The members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences aren’t bad people. It’s just that, like the maligned Rayburn family of South Florida, they occasionally do some bad things. It’s best to keep this perspective in mind when perusing the typically confounding nominations for the 67th Emmy Awards, which were announced this morning in Hollywood by Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba and So You Think You Can Dance’s Cat Deeley. (The two, giggly from what were apparently some stellar breakfast sandwiches backstage, were also nominated themselves.) Still, the desire to demonize the voters on a day like this is strong. How else to consider a group of presumably sentient humans who continue, despite all evidence, to insist that Downton Abbey is one of television’s very best shows? I have to imagine that somewhere on a verdant field in England, Lord Julian Fellowes, upon receiving the news, made a withering crack about American gullibility to his footman and/or foxhound before finishing an upcoming story arc about an off-temperature consommé.
But, overrated toffs aside, the greater sins this year were those of omission. It’s not the sight of Downton Abbey and a back-from-the-dead Homeland among the Outstanding Drama Series nominees that rankles so much as the dreams of what could have taken their place. My beloved The Americans, for instance, or Empire, a series that single-handedly saved a network (Fox) and, possibly, broadcast TV itself. But these are the wishes of one individual — and the Academy, like the credits for Game of Thrones (24 noms!), contains multitudes. At a time when critics like myself are struggling with the sheer number of original series on the air at any given moment, the Academy’s members — all of whom, presumably, have other jobs to do or at least tee times to meet — are expected to wrap their arms around TV in all its myriad forms, styles, and incarnations. There were 352 original scripted series broadcast in 2014 — the number this year is likely to be higher — and any one of those required eight to 22 hours of Earth-time to complete. Do I want to imagine that the Academy voters patiently sat through all 10 blistering episodes of The Knick and 10 more of Rectify before deciding that, nope, the death of Lord Grantham’s dog1 was simply more dramatic? Sure I do. But the truth is, they probably didn’t. These aren’t the nominees we deserve, but they are the ones we’ve got.
And once you get over your personal slights, it’s actually a pretty solid list — particularly from an industry perspective. Upstarts Amazon and Netflix earned 46 nominations between the two of them, including flashy nods in the biggest categories (Amazon’s Transparent is deservedly up for Outstanding Comedy Series; Netflix’s House of Cards and the recategorized Orange Is the New Black will duke it out for Outstanding Drama Series). That’s more than any of the Big Four broadcast nets garnered on their own (ABC had 42; CBS and NBC had 41 each; and Fox had 35) and a testament to the way the Emmys have nimbly adapted to the changing scope of the business. This is no small feat for a machine as creaky as an awards show. I mean, could you imagine the Grammys nominating a Tidal exclusive for something? Its voters are still trying to force-eject a Santana CD they bought at Starbucks in 2003.
And for die-hard fans of quality or niche programming — sadly, sometimes the two are one and the same — it’s always better to count every deserved nomination as a win instead of harping on the sting left by snubs. Sure, the terrific Tatiana Maslany — finally nominated for Orphan Black — is but one bone tossed to a ravenous geek armada. Yet that doesn’t make it any less stunning. Do you know how few people watch Orphan Black? (Just under half a million clones per episode.) And how rare it is for someone to be nominated for the first time three years into a highly serialized show? We shouldn’t be satisfied, but neither should we be ungrateful.
I understand why some people won’t rest until the entire cast of Outlander is up there with her — really, I do. I want Matthew Rhys and Aya Cash riding on a unicorn made of solid gold to burst through the wall of the Dolby Theatre like the Kool-Aid Man and run away with all of Phil Keoghan’s trophies. But unless you’re an agent or a mantelpiece, the Emmys really aren’t about winning. They’re about being noticed. And though you may have to squint to see it, nods like Maslany’s — along with writing and guest-star nominations for The Americans and multiple under-the-radar nods for things like The Knick and SundanceTV’s exquisite The Honorable Woman — matter. They’re a tangible sign that there’s a place at the table for the sorts of shows many of us like to champion, even if not many others tend to watch. Take a lesson from The Walking Dead, an actually popular show that remains relegated to the tech categories: Once a few outliers start breaking through the defenses, it’s only a matter of time before all the walls come crashing down.
You can see the full list here. And here are some other thoughts from a knotty morning:
Comedy Is More Dramatic Than Drama
This is actually something I’ve been arguing for a while now: The half-hour format is now officially more malleable, more emotional, and more downright interesting than the hour. The Emmys have rarely produced a category so close to flawless as this year’s Outstanding Comedy Series. Yes, Modern Family’s dominance is a bigger joke than anything in this past season’s scripts. But look past it and be dazzled: Louie, despite a downish year, is still buoyant and unique. Silicon Valley made the leap in its sophomore season. Parks and Recreation delighted in its final hurrah. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was deliriously good. Transparent was simply astonishing. Oh, and Veep? Veep is simply soaring on Air Force One, secure in its position as the funniest thing on TV.
Now compare that to Drama, where the deserving (Mad Men, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones) share space with the weak (House of Cards) and the aforementioned WTF (Downton Abbey). It’s proof positive that TV’s creative momentum is shifting away from the prestige format responsible for its recent renaissance and taking refuge in shows that are weirder, shorter, and, yes, funnier.
Emmy Voters Love to Say Goodbye
Whatever, Boyz II Men! Nothing makes the Academy happier than the chance to send off a long-running show in style. It’s why Mad Men was welcomed back into its good graces after a few seasons in the wilderness. (Remember ’13 and ’14, when Mad Men couldn’t even get a writing nomination despite being the best-written show on TV by three lengths of the Time-Life Building?) Maybe I’m just swigging the company Coca-Cola here, but I think it’s the front-runner in a strangely flat category. Sorrow, not a sudden blow to the head, is also why the now departed Parks and Recreation was recognized, for only the second time in its stellar, near-perfect seven-year run. But, unlike Leslie Knope, I wouldn’t bank on it winning.
