Winter Is Coming: The Emmys Look to the Future While (Mostly) Playing It SafeMichael Tran/FilmMagic
As a TV show, Fox’s broadcast of the 67th Emmy Awards was surprisingly robust. With host Andy Samberg at the helm, a show that usually groans like a freighter often felt as fleet and nimble as a cigarette boat. Perhaps you think I was in the tank from the beginning, when Samberg sang and danced his way into a shower-free binge-watching bunker that looked remarkably similar to the room I’m sitting in now. This is partially true: The mania in his eyes as he emerged, bearded and filthy, belting “I Watched Every Show,” looked disturbingly familiar.
But surely those who watch television more casually than a critic does recognized it, too. We are all living in a moment in which completism threatens to trump pleasure, when the number of shows we “need” to watch is eclipsing the few stray hours we have left to fill. But I appreciated Samberg for more than his empathy. His deft manner and quick wit served as a frequent and necessary needle for an awards show and an industry that tends to inflate itself with off-putting self-importance. Let the smug celebrities and suits in the audience worry about what to put on the air. And leave it to Samberg to take the air out of them.
Of course, I think having a song-and-dance man works best for trophy ceremonies like this in almost any year — though it always helps when said man is hiding some unexpectedly sharp fangs beneath his wide smile. (It’s this latter fact that is keeping me from throwing myself aboard the James Corden bandwagon, though it’s inevitable that he hosts the next time CBS has the ceremony.) It seemed particularly helpful this year, though, as television’s biggest night turned into a very public and surprisingly spirited debate about its future. As I wrote on Friday, 2015 marked the first time that the Emmys opened up the voting in all categories to all relevant voters — this means all actors can now vote for acting categories; previously the voting bloc was limited to a blue-ribbon panel of members who pinky-swore to watch all the nominated episodes. As it turned out, this was but one salvo in the industry’s emerging struggle with populism.
Let me explain: The TV industry in general and the Emmys in particular are coming off of a decade-plus run in which highbrow and hoi polloi tastes were remarkably in sync. This was a period in which zeitgeisty shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad dominated the drama categories, and even the occasional outlier, like Lost in 2005, 24 in 2006, and Homeland in 2012, felt borne on the winds of widespread enthusiasm. On the comedy side, things were even more clear, with Modern Family dominating the big prizes and mass-market stars like Jim Parsons, of ratings behemoth The Big Bang Theory, cleaning up. In as much as shiny trophies matter — and I remain unconvinced of how and why they do — this distribution helped support a narrative in which the TV industry was heavily invested. And the narrative was this: Unlike film and music, which technology had splintered into fiercely protected fiefdoms of personal preference, television remained a communal medium. If the Oscars had been transformed into an annual glimpse into a bizarre shadow universe in which Hollywood prioritized thoughtful, tender stories of disabled geniuses and psychotic jazz teachers, then the Emmys would remain the people’s awards. The shows that won trophies were, by and large, the shows people actually watched. Everyone went home happy. And those already home, watching on their couches? They were often the happiest of all.
This narrative has begun to crumble of late, thanks largely to two emerging realities. One, the aforementioned “too much TV” problem so ably skewered by Samberg in the open has seriously compromised the possibility of any sort of consensus. (I will continue to shout to high heaven that The Americans is the best drama on TV. But what does that matter if only 3 million other people watch it?) Two, the ending (or unavoidable graying) of the remaining, demographic-uniting Golden Age shows has kicked the legs out from under the industry just when it was trying to extend its victory lap. So while those gathered in the Microsoft Theater last night were, by and large, hoping to sit back and enjoy one more year of drowsy, money-printing stability, neither Samberg nor reality would let them. I want to give due credit to the host here: His constant barbs were a tonic, particularly when he took aim at the industry’s unearned backpatting over diversity (one year does not a trend make), its past embrace of men who, whoops!, turned out to be monsters, and the continued, pervasive ego-vaping that allows projects like True Detective Season 2 to turn into such gaseous disasters. (All of those people caught on camera not laughing ought to be permanently disqualified from voting in any comedic categories.) But in a marked change from most awards ceremonies, the 2015 Emmys were actually defined by the winners themselves.
