Part 2: Why It Needs It and What The Emmys Are
I’ve commented on more than one occasion that the Emmys almost never lead the way when it comes to recognizing great television. After The Crown and Ted Lasso dominated on Sunday, there was a huge outcry saying that the Emmys are just followers. To this I say, if only that were true.
If the Emmys were willing to follow other awards shows like the Golden Globes or SAG awards, it would make jobs for people like me a lot easier. But in my experience — which goes back nearly a quarter of a century — the Emmys don’t do that. If they had then just at the start of the century, they would’ve recognized for Best Drama Six Feet Under (they never did) The Shield (never even nominated it for Best Drama or 24 (yes, but only two years after the fact) These were ambitious series; they also ignored the more conventional Grey’s Anatomy and Boardwalk Empire (twice).
That’s in drama. Their record in comedy is actually worse. In the last twenty years they ignored Sex in the City (three times) Curb your Enthusiasm, Glee (twice) Brooklyn Nine-Nine (never nominated) Transparent and Orange is the New Black.
And don’t get me started on their track records with actors in any category. Do you know how many Golden Globes Julia-Louis Dreyfus won the six straight years she was winning Emmys? Zero. In order, they were won by Laura Dern, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Gina Rodriguez, Rachel Bloom and Tracee Ellis Ross. Rodriguez and Bloom didn’t even get nominated the years they won.
The Emmys have only occasionally corresponded with so many of these awards show by nominated some — and usually it’s only one or two — of the groups that follow them. Say what you will about the controversies with the Golden Globes; the one thing you couldn’t accuse them was lack of variety. They pay little attention to award groups like the SAGs or the Television Critics Association or The Broadcast Critics. If some series or actor does manage the rare achievement of sweeping them, then yes they might that show or actor an award. But their record is woefully thin. Everyone may crowd on the idea they got behind Schitt’s Creek very quickly, but they’d spent the last five seasons more or less ignoring it. By the time they usually do decide to honor a great series — Breaking Bad is by far the most obvious example — they’ve almost run out of time.
So the Emmys don’t lead, and they don’t follow. What do they do, you might ask? Well, as someone who has been studying them for a very long time, here is how I see them.
The Emmys, at their core, are one of those ‘legacy’ clubs. No one really knows what the rules are to join, certainly not the founders. Once you’ve been recognized, and the rules are arbitrary, there’s nothing to stop you from being acknowledged over and over again, even if your quality continues to diminish over time. This club does not like having the natural order restored and goes out of its way to ignore the real revolutionaries over the ones it just can’t ignore. (Think of The Sopranos only getting recognized for Best Drama after five seasons, and The Wire basically never even being acknowledged.)
Over the course of time, much as they’d like to ignore, the world around this club has changed. So, kicking and screaming all the while, they make changes to their rules that its hard to argue with, more people are allowing in the door, most of whom don’t act or look like the ones who came before. (If you want to see institutional racism and sexism in this process that’s a different article, but considering the people who run most of these networks, I can’t say you’re necessarily wrong.) And so there is the appearance of change. What no one seems to notice (or if they do, they’re shouted down) is that it’s only the appearance. The names have changed, but the fundamental rules — once you’re in, you’re in — have not. And if some of the older members complain about this, they are basically in no position to do anything about it now, and many of the people who are still excluded, well, they point to the members and say: ‘Keep trying!’ All the while continuing to move the goalpost.
This would be bad enough on its own. What makes it worse is that many of the participants are getting the message. Broadcast television is a quality and popularity spiral that becomes increasingly harder to get out of year after year. Just as dangerous is the fact that many of the possible participants are also getting out of the business.
A few years ago, A&E announced it was getting out of the original series business. There was some hew and cry from those who loved Bates Motel, but little else. Then Lifetime more or less did the same. USA and TNT are slowly but surely cutting back on the original series they produce. By far the most troubling bellwether is Comedy Central. Think back over the past year on the last time you saw anything on them other than The Office reruns or The Daily Show. The Other Two, one of the most promising new series they’d done in years, is now being run by HBO Max. This is not a good sign from the network that gave us Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele and Corporate.
Now I imagine that the reaction of many will be to shrug and say: “There’s already too much TV on right now.” And I get that. But the fewer networks that decide to compete in the original series market means by necessity that more and more entertainment — Peak and otherwise — will be controlled by fewer and fewer sources. It’s bad enough that corporate monopolies are basically taking over every other aspect of how we get entertainment; to have to do so for the channels we get it from is truly frightening.
Now does the solution that I suggested in the previous article — separating all the awards into Broadcast, Cable and Streaming — solve all of these problems? No, of course not. But what it will do is something the Emmys (and frankly, most other awards shows) don’t do — expand the playing field and allow room for more networks. Some might argue that this is sort of more modern day thinking; a way to let everybody to have a trophy. It really isn’t, of course, but it is allowing for people to have a realistic chance at a trophy.
This is just a suggestion, of course. It may not be as good as the system that’s allowed Modern Family to win five years in a row and Game of thrones to win four years out of five (including you know, the last season) and has decided that Hulu and Apple are far more worthy of producing entertainment than the CW and Starz, but I humbly submit it just the same.