The Emmy Nominations: Rivalries, Snubs, and What the Academy Got Right (and Wrong)

“Quality television is now platform agnostic,” crowed Television Academy Chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum just before the sun rose over Hollywood this morning. He then launched into a list of all the different devices we use to watch the programs that were, until just a short time ago, limited to a rather boxy thing placed on a pedestal in the living room and gazed on communally, like a god.

What was left unsaid, but what was made perfectly clear by the subsequent list of nominations announced by a chipper Carson Daly and a drowsy Mindy Kaling, is that while the platforms may be agnostic, the self-appointed gatekeepers certainly aren’t. In fact, they’re downright orthodox. Despite this past year being celebrated in all corners for the staggering breadth of its diversity — in form, content, and delivery system alike — the nominations for the 66th annual Primetime Emmy Awards were basically the same old, same old. And if we’re talking about Downton Abbey — inexplicably still racking up nominations in its tepid fourth year — it’s the same very old at that.

But I come here today neither to bury nor praise the Emmys. They don’t need my support or opprobrium to exist. They are neither an accurate measuring stick of broadcast excellence nor a laughingstock. (Translation: They are not the Peabodys and they are also not the Grammys.) The Emmys are what they are, and what they are is evolving.

There’s no question that, as an institution, the Academy is still too wrinkly, too stubborn, and too obsequious toward power. (To me, the multiple nominations for Netflix don’t suggest a radical embrace of the future so much as they represent Netflix’s reward for swaggering around like a VIP instead of a party crasher.) That’s why it’s best to look at nominations over time, not year by year. Yes, Edie Falco and Jim Parsons get rubber-stamped each summer but now, strangely, so do Amy Poehler, Louis C.K., and Lena Dunham. Many of us will roll our eyes when Breaking Bad sweeps the major categories this fall — but, hey, maybe it’s time for a reminder that Breaking Bad was actually pretty good! (Not to mention the fact that, until recently, it was itself a huge underdog.) Game of Thrones is an insane fantasy series about the crushing of dreams and heads. It features adolescent dragons, fey ice demons, and this guy. And yet it received more nominations (19) than any other show. Real progress is slow, just like Treme, which today received its first series and writing nominations for its final season.

Just kidding. Nothing is as slow as Treme.

Emmy winners will be announced on August 25. The ceremony, hosted by Seth Meyers, will air on NBC. As we look ahead to that big day, here are four further thoughts on TV’s early, onanistic morning:

HBO vs. FX Is Now TV’s Most Compelling Rivalry (But Only in a New York City vs. Philadelphia Sort of Way)

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HBO

Growing up in Philadelphia I was told that our biggest rival — in sports, culture, and life — was New York City. It was the evil empire, the black hole, the target to be challenged, and the monster to be avoided.

When I moved to New York City 15 years ago I learned something else: No one here thinks about Philadelphia. At all.

This is the current state of the relationship between TV’s reigning overdog, HBO, and FX, the upstart I would refer to as scrappy if it didn’t have the weight of a $50 billion company behind it. HBO received 99 nominations this morning, twice as many as its nearest competitor, CBS (47). FX was in fourth place, with 45. But the biggest headline stemmed from the stacked Outstanding Drama Series field, where HBO’s controversial decision to submit True Detective — a show that will return with an entirely new cast and story next year — paid off in a big way. With True D gobbling up one of the precious slots and with its high-profile stars, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, snagging one-third of the six slots in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series field, there was no room for FX’s The Americans or its phenomenal star, Matthew Rhys. Never mind that The Americans’ second season has been the best thing to air so far in 2014. Lacking Hollywood stars and HBO’s Goliath-like publicity muscle, the brilliant spy show was unfairly relegated to Siberia. (Its lone nomination was an echo of last year’s: Margo Martindale as guest actress.)

While FX chair John Landgraf continues to cry foul over HBO’s cynical submission process — not only is True D in the wrong category, but its presence undercuts the chances of fellow nominee Game of Thrones — he can at least take solace in his dominance of the miniseries category. With True D up for the big trophy, Landgraf’s pet project Fargo (which was — sotto voce — secretly much better than True Detective anyway) racked up 18 nominations, including much deserved nods for stars Billy Bob Thornton and Allison Tolman. This puts it in direct competition with Landgraf’s other baby, American Horror Story, which earned 17 nominations in the same miniseries categories. More than the sheer number of nominations it scored, though, the clearest sign of HBO’s supremacy is that it so obviously doesn’t even care about winning. (True Detective would have cleaned up as a miniseries. Instead, it’ll likely lose to Breaking Bad.) What it cares about is maintaining its aura of being a juggernaut. And with dominance across all the major categories, that aura remains very much intact.

One of these years, Landgraf and his ambitious network will break through to the big-boy table, possibly with one of the strong performers on The Bridge (though not with any of the hooey on Tyrant). Until that day, front-running HBO will continue to look at him and his network the way Apollo Creed looked at Rocky right up until the final bell.