Still, I’d like to think that this sentimentality augurs good things for stars Jon Hamm and Amy Poehler in their final year of eligibility, but sadly I’m not going to get my hopes up for either: not for Hamm, because I still think people don’t think anyone who looks like that could possibly be acting (though, god, is he ever),2 and not for Poehler, because she’s up against Emmy obsession Edie Falco, who, wouldn’t you know it, also just finished a seven-year turn of her own on Nurse Jackie. In the immortal words of Parks’s Ron Swanson — a role Nick Offerman was never given a single Emmy for, let alone all of them — “I still think awards are stupid. But they’d be less stupid if they went to the right people.”
Emmy Voters Love to Say Hello Again
Giddily, he’s also nominated for his role as cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne in Kimmy Schmidt.
Like Carrie Mathison and white wine, Selina Meyer and the word “fuck,” or Game of Thrones and problematic instances of sexual violence, there are some actors the Emmys just can’t quit. Comedy nominations for Don Cheadle (House of Lies) and Matt LeBlanc (Episodes) are inevitable, as are drama nods for Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) and everything always to Allison Janney (Mom and Masters of Sex, and not that I’m complaining when it comes to Janney). And when old favorites pop up in new places, you can bet the Emmys will find a way to squeeze them in, too. That’s why Lily Tomlin got a surprise nomination for Netflix’s generally feeble Grace & Frankie and why Tina Fey was nominated for a glorified cameo as Marcia Clark on Kimmy Schmidt. At this point, these clubby backslaps shouldn’t raise anyone’s hackles. They are par for the course — and I mean that literally, because all of these people probably golf with Academy president Bruce Rosenblum on the reg.
My only note of caution is to remember how surprisingly easy it is to move from outsider to insider. A few years ago I was doing Maslany-level backflips over the recognition of Louis C.K. Now he’s as ubiquitous as Ricky Gervais, seemingly garnering nominations simply for showing up. (Five this year alone!) Still, even my jaded soul feels a tug of sympathy over the omission of four-time winner Jim Parsons. Could his portrayal of Sheldon, a man-child who literally never changes, have changed so much? Or could it be that lazy voters simply marked down their votes for other, unrelated Parsonses like Amazing Race editor Jacob and Daily Show writer Owen by mistake?
In keeping with my general positivity on this day, let’s single out a few more worthy nominees, shall we? Though Empire was oddly snubbed for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics (it’ll always have the trophy for Most Drama in our hearts), Taraji P. Henson, its fiery, emoji heart, was nominated. Also shining in the Lead Actress in a Drama category are the tremendous Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) and the always amazing (and never victorious) Elisabeth Moss.
More good news: deserved comedy nominations for Anthony Anderson (Black-ish), Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Will Forte (Last Man on Earth), Anna Chlumsky (Veep), Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live), and soon-to-be-movie-star Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer). Look at you, Bob Odenkirk and Better Call Saul! Hooray for Lena Headey! Check you out, Ben Mendelsohn! Great job, Baranski!
And while it’s less of a surprise considering its Golden Globe win, I’m genuinely thrilled that team Transparent was noticed in such a big way, with noms for creator Jill Soloway along with stars Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffmann. (Though, greedy as ever, I would have loved to see Jay Duplass and Judith Light join them.) But the nicest shock came from seeing Niecy Nash’s name among those nominated for Supporting Actress in a Comedy. I’ve been banging on for two years about how remarkable she is in the bruising Getting On; it’s a comedic performance as subtle as it is devastating. The Emmys rarely appreciate something so understated or get an acting nomination so right.
This is what you came here for, right? The snubs? Well, despite writing more than a thousand words about how I don’t obsess over them, there are a few lacunae in today’s list that drive me batty. Obviously, I wish The Americans could have been recognized more for its brilliant third season, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect it to be. The show is chilly, knotty, and decidedly dark. If voters haven’t pledged their allegiance to FX’s evil empire by now, I doubt they’ll do so in the future, especially with more than 30 hours of Soviet espionage to sift through just to catch up. Ditto my favorite comedy, You’re the Worst. Nothing made me happier on TV in 2014, but I just couldn’t imagine a show about liquor-swiping, sex-spitting misanthropes crashing the classiest party in the industry. (And I bet, if we’re being honest, those responsible for the show couldn’t imagine it either.)
So who really should have been named? Well, how can you explain leaving John Slattery out of Mad Men’s victory lap? Long the straw that stirred the show’s many, many drinks, Slattery single-handedly carried Mad Men to the finish line this year with his impeccable timing and lawnmower-sharp wit. The Walking Dead’s actors are generally tough to distinguish from kibble, but Melissa McBride really stood out as the damaged, havoc-wreaking Carol this past year. Did no one notice Clive Owen and André Holland on The Knick? Did we all forget about Offerman, Jake Johnson, and Max Greenfield? Tracee Ellis Ross is the biggest reason to watch Black-ish, ditto Constance Wu on Fresh Off the Boat. We ought to have a national holiday or at least an afternoon to celebrate what Amanda Peet is doing on Togetherness. And how could the Emmys lavish Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with such attention and somehow ignore Ellie Kemper, its brightly beating heart?
But, look, you can get upset about these things or you can make peace with them. The Emmys in 2015 are what they always are: sprawling and chaotic, ridiculous and awesome, inspiring and infuriating. In other words, the Emmys are kind of the ideal reflection of the messy medium they’re meant to celebrate — warts, snubs, butlers, and all.