Time to give underdogs their day
This MONTH has been a big one for critical consensus. On July 17, the nominations for the Emmys were announced, with multiple nominations lavished upon “30 Rock,” “Mad Men” and “John Adams.” Two days later, the Television Critics Assn.announced the winners of its 24th annual awards, which are voted on by more than 200 critics and journalists. The top dogs? “30 Rock,” “Mad Men” and “John Adams”
Well, glad that’s all cleared up. But the results left some important questions unanswered. First, are any of these shows better than “So You Think You Can Dance?” And were any of the nominated figures from these shows more compelling than Adhir Kalyan’s Raja Musharaff on “Aliens in America,” or the addicts on “Intervention”?
This year’s award season may look like a breakthrough, with its acknowledgment of basic cable and rejection of some network favorites, but in reality it’s status quo.
This year, the nominated dramas have been largely serial (as opposed to procedural), brooding and slightly exotic; comedy nominees tend toward the intellectually quirky. Reality television may as well not exist. Judge television by its award-winners, and it would seem very narrow indeed.
Docu-soaps and fake news and teen dramas and wedding-planning freakouts and talent competitions and clip-aggregator programs have as much to offer as sketch comedy, procedurals, three-camera sitcoms and the evening news ever have. But critics, especially, tend toward certain sorts of shows, reinforcing a predictable set of values, as if there were only a few sorts of pleasures to be taken from television.
A decade or so ago, this would have been a more reasonable position; for generations, TV had been more of a monoculture than even cinema. But today more than ever, it’s glorious in its diversity.
The oldest of the major networks may still be hidebound by tradition, but Fox and the CW (and the WB before it) have gone a long way toward evolving the network model. Plus, the explosion of basic and premium cable has done significant work in unseating the hegemony of the broadcast networks. Quality programming took hold a little more slowly on these channels, but nowadays it’s not uncommon to discover gems on even the most obscure of them. Why must the old walls matter so?
Agreeing is the easy way out. Praise “Mad Men” and your taste goes unquestioned. Step out on a limb for “I Love New York” and try to keep the barking dogs at bay. Unlike in music or film, where indie scenes cultivate their own groupthink that eventually becomes dogma, there is no formal culture of indie television. Critics don’t start out writing about obscure public access programming and work their way up to the big leagues. Indeed, part of the reason HBO has been met with such acclaim is that it approximates indie values: Watch “The Sopranos” and you can feel as if you’re participating in a secret available to only a select few (eventual overwhelming popularity notwithstanding).
Upsides and downsides
Critical unanimity can have its perks -- the lauding of “The Wire” in its last two seasons has given creator David Simon something like carte blanche to do challenging new work (if not Emmy love -- just two nods over the show’s five seasons). But the most noteworthy aspect of that particular blessing was its almost total absence for the show’s first three seasons, which were better and more emotionally deft.
Plenty of popular programming is awful, but in many cases, such shows are dismissed outright rather than targeted for investigation: Shouldn’t someone suss out the potential deeper meanings of “Two and a Half Men”? Might not “Big Brother” be the real-life “Lost”? There are countless programs on countless channels that are overlooked almost entirely by the critical community. Shows prominently featuring African Americans -- whether BET reality programming or CW comedies -- often get short shrift. And there’s a whole world of Spanish-language and bilingual television that travels beneath the radar of many viewers and almost all critics. Thirty or so years from now, “Decisiones” and “Al Diablo Con los Guapos” might be more relevant touchstones than “Brothers & Sisters” or “How I Met Your Mother.”
Then there’s reality television, which is usually dismissed in brush strokes so broad it can’t help but stink of classism. There is something of the striver in almost all reality programming -- people attempting to achieve something or people pretending to be someone for the cameras. And yet this can make for great watching, once biases are put to the side. Design shows on HGTV and the Fine Living Network or makeover shows on Style tell us as much about ourselves as any NBC comedy or ABC drama can -- probably more.
This year, the Emmys include a new category: outstanding host for a reality or reality-competition program. (Eligible: Ryan Seacrest, yes; Simon Cowell, no.) On the one hand, this is progress, an acknowledgment of a skill that captures the attention of millions of viewers each week. On the other, it reminds us just how segregated the Emmys can be. Dramas, comedies, reality programs, miniseries: They all have their own boxes, as if it were impossible to compare across genre. Over time, perhaps, these walls will seem ludicrous. Maybe someday Simon Cowell can beat Neil Patrick Harris and Ginnifer Goodwin and Don Francisco of “Sabado Gigante” and Joel McHale to walk off with a statuette for the most compelling figure on television, fictional or otherwise. All it’ll take are a little courage and some clicks on the remote.