Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 4: Ghosts of Emmys Past

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 4: Ghosts of Emmys Past

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This
week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on
Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance. 
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal
investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want
to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

(To read Phillip Maciak’s previous post, click here.)

(To read Anne Helen Petersen’s previous post, click here.)

(To read Jane Hu’s previous post, click here.)

Dear TV,

The Grammys won two Emmys this year. As the viewing public gets more fickle
and viewing platforms expand, TV circles are getting tighter, y’all.

If so far we’ve focused on the social dynamics
in our Anti-Prom—the obsession with
who got snubbed at the dance, the
misfit cluster
all the miniseries get shoved into, and how the Emmys King (Primetime) is more
Likely To Succeed than the womanish Emmys Queen
(Daytime)
, cooler than the AV and drama kids (Creative Arts), more
urbane than the jocks (Sports Emmys), and less pedantic than the Model UN (News
and Documentary Emmys)—I want to close our Anti-Prom by talking about the dance
itself. How’s the décor? The Grammys got two Emmys. Do the Emmys deserve an
Emmy?

The answer is, by popular consensus, a giant NO.
The Primetime Emmys are famously boring, so much so that many an Emmy opening
monologue dwells lovingly on its dullness. So much so that Ryan McGee has
pleaded compellingly
for a change in format. The Emmys are so dull
that even an internet obsessed with documenting everything—including old
insurance commercials, including this—lets the glittery Emmys slip, unframed, out of
the archive. I’ve been trying to find old Emmys to rewatch as research for this
here Anti-Prom, you guys, and it cannot be done. Not even on the Emmys site. No
one, it seems, wants to throw an Emmys-Rewatching Party. All that survives is a
small, sometimes desperate cluster of skits that show an entire industry straining
to make the awards show on television, about television, mildly watchable.

I’m exaggerating. There are survivals: some
encyclopedic pellet-wikis of who won what, lots more photosets of who wore
what—but what’s striking is how completely the content itself just disappears.
Like Prom, which everyone tries to repress in their own way, substituting for
The Awkward Thing Itself the Cheesy-But-Tolerable photo structured by pose and
the theme and the big corsage, the Emmys is both forever nostalgic and forever
erasing last year’s failure to live up to its own myth as entertainment. And
the culture, just as it forgives Prom, forgives this. It doesn’t cling to or
punish the Emmys of yore; it has rigorously respected the evanescence of the
format.

So let’s look briefly at the handful of stuff
that didn’t slip through the internet’s fingers. I discovered this Emmys
Amnesia Hole, I repeat, because I was looking for footage—footage of Eddie
Murphy and Joan Rivers hosting in 1983, for instance. There is none. I did find
this opening skit from 2011, when Jane Lynch hosted, though, as well as Jimmy Fallon’s 2010 skit and Jimmy Kimmel’s 2012
skit
. All three of these, remember, are scripted and produced, so
they really do represent the Emmys trying to do good TV, even apart from its
live format and the tedium built into the awards show as a genre:

Jane Lynch is a lanky fantastic charisma
factory. The production values on this thing are good. (Who knows, maybe they
even got a Grammy!) As TV, though, it’s pretty terrible, and the skit knows it:
“I know this seems stupid and schlocky and already feels overly long,” Lynch
sings, “but it’s the Emmys!” “TV is a vast wasteland where good ideas go to die
and mediocre ones make zillions of dollars,” Sue Sylvester says to Emmys Host
Lynch in the next segment, doing that self-deprecating thing the Emmys do.

(AHP just informed me this is a famous quote from FCC chairman Newton Minow’s 1962 speech, “Television and the Public Interest,” which contextualizes that self-deprecation in a longer history of TV criticism and makes the move a lot more interesting.)

Still, one of the only things worth salvaging from that
opening is the sexy look Lynch shares with Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy on the set of Mad
Men
. Its value is that it dares to say something other than “This is good!”
Or “This is great!” Or—because we live in the age of the meta-put-down—“We are
terrible!” It’s a sliver of content, of commentary on content, even, in
what otherwise amounts to an avalanche of cameos in search of a plot. That the
joke is as satisfying as it is, despite being easy and paper-thin, illustrates
what I think we’ve been saying throughout this Anti-Prom, namely, that the
Emmys has a problem. The competing shows are so staggeringly different from one
another in such a sustained way that what we hunger for, as viewers, isn’t an
empty declaration of supremacy but rather an articulation, however small, of
the relationship between them.

That’s true of Prom too: the stakes of the vote
for Prom King and Queen are never reducible to simple popularity. Nobody cares
what a giant undifferentiated mass of high schoolers think. The juicy story,
the interest—the thing that makes for good TV—lives between the
contestants, in the subdivisions, in the differences.

