Astonishingly enough, it would seem that the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards on ABC tonight have managed to become part of the larger cultural conversation.
"Change" howled the Obama campaign from its infancy. "Experience" the Clinton supporters bellowed right back. And we know how that one turned out. Now we are in the midst of a campaign that redefines May-December relationships on both tickets while everyone grows hoarse debating the merits of record versus vision.
How fitting, then, that members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences have been forced to choose between Tony Shalhoub's "Monk" and Lee Pace's Ned of " Pushing Daisies." Like John McCain and Joe Biden on C-Span, "Monk" has appeared in a continual loop pretty much since the Kennedy administration (OK, for six years) while "Pushing Daisies," interrupted by the writers strike, didn't even get a full season. But "Daisies" was an effective community organizer, at least among critics, and that has to count for something.
Who ever thought the Emmys could be considered a battleground of artistic ideals? Too often it's just a twisted popularity contest ( James Spader, William Shatner, how do you do it?) with outcomes that seem to defy conventional wisdom, not to mention logic. With quality not being an issue in most categories this year -- in the acting categories especially, there isn't a nominee who doesn't deserve the award by one set of criteria or another -- the various contests may come down to what we value at this moment as a culture. How else is a thinking person supposed to weigh the right-out-of-the-box shine of newbie dramas " Mad Men" and " Damages" against scarred but still noble veterans "House" and " Lost"?
Old versus new
IF THESE are indeed awards given by colleagues to denote extraordinary craft, then surely longevity must be weighed against novelty, even as welcome change nudges tried-and-true.
Sure, Christina Applegate is utterly charming as Samantha of " Samantha Who?" But what about Mary-Louise Parker, who's still so fresh in her many dysfunctions after four seasons of breaking boundaries, not to mention hearts, as Nancy Botwin in " Weeds"?
Long a society preferring adolescence to obsolescence, we've been even more preoccupied than usual this year with the whole old-versus-new debate. (How old were those Chinese gymnasts again? Old enough to be commander in chief?) The television academy is by no means a window into the American soul, God forbid, but with all this political emotion running amok the 2008 Emmys may offer insight as to where we really stand regarding the change-versus-experience debate. (Seriously, at this point, why shouldn't Tina Fey run for president? Who better to deal with budgets and egos than a female show creator and " Saturday Night Live" survivor?)
Especially in the drama categories. Despite all those scripted-drama obits we've been reading lately, last season was a banner year for the genre. With the top number of nominations, AMC's "Mad Men" seems to argue for the powerful attractions of the genre. Critics and industry watchers were thunderstruck by the show's high-gloss look, tone and storytelling. The show's still tiny audience is hovering at about 1.5 million viewers, even after a few Golden Globe trophies and a massive Emmys/Season 2 ad campaign, but that may actually work to its advantage in the Emmy race. Excellence is not necessarily connected to ratings, and awards shows are often used to send that very message home with a shiny statue and a gift bag.
Although a grand entrance is a thing of beauty, sometimes the most valued party guest is the one who sits in the corner, quietly bringing down the house. Awards season is also the perfect opportunity to reward shows that have not only stood the test of time but conquered it, television that has avoided, or recovered from, the dreaded sophomore slump.
Consider "Lost," wobbling on the brink of disaster in Season 3, only to pull a Hail Mary fourth season, recapturing the hearts of millions. Surely the only narrative Americans love more than the unknown catapulted to glory is that of personal transformation. Shows like "Lost" and "House" have moved beyond the Christmas-morning newness of it all, shaken up their casts and their story lines to long-term benefit.
AFTER years of looking at Emmy nominees and wondering if they were compiled by inputting all the shows airing and then hitting Shuffle, this year's list seems a vision of justice and poetry. Indeed, one could easily be lulled into the captivating belief that all that vaunted change has already come about, which makes the nominees for comedy series so refreshing. " 30 Rock," yes, " The Office," certainly, but "Entourage"? Really? And not, say, " How I Met Your Mother"? "Two and a Half Men" instead of " Ugly Betty"? Even John McCain has surrendered to the message of change, people, so what gives?
Oh, well, perhaps it's reassuring to know that even after a year in television that, despite the midseason interruption by the writers strike, was pretty much as good as it gets, the television academy remains as it ever was -- utterly inexplicable.
Still, as the Emmys telecast attempts to be so populist that it will be emceed by reality show hosts, let us rejoice in that there's even an opportunity to muse on the philosophical resonance of politics and art. With any luck, the glow of substance trumping style will last . . . at least until Ryan Seacrest opens his mouth.