It has never been easier to find mediocrity on television. Just turn on a random basic cable channel right now and you will probably stumble across some tyrannical child practicing for her pageant with a dance so inappropriate that a floozy getting a spray tan in Jersey would recoil in horror. But before TLC green-lights “Here Comes Snooki Jr.” for the 2017 season, it is important that we celebrate the handful of outstanding programs still produced under the current network system. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognized this very need 64 years ago when establishing the Emmy Awards to reward excellence in television. Despite any misgivings about the current structure of award presenting, the vast majority of Emmy nominees are selected in good faith.
For an industry that lives and dies by the number of young people watching, it should come as no surprise that the average Emmy voter is an old white man who thinks that “Two and a Half Men” is the bee’s knees and the leader of a golden renaissance of television comedy. Emmy voters seem to have no problem nominating talented and deserving entries. Look at this year’s list of nominees for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. Louis C.K. gets a nomination for his consistently brilliant one-man operation on FX’s “Louie.” Alec Baldwin still delivers a solid performance on “30 Rock” while Larry David still plays his same neurotic and awkwardly-endearing alter-ego on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The token “I’m a movie star heading back to television so nominate me to recognize my personal sacrifice” nomination goes to Don Cheadle. And Jim Parsons tried for a three-peat with his work as Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.” It is when the Emmy voters cast their final choice that they muck it all up: did eventual winner Jon Cryer really deserve another Emmy for his Earth-shattering portrayal of “Awkward, Middle Aged Man” on “Two and a Half Men?”
In the Miniseries or TV Movie category, most of the awards were swept by two mediocre pieces of American dreck. Best Miniseries or TV Movie went to HBO’s “Game Change,” which features Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, making her the second performer to win an acting award for portraying the Alaskan politician, after Tina Fey. The History Channel won a pair of acting awards for “Hatfields & McCoys.” No network that set Chumlee loose upon the world deserves to be recognized, except for breaking the fifth or sixth seal prior to the apocalypse. Meanwhile, “Modern Family” swept most of the comedy awards for the third straight year, despite year three being less outstanding than its second season, which was only a fraction of its brilliant first season. “Modern Family” may very well turn out to be this decade’s “Frasier.” “Frasier” is a solid show that still holds up very well on Netflix reruns. In retrospect, though, did “Frasier” really deserve five consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy when it denied five years of “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “The Larry Sanders Show?”
The race for Best Drama Series at the 2012 Emmys may be the most contentious awards show race in recent memory. Just imagine the casts of each nominated series fighting each other to win the award. “Boardwalk Empire” would bring the mob. You would have the warring families from “Game of Thrones,” which had a solid season, but most of “Thrones’” recognition is resigned to the Creative Arts Emmys, which recognize the technical fields where that show excels. After a year off, “Breaking Bad” returned to this category with a brilliant season, anchored by sparkling performances from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Giancarlo Esposito, who would be more than willing to kill their opposition if it meant winning that first Best Series award. “Downton Abbey” is a period soap opera made infinitely more amusing by a primarily British cast that must continually mention the year to remind both the audience and themselves that the early twentieth century was a terrible time to be a British aristocrat. The marketing team at “Mad Men” tries for their fourth consecutive win, an Emmy record, if they aren’t destroyed by their cirrhosis first.
But “Mad Men” lost to the dark horse for the Best Drama race, Showtime’s “Homeland,” an adaptation of an Israeli drama featuring “24” producer Howard Gordon on its creative team. Coincidentally, this critic marathoned through the first twelve episodes of “Homeland” while sick with a fever last weekend, in an effort to catch up before this weekend’s premiere of season two. Season four of “Mad Men” might not be its best season, but seasons four of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were both better than this first excursion into “Homeland.” Don’t get me wrong: I loved “Homeland” in a way that I haven’t loved a drama series since “24.” Claire Danes’ portrayal of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Matheson is exquisitely nuanced and a case study of what happens when a talented actress is given compelling material to work with and rises above even that. Similarly, Damian Lewis is able to draw sympathy to Nicholas Brody. This is not an easy feat when you’re playing a war hero turned Al Qaeda operative. But “Homeland thrives” in part because it is based on the same post-9/11 xenophobia that has propelled “24” for the last decade. God forbid domestic terrorism ever takes root in America to preserve “Homeland” as a prophetic warning. I just don’t see “Homeland” standing up to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” twenty years from now, except as a primary source on fear-mongering and paranoia in the early 21st century.
More shows deserve the recognition that winning a Best Series Emmy would bestow upon them. The problem with introducing any reform into the Emmy voting system is that the Hollywood tastemakers will lose their one last opportunity for control in a system which is now dominated by financial reasoning. In a perfect world, each of the big six Emmy categories could split into two, offer six awards to celebrate the best comedic and dramatic performances and series that have never won an award before, while offering another six awards to celebrate the best returning performances and series that have been previously recognized. Then, maybe, an actor or actress from the talented “Mad Men” cast could finally pick up an acting Emmy; the cast has received 23 well-deserved acting nominations but has yet to win a single trophy for repeat nominees Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss, or January Jones. As impractical as it sounds –who really wants to see another hour added to an award show? – would it be such a bad thing to allow additional deserving series the stability and promotion that winning a major award offers?