There’s no reason to make the case that the
Emmys skits have gotten worse (I don’t have enough data to make that
determination anyway), but Conan’s 2006 skit—where he survives a plane crash,
fashions a blow-drier out of twigs on the island from Lost, then has a
moment with Pam on the set of The Office—is pretty good TV in
comparison:

The Lynch skit was written under the assumption
that the fun, for viewers, consists in watching beloved actors interact. What
we really want, and what Conan’s skit provides, isn’t the interaction of actors
but rather characters. (The Lynch Emmys have some of this too; at one
point
Pinkman comes into The
Office
to sell Creed meth, and those thirty seconds overshadow
most of Lynch’s seven-minute opening.) This is why Jon Stewart and Stephen
Colbert are such good Emmy announcers; few celebrities have blurred character
and persona as adeptly as those two, and their real-life friendship gives the
thing a reality-tv frisson.

So let’s talk now about the live but scripted
stuff. There are a few “canonical” Primetime Emmys moments that survived the
Black Hole, but their goodness, again, tends to be a function of how they
expose the intersections between shows. This one’s a favorite, and it’s
easy to see why.

(If you can’t watch, don’t worry.) “Awards show
banter is not pabulum,” says Jon Stewart indignantly to a ranting Colbert who
opens with “Good evening, godless sodomites.” Ever the obedient straight man,
Stewart restores discipline and reads from the teleprompter. His voice gets
small and ashamed as the script gets more and more emptily approving: “Reality
television celebrates the human condition by illuminating what’s extraordinary
in the ordinary,” he begins, and trails off with “the results are dramatic and
often unexpected.” It’s a statement about the Emmys, obviously, which are
supposed to be dramatic and unexpected but continually fail to be either.
Still, if Emmy-bashing is constitutive of the Emmys, what gives this clip its oomph
is the way it develops Stewart as himself and the ideal Emmys announcer
in a real-life context and Colbert as himself and the Emmys’ disruptive id even
as it does the expected self-deprecating schtick.

This one, in
contrast—in which Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announce the nominees for
best miniseries—falls pretty flat. It’s built around a prune gag, doesn’t
connect with either of their shows or capitalize on their characters, and just
doesn’t quite land. The former rewards our TV knowledge and uses it to mock the
event; the latter leaves that knowledge less than completely used, (sort of
like the recent season of Arrested Development). We leave the clip
dissatisfied.

The most satisfying Primetime Emmys footage in
Youtube memory doesn’t just go meta on the Emmys or bridge the gap between two
shows, it does both and builds an actual serial storyline. This Colbert-Stewart
exchange from 2007 starts with Colbert and a leafblower and ends with a
meta-joke:

“Perhaps we shouldn’t even have an awards show,” Stewart says after admitting to using a “private jet sandwich” to get to the Emmys.
“What?” says Colbert. “If entertainers stop publicly congratulating each other,
then the earth wins!” (Emmys burn: check.) Then they announce the nominees, and
the show takes an amazing turn in which they give Ricky Gervais’ Emmy to Steve
Carell and all three sometime Daily Show dudes hug ecstatically over The
Office
. And then—and this is what made the Emmys seem like maybe it
could do TV after all—a full year later,
Ricky Gervais took the
Emmy back
.

The Primetime Emmys has yet to top that.

Okay, you might say, but the Emmys are only
tangentially about the scripted stuff. What we’re ostensibly watching for is
the competitive aspect: the suspense on the faces of the nominees and (less
enthusiastically) the winner’s acceptance. I don’t need to go into how
magnificently dull this formula is in practice—the fact that we all go bonkers when anyone does
anything even slightly unexpected
at any of these awards shows
testifies to the rigidity of the format. It might not be possible for the
Primetime Emmys to escape its own lacquered formula. It’s trapped in a weird position
where it has to commit to bombast and cloying sincerity even as it tries to
entertain us by mocking its own commitments.

But here’s an interesting thing: in trawling the
internet for clips, the two most entertaining and moving unscripted moments I
found came not from the Primetime Emmys but from their less prestigious, less
“masculinized”—to Anne’s point—and less popular brethren. The first is Fred
Rogers’ acceptance of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmys
(start at 1:30), where he invites everyone present to take ten seconds to think
of the people who “wanted the best for you in life”:

“Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how
pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made,” he says.
“You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world.”
It’s a moment that makes good television not just for the explicit content, but
because we get to watch Fred Rogers definitively erase the terrible possibility
of difference between himself and his character. (What if he were Bob Saget? Or
Peewee Herman?) It stitches television to reality. The second is more recent: Bob Newhart wept at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards
when he finally won an Emmy for his role on The Big Bang Theory after a
lifetime in showbiz.