The night started with a sigh of relief: Allison Janney won her record-tying seventh trophy, this time for her supporting turn on (the actually quite good!) CBS sitcom Mom. Janney is the perfect face for the 21st-century Emmys up until now: an inarguably brilliant performer winning for material that is unquestionably accessible. (I mean that thematically and literally: Mom is on an old-fashioned broadcast network.) Even Tony Hale’s win for Veep could be seen through this lens: Repeat winners, even for fringey shows, help buttress an appealing image of consistency. Remember, it’s only recently that TV has begun to pride itself on the telling of complete stories. For decades, providing a safe, dependable product was entirely the point. It’s a mind-set that seeped into the Emmy votership in a profound way: Winning begat more winning, as if creators and stars needed to be treated with the same kid gloves usually reserved for audiences.
So it was both fitting and thrilling that it was Jill Soloway who crashed the stage to upend all of that. The comedy directing Emmy was hers for “Best New Girl,” a gorgeous episode of Transparent that looked like nothing else on television. Of course, Transparent simply isn’t like anything else on television. For one, it’s streaming on Amazon, a global monolith previously best known for bulk delivery of diapers. But Transparent is also a thrilling exemplar of everything TV could be in this glittering, post–Golden Age period: plucky, risk-taking, cinematic, achingly funny, and uproariously sad. That Soloway was rewarded, along with her magnificent star, Jeffrey Tambor, was a hopeful sign for television’s future — and its ability to embrace that future in a timely fashion.
There was a similar feeling in the room when Regina King and Viola Davis took home well-deserved trophies for their work on ABC’s American Crime and How to Get Away With Murder, respectively.1 Hollywood has spent the past year talking a good game about diversity, but the speeches of these two women were timely reminders that for those actually trying to do the work, these issues are anything but a game. (Besides, the real lesson of Empire’s success is financial, not altruistic. Networks are now chasing underserved audiences for their dollars, not due to a sudden outbreak of good sense.) Davis will get the bulk of the headlines for her superb acceptance speech — Harriet Tubman’s “beautiful white women” were really no different than the ones clamoring for the “mani cam” out on the red carpet — but to see the effect of those words in practice, one should look to her predecessor on the stage by a few minutes, Regina King. King has been working diligently in television for 30 years; her first role was as a teenager on 227. Since then, she has never been anything less than good — she was a fine First Lady on 24, an excellent cop on Southland — but almost never allowed to be great. I still can’t get over the way FX’s The Strain wasted both King’s talent and her time a year ago. (King played the high-heeled, no-nonsense manager of Bolivar, a nonsense goth rocker. And somehow the part was even less essential than I just made it sound.) On American Crime, King was finally given the sort of role that Davis was speaking of, the type of red meat any true actor hungers for — a meal only made possible by having actually been invited to the table.
Yet for every bold step forward, there was a cautious step back. Occasionally, this tango felt downright peevish, as when the Academy passive-aggressively ran a tribute to recently departed shows that went out of its way to spoil a good majority of them. Do endings define a TV series? Of course not. But this was remarkably tone-deaf to the way television is watched in 2015 and almost hostile to its audience. Yes, these shows ended their initial runs this year. But the whole point of TV today is that nothing ever really dies. Thanks to streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, and HBO Now, people will be discovering shows like Parenthood, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire for decades. That the old guard doesn’t want to admit this doesn’t speak well of their flexibility or foresight.
