HOWARD MEGDAL: While the Emmy nominations can be taken entirely too seriously, I think they are a worthwile benchmark of what is considered excellent within television. It is certainly the best-known measurement, and as a result, there are certainly shows that I think received deserved plaudits, and those that haven’t.
First among these shows is Mad Men, which is, to my mind, the finest program currently on television. And the 16 nominations for Mad Men seem entirely appropriate. However, I am surprised that Elisabeth Moss was nominated for best actress, while January Jones was not. This is not a slight of Moss, who is a terrific actress who does a fantastic job portraying Betty Draper. But moreover, the entirety of season 2 hinged on her acting, and she displayed tremendous emotional depth within the narrow range of outward behavior Betty’s character allows. Moss is not undeserving; Jones certainly belongs there as well.
How do we reconcile 30 Rock’s 22 nominations? I think the show is quite good; I think the fact that the show details the industry itself leads to further nominations. However, that show is quick-witted and well-acted, and I have no objections to the awards. 30 Rock is at the top of the heap right now; that it is a heap missing a show with the greatness of a Seinfeld, Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore is not 30 Rock’s fault.
Clearly, Tina Fey deserves to win for her portrayal of Sarah Palin, but Justin Timberlake would also be a worthy choice in guest appearances on Saturday Night Live. It was gratifying to see SNL rewarded for a renaissance season, and 13 nominations seems just right.
One odd choice was Big Love. Seems to me this is a show finally rewarded during its worst season by far.
EMILY SAIDEL: To talk about the Emmys, or any other awards show as fair is a fallacious argument. Aesthetic judgments of these kinds are based on the demographics of the membership of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the network and publicity machines behind nominees, and the personal tastes of participating voters. Success is literally in the eye of the beholder as the membership preferable must watch the nominees before making a selection. A winner one year might be a distant last another, depending on the field.
However, the Academy can aim for a greater illusion of fair, and it does. Outstanding Primetime categories are split between comedy, drama, reality, and variety; between male and female actors; and between lead roles and supporting. All of these categories suggest that, unlike the Oscars, whose “Best” categories distinguish only by format and not by genre, the Emmys acknowledge that comparing like to like to like is a more valuable measure of success than comparing flat across a time slot.
But perhaps Emmy should take a page from Oscar’s book and pay a little more attention to format. This year’s nominees for Lead Actor in a Drama are Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Hugh Laurie (House), Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Simon Baker (The Mentalist). In the words of Sesame Street: One of these things is not like the others. Although representing roles from a variety genres from a variety of networks, only one of these actors performs in a half-hour drama. That would be Gabriel Byrne from In Treatment. Traditionally, comedies are half-an-hour long and dramas are scheduled for an hour. But clearly, this traditional structure becomes stretched as the television landscape becomes more unpredictable and adventurous. One could argue that In Treatment’s idiosyncratic scheduling (for a drama) compensates for difference in scale, but episode to episode, Gabriel Byrne is handicapped by a half an hour.
The same lack of parallel format can be seen in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category. Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies), Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live), Kristin Wiig (Saturday Night Live), Jane Krakowski (30 Rock), Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty), Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds) represent two actresses from hour-long dramadies, two from half-hour-long comedies, and two from a show that is nominated under “Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series” as opposed to “Outstanding Comedy.” These women do not have similar airtime, much less roles. Forcing a comparison creates a nonsensical vote, and returns to the fallacy of fair.
This train of thought could lead to a vast fragmentation. Should HBO or Showtime shows not be compared to network TV because the lack of commercials adds 10-20 minutes of program time? Should a new category be created called “Outstanding Half-hour comedies” which would be distinct from the category “Outstanding shows that use the hour-format to tell comedic stories”? Probably not, if only because the clunky title would be difficult to fit on a statuette. But the Academy could consider adopting an expanded genre category structure, much like many best-seller book lists. Comedy, drama, reality, and variety could all still exist, only, they would now be along side science fiction/fantasy, mystery (procedurals), children’s, etc.
More shows could be celebrated without comparing them to programs that aim for a completely different storytelling experience. The half-hour/hour distinction would still exist, but at least the shows would be next to each other on the bookshelf.