Newhart crying and Mr. Rogers gently donating
ten seconds of his acceptance to asking a roomful of giant egos to think of others? That’s good reality TV. Not to mention
other magical moments at the non-Primetime Emmys—take Bob Barker’s “I wish I
had a refrigerator for every one of you” at the 1999 Daytime Emmys, Frontier
Airlines’
big win for
its commercial, “Leather Seats,” at the Heartland Regional Emmys. The odd, the
off-kilter, the weepy and weird happens, at Prom and award shows alike, in the
corners people aren’t watching quite so hard while the Prom royalty brandish
their scepters in the scripted limelight.

The Emmys’ return this year to a less
stringently pre-recorded format with Neil Patrick Harris, a man capable of actually doing pageantry well in the old vaudevillian tradition—holds out hope that we might get a little more air in our Emmys
and spark in our statues.

Speaking of which, I found out today that the
Emmy’s statuette
is supposed to be a muse
holding an atom
: “The wings represent the muse of art; the atom the
electron of science.” I love this. It’s so spectacularly backwards. And it is
spectacle for an atom to represent the electron orbiting it, for Ahab to
represent his leg, for the whole to represent the part. But the Emmys’
commitment to parts is sort of its charm, yes? Here’s hoping the glittery frame
is worth watching before it drops lightly out of its own televisual history.

Yours in the electron of science,

Lili

Lili Loofbourow is a seventh-year graduate student who works on early
modern constructions of reading as a form of eating—theologically,
physiologically, etc. In addition to her research and teaching, Lili
writes for a number of publications, including
The Hairpin, The Awl, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Republic, where she contributes TV criticism to the Dear Television series. She also maintains a personal blog called Excremental Virtue. Follow her on Twitter here.

A head’s up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 3: In Praise of the Haven’t-Seens

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 3: In Praise of the Haven’t-Seens

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This
week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on
Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance. 
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal
investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want
to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

(To read Phillip Maciak’s previous post, click here.)

(To read Anne Helen Petersen’s previous post, click here.)

Dear Television,

Happy to be here with you all at our first Emmys Anti-Prom! Not
that I ever expected an actual invitation from the Emmys, but I think I like
this better anyway. Not being invited to the dance is the new being invited to
the dance! Or something. And from what I’ve gleaned of the Emmys, actual prom
doesn’t look all that gratifying anyway. (Though those dresses—I will say that
the sartorial surprises of the Emmys can make up, at least for me, for some of
its other disappointments.) But “Will cream colours rule the red carpet this
year” questions aside (not that these aren’t taken
seriously
, let’s turn to some more pressing questions asked by
critics.

The annual Who-Will-Who-Won’t (Who-Should-But-Won’t) predictions
and buzz anticipating the Emmys will never flag, but let’s be serious: it can
only end in heartache. We even know to prepare, as HitFix’s
Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg separate their thoughts into who should win and who will win. As Phil and
Anne have already noted, some things don’t change about the Emmys—and one of
them is that this award show that purportedly celebrates television has a
rather narrow, indeed bland, view of what exactly television is today. At least
in America, the Emmys’ TV might not really coincide with viewers’ (and
critics’!) TV. The Homecoming Queen rarely turns out to be who you hoped, as
the women of Mad Men might sympathize.

So Anti-Prom starts looking less and less like a collection of outliers
than like the majority. And we all know that to rage against the machine is,
partly, to be absorbed into it. It’s hard to talk against
the conventions of the Emmys without falling into speaking in conventions
ourselves (as Phil’s “snub-bait” might attest). Ah yes, Parenthood’s
Monica Potter
: a classic Emmy snub. In a way, though, this gives us
more leeway in how we celebrate Anti-Prom—as well as how we approach who won’t
be attending (that’s not to mention those that simply
can’t
, and I want to stretch this expansive space of the snubbed to
include those who, though they are attending, might still feel a little out of
place.

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Yes, I’m talking about Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category.
That thing that happens in the final third of the awards show, and which has
that palpable force of making the ceremony suddenly feel verrrry drawwwn
outttt. You might not remember the Miniseries/Movie section from last year if
you, like so many, stopped watching at that point. Most Emmy viewers have seen
at least some scenes of Modern Family or
Two and a Half Men. But what
percentage of them have watched, say, Phil
Spector
or Behind The Candelabra?
I’m not trying to affirm HBO’s elitist judgment that “It’s not TV,”
but it’s good to remind ourselves that “It requires a subscription to
watch” 1/3 of the shows nominated under this category. This year, also
nominated are FX’s American Horror Story:
Asylum
, the History Channel’s The
Bible
, USA’s cable miniseries Political
Animals
, and Sundance’s miniseries Top
of the Lake
. More and more, this loosely-grouped set of odd nominees feels
like they could stand in for a kind of insurgent Anti-Prom themselves. We have
two Oscar-studded HBO films, an Oscar winner film director’s miniseries, a
commercial hit docudrama from the History Channel, a campy season of horror
that you might read as a miniseries by virtue of the fact that it is contained,
and a cable miniseries that never really caught on. Also, it’s partly a
category of convenience—how else would film talent get their EGOTs
otherwise??