Snubs Are Boring

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Justina Mintz/AMC

Yes, there are snubs every year. You want me to run through a couple? Sure. I’ve already made it plain how I feel about The Americans. Not only was the show and its stars (including the frosty and divine Keri Russell) robbed, so too was its deep supporting cast (Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru) and writers’ room.  It’s crazy that The Good Wife isn’t among the Outstanding Drama Series finalists and the lousy House of Cards is. Both Charles Dance and Pedro Pascal deserved notice for exceptional work on Game of Thrones, and it’s impossible to overstate how lost Boardwalk Empire would have been without the titanic work of Michael K. Williams and Jeffrey Wright this past year. With Silicon Valley getting a surprise nod for Outstanding Comedy Series, it wasn’t so hard to imagine the late Christopher Evan Welch being recognized for the best performance on the show. Yes, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were exceptional in Breaking Bad, but was Anna Gunn really that much better than her perpetually overlooked costars Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt?

Every year, Elisabeth Moss delivers the best performance on a consensus Hall of Fame show with John Slattery a close second. Both were overlooked. And don’t get me started on the second straight year with no writing nominations for Mad Men. It’s only the best written show on television. Hate the player, Emmys. Don’t hate the game.

If you want a more personal list of snubs, I’d add Demián Bichir and Matthew Lillard (The Bridge), Keith Carradine (Fargo), Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), Michaela Watkins (Trophy Wife), the writers of Broad City, and, forever and always, Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation). But look, I didn’t honestly expect any member of this group to be nominated. There’s a difference between favorite and best, and a larger gap between the implausible and the impossible. I get why people go crazy over Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black — she’s insanely good! But there’s just no version of reality in which she’s nominated for a fringey show (averaging about one million viewers a week) on a fringey network (BBC America) in a ridiculously stacked category. Should she have Michelle Dockery’s seat at the table? Sure, she absolutely should. But the Emmys aren’t the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The only way Maslany’s getting in there before 2016 is if she shows up as Michelle Dockery.

There’s Something Far Worse Than Snubs

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Time to fight the real enemy. Rather than focus on all the deserving individuals the Emmys choose to ignore, let’s focus instead on the unworthy types the Academy insists on rewarding — year after year, with no discernible cause other than inertia. These are reverse snubs. Let’s call them “blubs” for decisions that are made out of sentimentality if not outright laziness.

2014’s most egregious blubs: House of Cards and Downton Abbey for Outstanding Drama Series. Ricky Gervais (Derek) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. The rickety Modern Family (and its increasingly shrill cast) for everything. And the only thing worse than a second nomination for Jeff Daniels as the biggest blowhard on the tornado of awful that is The Newsroom is that he might just win again.

Accentuate the Positive

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Life’s too short to get worked up over award shows. (Speaking of Life’s Too Short, I’m shocked the Gervais-adoring Emmys didn’t find a way to throw a little love its way.) It’s far healthier and uplifting to focus on all the things the Emmys got right. Which, I’m happy to say, was quite a lot. The wonderful Orange Is the New Black had a crazy morning, snagging nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series as well as for five members of its deep, stellar cast (Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox, and Kate Mulgrew), earning 12 nods overall. Lizzy Caplan scored a surprise nomination for her tremendous work on Showtime’s excellent Masters of Sex; so too did guest stars Allison Janney and Beau Bridges, whose subtle, emotionally devastating work on the show is among the best of their long, acclaimed careers. The job Lena Headey does on Game of Thrones, transforming what could be a wine-stained wicked witch into one of the more compelling and complicated characters on television, is both subtle and astounding. Her unexpected Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series nomination was hugely gratifying.

Let’s also toast the remarkable Kate McKinnon, whose consistently funny work on SNL is more than deserving of the annual Kristen Wiig Memorial Courtesy Nom. (Speaking of Wiig, she was a surprise nominee herself for a batshit performance in the not-nearly-batshit-enough IFC miniseries The Spoils of Babylon.) What about Reg E. Cathey, who imbued House of Cards’ silly barbecue plot with a depth and dignity it barely deserved? And we haven’t even gotten to the similarly recognized writing staffs of Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. Sure, The Simpsons was denied an animation nod for the first time in 20 years — but look at this, it was the sublime Archer that took its place!

Finally, let’s always pause to remember that we live in a country in which television’s funniest comedy is recognized as such. HBO’s Veep scored nine nominations this morning, all of them very much deserved, particularly those for Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who will win — and should) and supporting stars Tony Hale and Gary Cole. All told, I feel about the Emmys the same way I do about Selina Meyer’s America: I’m not always proud to be associated with it. But nor am I ever totally ashamed.

Filed Under: TV, Emmys, Awards, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, orange is the new black, true detective, Jon Hamm, Matthew Mcconaughey, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, HBO, fargo, anna gunn, lena headey, Lena Dunham

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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