David B Morris

Jul 13, 2021

8 min read

Why Combining Acting Categories for The Emmys Is A Bad Idea

It Sounds Enlightened In Theory. In Practice It Would Be A Disaster

Doesn’t work when two of these become one

I’ve been pondering this column for the past couple of weeks. Part of the reason I haven’t written it is because I’ve been so busy. More accurately, what I’m about to say is not going to make popular in certain circles and may get me more than my share of angry posts. That being said, I think the theory behind what I’m about to say is sound. So here goes.

Two weeks ago, the Emmy made the announcement that they were ‘considering’ the possibility of letting acting nominees who didn’t identify as a specific gender be nominated under the title Best Performer. One of the people who has been spearheading this argument is Asia Kate Dillon, the nonbinary performer who has challenged the acting circles by saying that making a performer have to compete in a gender-specific category is old-fashioned and that Awards shows like the Emmys should adapt this kind of method. In 2017, the MTV Movie and TV Awards adapted this kind of method in their awards.

Let me begin by saying I greatly admire Dillon. Their performance in Billions is one of the great master classes in acting on one of the great series on TV today. And I think that is a travesty not only that Dillon has been shutout by the Emmys but that the entire cast from Paul Giamatti to Maggie Siff and David Costabile is another travesty in a long line of similar shutout throughout the Emmys history. (I have a theory, though, as to just why Dillon has been ignored which I’ll get to later in this column.) So I can understand their frustration. That said, I strongly believe that trying to adapt any group that gives awards — but especially the Emmys — would be a total and utter disaster that would end up excluding far more people that it could potentially include and that in the end would not live up to the challenge Dillon and their colleagues have set forward.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem. If we were to combine the Outstanding Actor and Actress into the same category, how many nominees would there be? This has been a problem the Emmys has always been challenged by and never responded well to. They stayed at four nominees for the first half of their existence, only moved up to five in late 1980s, and it was only until 2006 that they were willing to nominate as many as six actors per category. Getting them to the current number of seven took another decade.

So I can assure you there will be a long argument and debate as to how many actors will be in each category and in the end the number will make nobody happy. It probably won’t be thirteen or fourteen (then there’ll be debate about the integrity of the process) and no matter how large it is, everyone will just bitch and moan about how many people are being left out. This kind of complaint is nothing new, of course (I’ve made something of a career about it) but I have a feeling the criticism will be far pointed in this case. Because nobody how much they argue it’s for the sake of inclusion, a lot of actors are going to be left out.

And I can make some pretty educated guesses as to who would feel the pinch first: African-American actresses and actors. I make this judgment, like the others in this article, on the Emmys history.

Let’s engage in some hypotheticals: let’s assume this ‘Best Lead Performance’ and ‘Best Supporting Performance’ had been put into practice at the beginning of this century. Let’s give them a little more latitude and say that ten actors of either gender were included.

In 2013, Kerry Washington became the first African American Actress nominated for Best Actress in a Drama in the century and certainly awhile before that. Now consider the level of competition of the other nominated series in 2013. What are the odds that Washington would’ve managed to get nominated had she not only had to compete against such talent as Claire Danes for Homeland, Elisabeth Moss for Mad Men, Michelle Dockery for Downton Abbey and Robin Wright for House of Cards, but also the male leads in that series who were, if anything, just as formidable. Add that Bryan Cranston was there and Washington’s breakthrough becomes a near impossibility. (The only reason Washington was nominated in the first place was because there were seven nominees for Best Actress.)

For all the progress that has been made the last decade, the Emmys have been historically known for ignoring any actors of color. Viola Davis might have broken through two years later, but in the scenario I think the odds against her actually winning are still remote.

I’d make a similar argument when it came to African-American actor, but the records already poor enough. Between Andre Braugher’s win for Homicide in 1998 and Sterling K. Brown’s victory in 2017, I’m relatively certain the only other African-American nominee for Best Actor was in fact Braugher for Gideon’s Crossing in 2001, a nomination that in itself was rather fluky. The Emmys has a really bad track record when it comes to recognizing minority actors in general — that’s one of the things that the era of Peak TV hasn’t changed until the last five years. Had this kind of system been around then I think the hashtag #EmmysSoWhite would’ve started trending before Twitter even existed.

And that’s just the problem with the nominations. If this process had existed when Peak TV started in 2000, I’m willing to bet it would have taken the rest of the decade before we saw a woman win Best Lead Performance in a Drama. Remember this was the age of the antihero. What are the odds that any of the actresses in that period could get nominated, much less triumph, against a lineup of James Gandolfini, Michael Chiklis, Kiefer Sutherland, Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston? Alison Janney and Sally Field wouldn’t have a prayer. I think it unlikely that Glenn Close’s dual triumphs in the incredible underwatched Damages would have taken place. Even Edie Falco would have a hard time winning in that field.