Though in the current heat of week-to-week exegeses on the
current final season of Breaking Bad,
there might be especially something vital to be said about not just what gets
snubbed and subsequently mourned, but what is never really noticed to begin
with: what is untimely, or watched on one’s own time, or belatedly. There are
some things you can’t live-tweet; for everything else, there’s the Outstanding
Miniseries and Movie category. There cannot be enough said about the sheer fact
of access and convenience that would hinder a person from watching even one,
not to mention all, of the nominees under the category, but we should also take
into consideration that because most of these nominees don’t fit the
traditional season-long week-by-week episode format, it makes generating viewer
interest or investment that much harder.

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The rhythm of a miniseries like Top of the Lake is dramatically different from that of a two hour
film, or a season of American Horror
Story
. Jane Campion’s miniseries—when it did finally find its way to
television—aired its seven episodes on three separate nights. To split the
seven hours of Top of the Lake—originally
aired without breaks at the Berlin Film Festival—into three chunks of seven
episodes each feels not just odd, but arbitrary. (My desire to keep watching
only speaks to the power of Campion’s storytelling—maybe this season’s Breaking Bad episode cliffhangers can
take a page out of her book,

 e.g., you can give your audience enough credit that if they’re still
watching at this point, they don’t need episodes to black out with literal questions
of life and death.

) Still, the very otherness of the
Miniseries/Movie-On-TV genre makes me wonder if we can find a better way to
fit, say, Campion’s miniseries into the context of our television sets. Or, is
it best to just think of it as a long film, however interrupted? You can always,
after all, stream it on your computer. And for TV bingers, seven hours is
hardly an outlandish commitment. The slipperiness of miniseries into movie is
also affirmed by the Emmys’ choice to group them together (funny for an award show
that acknowledges the genre differences between comedy and drama!)—a pairing
that happened only 2011, when the Emmys realized there weren’t enough
miniseries in production. But the miniseries has also recently made a
comeback—just this time in extended and pay cable, rather than in its previous
realm of broadcast. Due to FX’s and Sundance’s newfound interest in the genre,
though, might this change again in the future?

Whether we consider it a miniseries or an extended film, Top of the Lake didn’t create too much
buzz when it premiered on the Sundance Channel. Michelle Dean and I found that
by the time we had time to complete the second instalment of our
yak about the show
, it was no longer, as they say, timely. Hence, no
second instalment. But speaking with filmmaker Barry Jenkins afterward (who
came to the series months after it aired), he expressed how much he wished we’d
written on how the show ended. And even if we were looking for pegs, Top of the
Lake has something the rest of its fellow nominees this year don’t: it was
available on Netflix Instant almost immediately upon completing its run on the
Sundance Channel, giving the miniseries a chance to experience another surge of
interest. People watched it. Of course they did—it’s really, really good.

But will Top of the Lake win
among its category of outcasts come Monday evening? Certainly more people have
watched American Horror Story or The Bible, both of which are important
experiments in genre and storytelling especially when it comes to television.
Sepinwall and Feinberg agree that the Emmys are too conservative to vouch for
AHS, and that “‘Top of the Lake’ is probably too challenging and Sundance is
probably too inexperienced at making the push,” so HBO’s Candelabra will probably, in the end, bring home the goods. Perhaps
one cheering aspect of the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie subset is that
almost any win will feel like a virtuous act on behalf of the Emmys. These
nominees! They’re so different. Let’s not forget them; let’s throw them
into this crazy category we don’t really know what to do with. Still, it’s a
category that rewards experimentation to a point. We still
want our glossy prestige film to win, for goodness sake.

The fact that the Emmys can be, well, unpredictable at times, by
virtue of not giving prizes to what, as Phil said, might be judged as
Most Aesthetically Inventive or Most Subtle Acting Range (can you imagine
Elisabeth Moss might get her first Emmy not because of Peggy Olson, but because
of her portrayal of Robin? I mean, I sort of can!) can also mean that the Emmys
can also go so far as to surprise us. And as Anne said, television qua
television isn’t getting much respect out there in Promland, so when it
does—when the mundane and milquetoast gets recognition—it sort of results in
a mixed delight. Remember when a burgeoning Modern
Family
racked up all those awards after its first season? Such results give
viewers hope that they’ve got a say in their television.

