a series on NBC can be as good as one on Paramount plus. It won’t make our jobs any easier, but let’s be honest: would have fewer programs or eliminate genres honestly make any less difficult? All it would do was create a new set of problems that would make just as many people unhappy as the old way. Doing more work isn’t any more fun, I admit it, but isn’t that the job of a critics — and people who give awards — in the first place?