There was safety throughout the Limited Series/Movie categories, which were dominated entirely by HBO’s Olive Kitteridge. I’m not saying this was the wrong choice — though SundanceTV’s The Honorable Woman was absolutely the right one. I’m saying that, in a year in which True Detective, Fargo, and other harbingers of TV’s new, limited future were ineligible, the Academy running toward the relative comfort of a big-budget HBO production, one rife with movie actors and shot by an Oscar nominee (Lisa Cholodenko), was predictable and marginally disappointing. I could say the same for the talk and variety categories, where Jon Stewart and his staff cleaned up more for saying goodbye than for saying anything particularly insightful. (I bow to no one in my appreciation for The Daily Show, but Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and even the last days of The Colbert Report were sharper.) At least the newly created Outstanding Variety/Sketch Series category debuted with a fittingly fresh winner: Amy Schumer, whose “smoky eye” shout-out ranked as one of the night’s best.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Sunday’s most artistically fulfilling moment was also one of its most conventional. When, on his eighth and last try, Jon Hamm finally won the elusive Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama trophy, the entire room — not to mention all of Twitter — erupted in the sort of primal yawp that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Esalen Institute. It was earned: Hamm was so excellent for so long in such a demanding role that it would have been criminal for him to join Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, and other unrewarded geniuses in the Academy’s hall of shoulda/wouldas. Still, his overdue win was a strange collision of old and new values, one that reminded me of Don Draper loitering backstage at a Stones concert. It was likely the Emmys’ new, open voting that pushed Hamm over the top — even the many people who bailed on Mad Men over the years could recognize how brilliant its star was — and, in the process, made him the handsome face of an era quickly receding from view.
Because after Hamm ignited the crowd, the final awards rather definitively passed the torch. On the comedy side, the unseating of Modern Family was itself a bigger deal than Veep‘s victory. The latter is probably pound-for-pound the funniest show on television, but a case could also be made for any of the other nominees. In fact, in light of Transparent‘s daring and Louie‘s free jazz, it’s actually possible to make the argument that Veep was the safest choice outside of Ty Burrell’s pratfalls. But, as with Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning an insane fourth straight Emmy, not all safe choices are bad ones. We complain when the good guys don’t win. So I’m not going to keep it up when they don’t stop.
The real drama occurred with the awards in the category named for it. Look, I am a fan of Game of Thrones. I write about it quite frequently. But there is simply no rational argument for it being named the best written drama on television — not when compared to Mad Men, The Americans, or Better Call Saul — let alone the best drama, full stop.2 Maybe the thing to remember here is that it is the most drama. What Game of Thrones accomplishes within the limits of the small screen is unprecedented and incredible. Think of the beautiful, raging anarchy of the battle of Hardhome. Think of the virtuosic cruelty of Cersei’s endless walk of shame. Or do as everyone in that room last night was doing, and think of the nearly 20 million viewers that clamor for every episode and the ravenous frenzy with which even the smallest of spoilers is devoured. Game of Thrones is a phenomenon that both sustains and entertains an entire industry. It’s a blockbuster even snobs can support, and that alone makes what happened last night quite different than, say, Jurassic World winning Best Picture.
But I was surprised at the speed and vehemence with which the Emmys sought safety in Thrones‘s sweeping embrace. Yes, I’ve been arguing for a while now that GoT is our last consensus TV show, even if it barely acknowledges the rules that historically made TV great. And over the summer I wrote about how this year’s drama nominees were surprisingly drab. Yet, together, they might have represented the last gasp of what passes for a TV monoculture these days and, thus, the Emmys’ last chance to reward tradition as well as reach. As the gates are thrown open wider and wider in the years to come, I would expect David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s grip on the iron podium to grow even stronger. (Gosh, it would be great to see The Americans, The Knick, Orange Is the New Black, and Halt and Catch Fire nominated next year. And then to watch them all get burned to a crisp by an oversize, uncontrollable dragon.) This isn’t a bad thing — the show is ridiculously impressive. But it’s also very much an outlier, an almost mythical beast able to straddle an entire industry’s brain and swell its bank account. To many in the room last night, Game of Thrones‘s victory suggests peace in TV’s fractured kingdoms. I’d argue the opposite: Game of Thrones‘s dominance means that the industry’s long winter of reflection and reinvention has only just begun.