So this year, don’t turn off the television when the Emmys turn
to their miniseries and movies. Because the question “Who Cares?” is
tied to the more simple question “Who Has Seen It”—and the best way
to start is to tune in. This Anti-Prommer wants more American Horror Stories, more Top
of the Lakes
, more Behind The
Candelabras
, just as much as she wants Elisabeth Moss to get her damn Emmy.

It’s not just TV, it’s the Emmys,

Jane

Jane Hu is a writer and student living in Montreal. You can follow her on Twitter.

A head’s up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 2: The Emmys Anti-Prom Continues

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 2: The Emmys Anti-Prom Continues

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This
week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on
Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance. 
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal
investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want
to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

(To read Phillip Maciak’s previous post, click here.)

Dear Television,

Here’s the thing about the Emmys: it doesn’t
matter who wins so much as how we talk about it. Which is why we’re having an
Anti-Prom—we want to change the tenor of the conversations that have previously
been organized around the awards and their merit.

It’s notable, for instance, that what we know as
“The Emmys” are but one of six Emmy Awards ceremonies—it’s just that the
primetime Emmys honor the shows that are ostensibly watched by more people and,
as such, are more important. But that assumption belies a general understanding
that primetime offerings are, by default, more important than what airs at all
other times, because primetime is when serious adults, with their serious
tastes, come out to watch. Under this rubric, everything that airs during the
day is either kid stuff or sappy soap operas for bored housewives: juvenile,
feminized, less than.

That might sound a bit old fashioned, which it
is. But it’s also just one of the ways that we cordon off “quality” television
from “trash,” creating an explicit hierarchy with pay cable primetime at the
top and daytime broadcast at the bottom. Quality television looks better; its
seriality demands sustained engagement; it’s for smart people, people who like
novels and films, Dickens and Tolstoy—or so the rhetoric goes. The rise of the
cult of the showrunner is thus just one of many narratives, woven by the
industry and embraced by its public, positing that quality television is art,
e.g. everything that its commercial cousins are not.

But you’ve heard this before. The giddy haze of
the so-called “golden age” has begun to fade, and several authors, our own Phil
Maciak included, have attempted to complicate this overarching narrative of
quality, in which we can only appreciate television if we wrap it in the
rhetoric of other, more highbrow mediums. It’s only okay to talk about
television, in other words, if we’re not talking about that television.

It’s hard to think of this division as anything
other than elitist. Television has long been “the democratic medium,” a
distinctly American mode of entertainment, distinguished by its intermingling
of commercials and spectacle. The vast majority of Americans are still
consuming television in this traditional mode, commercials and all. Many
critics, especially those “slumming” in television from the fields of film and
literary criticism, only want to talk about what people aren’t watching:
it’s a curious form of hipster logic, one that I’ve seen defended in and
outside of the academy with the type of condescension usually reserved for,
well, hipsters.

The Emmys have been tasked with negotiating this
divide. How can the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) acknowledge
and flatter the legions of “quality” television fans, many of whom pay
attention to the Emmys for the sole reason of having their tastes validated,
while remaining dedicated to television qua television?

I’d argue that much of the Emmys’ irrationality
can be traced to this divide. Like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences, the ATAS is divided into “peer groups” according to who does what on
set—actors, directors, set designers, etc. Also like the Oscars, each peer
group votes on its own category, but everyone gets to vote for the
“Outstanding” categories (Best Drama, Best Comedy, Best Actress in a Comedy,
etc.). Shows, performers, and writers “present themselves” for nomination, then
the entire academy—15,000 members!—gets to vote on those nominations. I’m
sure the return rate is somewhat akin to wedding RSVPs (meaning: middle-aged
and old people do it; young people forget how to use stamps) but you can
understand how many varied understandings of television, its purpose, its
future, and definitions of “outstanding” are vying against each other.

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Take, for example, the somewhat bonkers
nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. You have Vera
Farmiga in A&E’s Bates Motel, a show that garnered mixed reviews at
best but has a sort of nostalgic support: it’s not that people were nostalgic
for incestuous relationships so much as Hitchcock, Psycho, and the early
days of the high concept era. There’s Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey,
a show labeled as quality simply because it airs on PBS, it’s a costume drama,
and the actors speak with posh accents; and Connie Britton in Nashville,
a pale shadow of her turn in Friday Night Lights in a primetime soap
with dismal reviews, disappointing ratings, and a fabulous soundtrack. There’s
Kerry Washington’s showy performance in Scandal, yet another primetime
soap; and Robin Wright’s understated turn in House of Cards, the
Netflix-Emmy-Generator-That-Could that is also notably less than the sum of its
beautiful parts. Finally, there’s the perennial bridesmaid Elisabeth Moss for Mad
Men
and the incumbent Claire Danes for Homeland.

