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The Problem with the Emmys

October 31, 2019

 Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

When an awards show manages to pick a few deserved winners, yet still manages to underwhelm, that ceremony is fundamentally flawed. The Emmy Awards find themselves in this very position. The Television Academy’s yearly awards show, the Emmys are tasked with the admittedly difficult assignment of celebrating a rapidly changing industry. Also, TV fans and critics alike have the audacity—continually proving to be naivety—to expect the “best” shows to be holding the statuettes at the end of the night. With the sheer amount of television produced today, the “best” show on TV is constantly in flux. Prestige shows have long since dropped the traditional twenty-two episode season model, instead opting for eight, ten, or twelve episode seasons. As a result, these shows rarely air during the same time of the year. These shortened seasons, combined with Netflix and Amazon’s model of releasing an entire season at once, make it harder than ever to compare shows. How does one judge the cultural impact of a Netflix show like Bodyguard, which dominated cultural conversation for two weeks after it was “dropped” on the streaming service, in comparison to Game of Thrones or Succession, whose audiences largely watched the show week-to-week. How do we account for recency bias? It currently has a definitive effect at the Emmys, robbing fantastic shows like Russian Doll of the awards and nominations it likely would have garnered had it premiered later in the year.

 

Adding to this confusion is the timing of not only the ceremony itself, but the submission deadline for shows. Here, streaming shows have the advantage—they can release an entire season the day of the deadline (something Netflix wisely did with Ava Duverney’s excellent When They See Us), whereas a cable network must typically air half of a season by the deadline to be eligible for consideration. With more and more prestige shows airing in the summer, often a show will be nominated for the season that aired over a year before the actual ceremony, even if a new season of that show is currently airing. This was the case with Succession this year, whose first season was up for awards, even though everyone was talking about its second season. Sometimes networks will employ this as a legitimate strategy, using the critical momentum of a current season to remind Emmy voters of the previous one. For the casual awards show viewer, however, this lack of continuity can cause confusion.

 

Similarly, the submission deadline—currently May 31st—prevents more recent shows, the ones most present in viewers’ minds, from being in competition. HBO’s back-to-back programming of Big Little Lies and Euphoria took over Twitter every Sunday night this past summer, yet neither of those shows were present at the Emmys. Instead, these programs will be eligible, and likely nominated, for next fall’s awards, when the buzz surrounding them will be comparatively nonexistent. This significantly hurts the awards chances for shows, as well as the Internet’s collective dream: Zendaya winning a well-deserved Emmy. Sure, Euphoria will likely be back for a second season, but with TV projects attracting more stars and commanding higher budgets, a consistent annual release is not always sustainable. For example, Mr. Robot only just returned to USA after two years off the air, as writer-director/creator Sam Esmail took a hiatus to direct Amazon’s Homecoming, which was disappointingly absent from the ceremony, and lead Rami Malek was busy winning an Oscar for a movie whose name I refuse to type.

 

Part of the reason the aforementioned Homecoming missed out on any nominations is likely its rare classification as a thirty-minute drama. The Emmys separate all of its major awards into drama and comedy categories. In reality, this has turned into sixty-minute and thirty-minute categories as many recent comedy nominees contain just as dark of themes and sequences as their drama counterparts. The sophomore seasons of Fleabag and Barry perfectly exemplify this trend. Quite honestly, both shows were better dramas than anything nominated in the drama category this year. Piling onto this issue of mis-categorizing shows, the mini-series category also needs major overhauling. In the streaming age, more and more shows are designed as just a single season. This has resulted in some of the best storytelling of the past few years, attracting a swath of famous talent both in front of and behind the camera. The category has become so dense with quality that a number of great shows were completely shut out of the Emmys. Many of these left-out series, including Maniac and The Little Drummer Girl, deserved recognition over some of the programs nominated in drama categories—cough, cough, Ozark. As if this need for change wasn’t clear enough, even the Emmys messed this up! Bodyguard, the mere six-hour series, which likely won’t return for a second season, was nominated in drama, not as a limited series! Anthology series also exist in an unnecessarily gray area—even though programs such as True Detective, Fargo, and American Crime Story have multiple seasons, each new iteration is considered a limited series in the eyes of the Television Academy.

 

Despite all these issues, the 2019 Emmys got a few awards right. Fleabag’s many wins temporarily allowed me to think that sometimes good things can indeed happen in the year 2019. Bill Hader winning for his lead performance in Barry was also well deserved, as was Jesse Armstrong’s for writing Succession. Game of Thrones’ best drama win was expected, but not egregious, particularly after a head-scratching loss in best drama direction—one of the awards it actually deserved—to Ozark. Still, since the Emmys’ construction is fatally flawed, it’s hard not to imagine about changes that would allow the crop of nominees to better represent the medium’ current state. Then, and only then, will the Emmys position itself to become a kind of ever-illusive award show—one where the best nominee wins.

 

Connor Rush

Photo credit: Frederic J. Brown/ AFP/Getty

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