I’m less sure this kind of problem would’ve happened in the Comedy category — some of the great comedic performances of the last twenty years were by female actresses — and I can see Patricia Heaton, Jennifer Aniston, Tina Fey and even Edie Falco — for Nurse Jackie — prevailing. There might’ve been backlash on that part for awhile, but I’ll leave that aside for now

Then there’s the problem we’d have when Supporting Performances were considered. Asia, I really think your lack of nominations is less to do which category you belong in than the fact that you’re not a cast member of Game of Thrones. And no, I’m not just using this series as a hobby force; this has been a problem for as long as I can remember. Ten years ago, the Supporting categories were dominated by The West Wing and The Sopranos. Before that, it was NYPD Blue and ER. Hell, we’ve already had a Supporting category where all the nominees were in one series — when Hill Street Blues was on the air. So, this wouldn’t change much.

I imagine all of these arguments would meet with the challenge: “Things are different now.” Problem is, people like Dillon are looking for the Emmys to represent social change when they barely meet their core mission of recognizing the best in television. Don’t get me wrong; as much as I bitch about them, I love the Emmys. But I’ve long since given up on them being able to even nominate the right series, much less give them to the right people.

Because the Emmys are fundamentally conservative. Not socially, but in their habits. I’ve mentioned tongue-in-cheek that the best way to win an Emmy is to have won the year before, and if you look at their history it’s not much of an exaggeration. Does anyone realistically believe Julia-Louis Dreyfus deserved six Best Actress Emmys in a row? Any more than Helen Hunt deserved four in a row for Mad About You? Hell, even James Spader admitted that at least one of his wins for Boston Legal seemed a mistake. How many times have Emmy winners seemed shocked at their victory? It’s because realistically, they shouldn’t have won.

The Emmys doesn’t lead when it comes to honoring television. At best, it follows. When The Sopranos broke every rule of how TV should be done, that year the Academy gave the lion’s share of its awards to The Practice. The Sopranos didn’t win until its fifth season, and I’m sure even David Chase would’ve acknowledged its best years were behind it by then. The Emmys rarely recognize the groundbreaking series when they deserve to be, if they do at all. Their record with minorities has improved the last several years, but is still fairly atrocious. And while they have a slightly better record when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, actors like Jim Parsons and Jane Lynch weren’t honored for playing gay characters. Given the choice between honoring a gay actor for playing a gay man or a straight actor for playing a gay man, they are far more likely to honor the latter. (Eric Stonestreet won two Emmys for Modern Family. Jesse Tyler Ferguson won zero.)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying even they were meet every accommodation that Dillon and his ilk would meet nothing would change. Actors like Dillon or Alex Newell might get nominated in this new system, but they’d never win. In all honesty, I think they’d have a more realistic chance in the current system. It might not be ideal, but it wouldn’t throw things out of alignment for everybody else.

That’s assuming, of course, that the Emmys would actually do. I may just be cynical but I suspect they’re saying “we’re open to the idea” is a way of throwing a constituency a bone without having to change their rules at all. I’ve mentioned how reluctant the Emmys are to just changing the number of nominees in any given category; they really don’t want to open this can of worms.

And by the wire, if the LGBTQ community presses this, it’s just going to make the Academy more resistant. They hate people who even suggest the system is flawed. Think I’m joking? When Orange is the New Black came out in 2013, it revolutionized how television was done much the same way The Sopranos did, particularly when it came to actresses of color. The writers however objected that they were put in the comedy category even though they received fifteen nominations. Reluctantly, they moved into the Drama category the following year and Jenni Kojan and the other writers made an argument that the Emmys should divide categories into half-hour and hour-long series. The Emmys said they’d ‘consider it’. Nothing came of it. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Orange was not a serious Emmy contender for the remaining five years it was on the air, even though it won three consecutive SAG awards for Best Comedy ensemble.

The Emmys say they’re okay with this idea now because it doesn’t cost them anything. To actually do something — that’s going to piss off a lot of executives and studio people. And all of this will change nothing. If anything, it’ll be harder for non-binary actors to get nominated than it is now.

I don’t expect to be regarded with love for certain communities. Just to be clear, I am all for more LGBTQ roles in every aspect of film and television and I really believe there does need to be much, much more inclusivity in every part of it. But that won’t start by getting group like the Emmys to change their rules. That’s where you end it.