So we have seven shows, six “channels,” a mix of
broadcast, public broadcast, extended cable, pay cable, and internet
delivery. The sheer number of nominations—each category is normally limited to
five—betrays the diffusion of voter tastes. But to return to Phil’s argument
about the type of performances that the Emmys prefer, whether they’re more
“naturalistic” or showy, this list runs the gamut: bordering on camp (Farmiga),
high melodrama (Britton, Washington), mannered and traditional (Dockery),
psychological realism (Wright, Moss), and the showy illness route (Danes). It’s
like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley McLaine, and
Elizabeth Taylor vying for a single award, which coincidentally happens to be
my idea of heaven.

The relative diversity of the nominations makes
the voting members of the ATAS look pretty savvy: they’re resisting being sticks
in the mud about Netflix, instead essentially inviting the bully to the party
in the hopes that he’ll play nice. They’re acknowledging that excellence
manifests in different genres and in different performance modes. They’re not
just watching pay cable. Just like us, they’re willing to forgive Connie
Britton’s weak vocals if it means they can get close to her hair.

But what happens if, say, Kerry Washington wins?
After Danes won last year, many wanted to believe that the Emmys had come to
their senses: they’d put away childish things—like awarding actresses on Law
& Order SVU
, Brothers and Sisters, and other primetime soaps and
procedurals—and joined the adults at the quality tv table.

I can’t overemphasize what an aberration Danes’
win was. For the last ten years, the winners have been from shows that share
DNA with quality television (Damages, Medium, The Good Wife, The West
Wing
) but are never grouped with the “golden era.” Apart from Edie Falco’s
three wins for The Sopranos c. 1999 – 2003, all of the winners have been
from broadcast or broadcast’s cable siblings (FX, TNT). A win for Washington,
then, wouldn’t be surprising—but I can only imagine the sort of critiques it
would inspire, rife with the implication that awarding an “old-fashioned” show
(read: non-quality) is yet another testament to the Emmys’ irrelevance.

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In truth, Scandal might be the best
reflection of the current state of television. It’s on a broadcast channel but
it garnered much of its fandom through its availability on Netflix. It boasts
an outspoken, successful showrunner—it just so happens that that showrunner is
a black female, and that her previous projects have also been primetime soap
operas. It mixes series qualities (a new case opened and solved every episode)
with serial ones; over the course of season two, the serial arcs have almost
wholly overtaken the “case of the week.” It has steamy sex—arguably as much as Game
of Thrones
—which is all the more titillating because of the creative ways
the show employs montage to suggest hotness instead of lazily throwing
boobs in your face. And its devoted fans have made it the Most Tweeted Show on
television, underlining the new modes of engaging with televisual texts and
shattering the myth that audiences refuse to watch in real time. It’s proof of
the ways in which the markers and modes of quality have “trickled down” from on
high, but it’s also a testament to their mutability.

Like Justified, The Americans, and The
Good Wife
, Scandal is a quality mutation. It confuses the hierarchy;
it resists classification. Which is part of why I love all of those shows: I
have little interest in sustaining the bifurcation between “quality” and
non-quality, especially since that divide, at least as popularly propagated,
has very little room for women, whether in the role of stars, showrunners, or
writers. Indeed, so much of the discursive labor invested in turning television
into something of value has, in essence, been to distance it from its feminized
roots. The feminine soap opera becomes the masculine “serial”; the passive
viewer of broadcast becomes the active viewer of quality.

These quality mutations have but a smattering of
nominations and are unlikely to win. But my hope, again, is that you think less
about who wins and whether you agree with it, and more about the language
employed to circumscribe “good” television and various programs’ refusal to hew
to that definition. If we are, to some extent, the media we consume, we are
also the shitty things we say to separate “our” television (“it’s not TV!”)
from others’.

Game of Thrones is a soap opera with swords,

AHP

Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.  Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin Press in 2014.  She writes on scandal, celebrity, and classic Hollywood for The Hairpin and on her own blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.

