New mix, but no fix
THE cries of outrage you may have heard Thursday morning came from the nation’s TV critics, lambasting those dunderheaded Emmy voters for nominations that snubbed the worthy and the innovative (“Big Love,” “My Name Is Earl”) while extolling the safe (“Two and a Half Men”) and/or the canceled (“Will & Grace”).
When will the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences get the memo? No matter how many times “Arrested Development” gets nominated for outstanding comedy series (this year makes three, which coincidentally is how many viewers regularly tuned in), the show has gone surfing and it’s not coming back. Can’t they find a non-terminal cause to champion -- like, say, “Lost,” MIA in the drama category while the exiting “The West Wing” gets a parting shot?
The river of scorn is partly the academy’s fault. Officials overpromised and underdelivered on the rule changes that were supposed to shake up the nominations this time, ensuring greater recognition for niche favorites such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Rescue Me.” This was the so-called Lauren Graham Rule, a homage to the long-snubbed actress who plays the hot mom on “Gilmore Girls.” But where was that shakeup at dawn Thursday? “Battlestar” got three nods, “Rescue Me” got one, and Graham and “Gilmore Girls,” zip.
Ah, well. Emmyland has always existed as a parallel universe to Critics’ Corner, and neither necessarily has much to do with Nielsenville, the only town TV executives really care about. If anything, there are signs that the new rules -- which basically involve a Sanhedrin of Emmy elders picking the nominees from a list of contenders supplied by the larger academy (perhaps we need to bring Western-style democracy to Emmy’s North Hollywood headquarters?) -- led not to a rash of surprise contenders, a la Michael Chiklis on “The Shield” a few years back.
Rather, this year we’re seeing some reasonable compromises between the critically beloved and the widely seen, a twain that in these days of 100-plus cable and satellite systems seldom meet.
Consider the case of Fox, which earned well more than half its 41 nominations for its three most-watched shows: “24" (the most-nominated series, with 12 nods), “American Idol” and “House.” This is the first year Fox has ever had two contenders in the drama category, and it’s probably not coincidental that both “24" and “House,” formerly fringe shows, touched new ratings heights this past season. That’s largely thanks to the phenomenon of “Idol,” the most popular series on television; Fox painstakingly built each show into a hit by exploiting scheduling adjacentcies with the smash singing competition.
Of course, “Idol” is such a ratings beast that critics tend to pass it by on pet adoption day. Where’s the thrill in “discovering” a show 30 million people watch? “Idol” is nominated this year, along with “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “Dancing With the Stars,” in the amorphous reality-competition category, but that’s misplaced: It’s actually one of the best variety shows in TV history -- and I say that remembering Paula Abdul’s blowzy incoherence this year. The Emmy politburo found a way to honor both “Idol’s” excellence and its singular popularity with a total of eight nominations, the most ever for any unscripted series.
ABC’s hit medical soap “Grey’s Anatomy,” relatively ignored last year, burst out with 11 nominations, another example of the academy balancing popular taste with critical appeal, or at least acceptance.
In this, Emmy is really continuing a tentative move back toward the TV mainstream, after a years-long epic romance with HBO, which roughly three-quarters of the nation’s TV households do not get. Much has been made of the pay cable network’s decline in prestige as measured by Emmy nominations. Two years ago, it had 124 nominations, more than all the broadcasters combined; this year, it was down to a still-formidable 95. But in addition to the snub for its “Big Love,” “Entourage” also failed to nab a nod in the comedy category (the HBO slot was evidently reserved for the previously nominated “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
The trend extended to the movie and miniseries categories. After dominating last year with fare such as “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” and “Empire Falls,” HBO was checked this year by TNT’s crowd-pleasing western “Into the West,” which racked up 16 nominations, more than any other program.
That’s not to say that voters completely bypassed the out-of-the-way critical faves. Showtime had its best showing ever, with 19 nominations, including five for “Weeds” -- exactly the kind of low-profile, highly regarded series the new rules were presumed to benefit. Similarly, Comedy Central garnered the most nominations in its history thanks to a pair of Beltway spoofs, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.”
This might strike some as mere tokenism. As TV Guide blogger Michael Ausiello observed Thursday morning, with characteristic droll restraint: “OMG! It’s an Emmy catastrophe!” Hey, I said the same thing in the late ‘90s, when “3rd Rock From the Sun” was one of the most-lauded shows on TV. Amazingly, the sun continued to rise in the East.
But even the mob of critics brandishing torches on their way to the Emmy offices must admit, once the passions of the day die down, that Emmy’s star chamber at least made an effort to walk a middle path between the most-loved and the most-viewed.
In these days of hyper-fragmented media and super-niche audiences, with each family member watching a different program in a different room of the house, that’s probably the best we can hope for.