A head’s up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 1: The First Annual Dear Television Emmy Anti-Prom

Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 1: The First Annual Dear Television Emmy Anti-Prom

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This
week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on
Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance. 
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal
investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want
to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

Monica Potter’s Field

by Phillip Maciak

Dear television,

Last year’s Emmy red carpet
rolled out in a completely different world. Host Jimmy Kimmel was not yet the
P.T. Barnum-meets-The-Grinch figure he was to become post-Twerkgate; Lena
Dunham was not yet running a Tammany Hall-style influence machine for the NYC
comptroller elections; and Netflix was still just the place where I would
compulsively watch The Office episodes
until I fell asleep every night, not the place where I could pile all of my
irrational hopes and dreams about the future of serial narrative. But here we
are in 2013, the Emmys are back, G.O.A.T. awards show host Neil Patrick Harris
is at the helm, and I am excited!

Before I start getting all gooey
about it, though, let’s take a step back. This is an Anti-Prom, after all—we’re
dancing to 70s-era punk music, everybody’s cross-dressing, we’re all using air
quotes about everything. So now is not the time to start pinning corsages. As
the first poster in this Anti-Prom, I want to try to shatter some paradigms,
deconstruct cultures of value, put my distant-reading goggles on. But, as a
human person with a heart and tear ducts, I also have an intense desire to moan
about snubs! So, in order to split the difference, I want to talk a little
about a performance I instinctively felt was snubbed and then think a little
bit about why maybe my instinct was a false one.

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Let’s begin with my instinctive
reaction: Parenthood’s Monica Potter
should have been nominated for an Emmy. If Judd Apatow and John Cassavetes had
a baby boy, and that baby was raised by Connie Britton, he would grow up to be
Jason Katims.  Katims cut his teeth on
the brilliant, belated My So-Called Life,
he was head writer and showrunner for the pop naturalist epic Friday Night Lights, and, in 2010, he
created NBC’s Parenthood, a show that
many critics consider among the best ensemble dramas on TV and that Emmy voters
have seemingly never heard of. The observational realism, improvisatory acting,
and fragile humanity of the series he writes make them feel almost avant-garde
compared to their network mates. And you would quickly run out of fingers and
toes trying to count the number of previously unassuming actors who have given
transcendent, career-best performances under his guidance. Chief among those
actors, at the moment, is Monica Potter.

This past season on Parenthood, partly as a result of
Potter’s own suggestion, her character Kristina received a breast cancer
diagnosis. Her arc was predictably tough and redemptive—she weakens physically,
goes through chemo, hides aspects of her illness from her college-bound
daughter, and struggles with sex, drugs, and the oppressive support of her
adoptive family before ultimately going into remission by season’s end. It
sought a particular, almost polemical, sense of audience empathy, and it attempted
to turn Kristina into a kind of Everywoman survivor. While the beats might have
been familiar, Potter played them with heartbreaking comic style and a
startling lack of vanity. A career television actress was handed a
traditionally sentimental role, and what emerged was a performance that both
embraced and challenged that sentimentality. Monica Potter crafted, this past
year, a radiantly intelligent performance about the costs and benefits of feeling, at all.

In turn, I figured that Potter
was a lock for an Emmy nomination. (And I was not alone—at least among the
twitterati.) She was a dark horse—coming from a series that had, in its four
seasons, received only a guest actor nomination—but the role was so juicy and
so well-played, so topically direct even, in a way other Emmy-repellent Katims
roles often resist, that many felt this was Parenthood’s
breakthrough moment. Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman, in other words, had
become “Emmy-bait.”

But the Emmys did not bite.
Potter was “snubbed” in favor of Breaking
Bad
’s Anna Gunn, Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke, The Good Wife’s
Christine Baranski, Homeland’s Morena
Baccarin, Mad Men’s Christina
Hendricks, and, of course, the Dowager Countess Dame Maggie Smith. Gunn,
Baranski, Hendricks, and Smith are all repeat nominees, coming from series that
are also repeat nominees. Clarke and Baccarin are central ensemble members for
two of the biggest Premium Cable sensations since The Sopranos.  It’s not a
surprise that Potter wasn’t included here—though it’s certainly dispiriting,
considering the aimlessness of Baccarin’s performance. (It’s a surprise we ever
thought Potter could be nominated in the first place.)

The role Potter played was identified
as Emmy-bait almost as a knee-jerk reaction, but, looking at the above list—and
others like it over the past number of years—it’s hard to find another
performance like it. Do the Emmys really like to reward performances like
Potter’s? In 2012, Smith won for her wit and gravitas; in 2011, Margo
Martindale won for her matriarchal villainy on Justified; in 2010 Archie Panjabi won for the dangerous sexuality
of her Kalinda on The Good Wife. In
fact, you have to go back to 2007’s Katherine Heigl to find a supporting
actress winner whose role was even remotely comparable to the emotionality that
characterized Kristina Braverman and mistakenly marked the role as a perfect
fit for the Emmys. And Katherine Heigl is no Monica Potter.

What we’re talking about when we
talk about Emmy-bait in this way is really, to some extent, Oscar-bait.  The Emmys, in this category’s recent history
at least, don’t seem that interested in the kind of broad sentiment and deep
tearful emotion of a performance like Potter’s. The Oscars, however, eat that up.
Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz—for the
past several years, the best supporting actress Oscar has primarily been a
prize for raw emotion. If Parenthood had
been a film, Monica Potter would be picking out a dress and borrowing designer
jewelry Shirley MacLaine-style.

But what does all of this mean? I
certainly don’t claim that I’ve definitively disproved the concept of
“Emmy-bait,” but the past few years in this one category certainly don’t hold
up as evidence. So if it’s not based on precedent or logic, why do we sometimes
have a tendency to conflate what the Emmys want with what the Oscars want? I
think part of this is aspirational. Online writers like us continue to claim
that either television is becoming more like cinema or that television is now
the place where a certain mid-budget mode of filmmaking now lives and breathes,
and we want the Emmys to act like it. Not only do we feel these awards should nominate a certain type of
performance, we retroactively insist—despite evidence to the contrary—that they
traditionally do reward a certain
type of performance.  

The Oscars, for their part, have
notable and exploitable pressure points. Mental or physical illness, historical
roles, complex villains, alcoholics, old actors making last stabs at
profundity, young actors taking ambitious first stabs at it, attractive
actresses “going ugly”—these are reliable prejudices that provide entry-points
for marginal performances or major performances in marginal films. Moreover,
they are archetypal roles, roles that define certain traditions in American
screen acting. The Oscars have prejudices, but they are based in what we are
constantly reminded is a storied and glorious—and conservative and misguided
and sometimes pretty racist—history. Asking the Emmys to have prejudices like
these is a way of asking television to have a more prestigious—more
cinematic—history. And this perspective—an admittedly snobbish one—invites
disappointment. Monica Potter’s performance was less Emmy-bait than it was
snub-bait.

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On the other hand, there’s also
a tendency to apply a qualitative logic to a profoundly non-qualitative
selection procedure. Sure a lot of those performances are great, but a lot of
the nominations are based alternately in habit and trend. Performances like
Clarke’s and Baccarin’s get swept up in fever for their shows, and Dame Maggie
Smith will have a slot in this race until the day she dies, if that ever even
happens. Christina Hendricks will likely never have the clout or the momentum
to win this category, but she’s been nominated four times and likely has a
fifth coming for next year’s final season. Hendricks is and has always been
sensational on Mad Men, but you have
to ask yourself why the voters keep nominating an actress they never intend on
awarding. The quality of a performance is often secondary to the context in
which it occurs, and the Emmys are not often friendly to breakthrough
performances that are not otherwise a part of some larger zeitgeist. (It’s
worth noting that Connie Britton basically had to become a meme before the
Emmys would even nominate her supernaturally good lead performance on Katims’ Friday Night Lights.)

And then there’s the question of
popularity, viewership, and cultures of taste. Hopefully, you all will delve a
little further into this than I have, but I just want to note here that Adam
Sternbergh’s recent spectacular spread on popularity in the New York Times Magazine is particularly
enlightening here. For every TV critic who felt Potter was snubbed, there is a
viewer who doesn’t know Parenthood is
a show on television. The viewing world is made up now of micro-cultures, some
of which are silent, others of which are loud and influential. The snubbing of
Monica Potter is, in some sense, the result of some weird Venn-diagramming of
these cultures. As Sternbergh says of HBO’s Girls,
“By one measure, no one watches Girls.
By another, it’s fantastically popular.” Parenthood
has fallen under the bleachers of this popularity contest. The season four
finale of Parenthood was watched by
nearly five times the number of people who watched the season two finale of Girls. But Girls has captured popular culture in a way that Parenthood never will. Likewise, despite
its commanding lead over Girls, Parenthood has by no means the same kind
of numbers that The Big Bang Theory—another
Emmy favorite—has. We talk optimistically about the idea that small-scale, naturalist,
emotional adult drama has found a home on television after having been evicted
from Hollywood, but, in between prestige and popularity, does it really have a
home at the Emmys? And who else is hanging out with you, me, and Monica Potter
beneath the bleachers?

Clear eyes, full hearts,

Phil.

Phillip Maciak is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Louisiana State University, and he is at work on a book about secularism and U.S. culture at the turn of the twentieth century. His film and television criticism has appeared at Salon, The House Next Door, Slant Magazine, In Media Res, and The New Republic. He is co-founder—with Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, and Lili Loofbourow—of the weekly television criticism blog, Dear Television. He tweets @pjmaciak and keeps a website at phillipmaciak.com.

A head’s up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!