Emmys 2015: In With The Old, Out With The Hope

10:50 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

Thursday morning, the nominations for the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards were announced. And, with a few exceptions (you go, Tatiana Maslany!), it was much of the same old, same old. In most of the major categories, we were once again treated to an onslaught of cable nominees that overlooked some truly spectacular work on broadcast. Now, this isn't true in every single category; lead actress in a drama not only boasts diversity but also two of six nominees from a broadcast series. In general, though, there has been a trend in recent years that what is deemed awards-worthy is the dark, gritty, cynical material- both in drama and comedy- that can only make a home on cable. Shows and performers of equally high quality are overlooked for the simple crime of being something with heart and therefore of lower artistic merit.

Let's start with the morning's most egregious set of snubs: the sharply funny, deeply heartfelt Jane the Virgin was overlooked in every category save Outstanding Narrator (yep, that's a thing).


The exceptional work of Gina Rodriguez (the reigning Golden Globe winner, by the way), Jaime Camil, and the show as a whole was snubbed, no doubt in large part to its home on The CW, long regarded (not without reason) as the YA section of television. The other problem, however, is more troubling.

Many- though, again, not all- of the comedy nominees this year are less about the humor of life and more about finding humor in the most humiliating, unpleasant, and nasty aspects of humanity. There is certainly a skill to turning these things into humor, but it's often a harsh humor, a sort of "can you believe how awful people are?" joke. And the lower ratings threshold on cable allow for these very specific visions to succeed and gain critical acclaim. On the other end of the spectrum are the broad network sitcoms, most of which have failed in recent years, excepting the inexplicable juggernaut of The Big Bang Theory. Series of this type tend towards the lowest common denominator, low-hanging comedic fruit, and characters whose quirkiness verges on unlikeability or worse.

Jane, and a few others (the thankfully nominated Parks and Recreation, for instance), manages to achieve sharp, satirical comedy without sacrificing its heart and optimism- think early seasons of Glee and Ugly Betty. It's not funny because of how selfish and awful its characters are, nor does it lean too heavily on network-safe entendres or annoying "quirks". Instead, it acknowledges the silliness of its premise (via the Emmy-nominated tongue-in-cheek narrator) and gives dimension to its world and its characters. In a rare move for a modern series, these are characters who are openly and truly religious, yet their faith does not make them naive or hateful- instead, it makes them kind.


Ultimately, it is a deeply funny show with deeply good people at its core- and that is what makes it not "edgy" enough to merit awards consideration.

The drama side of things is just as bleak. Aside from the increasingly dull Downton Abbey- which I, like many others, used to love before it just got tiresome- the nominees almost entirely hail from "dark" cable series with antiheroes at their center. The few network nominees- again, excepting the lead actress category- seem drawn more from habit than actual consideration of the programs. Alan Cumming is delightful on The Good Wife, but was he really better this year than Matt Czuchry? Czuchry's Cary spent the season dealing with repercussions from a professional connection to a shady druglord client, which involved sending him to prison (where he was injured), putting him on trial and being convicted, only to have it overturned on falsified evidence. If this had been on cable, his work as an optimist-turned-broken-cynic surely would have merited consideration.

Once again, there are certain categories, as with comedies, that awards ignore on for genre alone. Any sort of genre television is ignored. The sole exception, of course, is Game of Thrones, in which the message seems to be "The world is awful, terrible things happen to good people and you can't do anything about it, and you'd better not have hope because hope is for suckers." Somewhere along the line, nihilism and cynicism became synonyms for good drama. But then we have The Flash, for instance, which has been home to ridiculous superhero antics, but has also grounded itself with real, poignant emotions- even more successfully than its grittier but sometimes too soapy big brother series Arrow. One of the year's most moving episodes of television, for me, was The Flash finale, which included the poignant grief of a man able and yet unable to save his mother's life, and another man finally deciding to be a hero at the cost of his own life.

This isn't a show about bad people philosophizing about their own despairing depths; it's about decent people trying to learn how to live up to expectations and be good in a tough world. That's a lot more relatable to most viewers.

At the end of the day, really, this isn't just about someone's favorites getting nominated or not. It's about how the television community as a whole, the artistic institution, has decided to insist on privileging a certain worldview as the "best" one. Specifically, prizing the idea that art and entertainment, in order to be viewed as meritorious, must take on the darkest, harshest aspects of humanity, whether through comedy about awful people or dramas where antiheroes spew dialogue that sounds like faux-philosophical "literary" fiction. The assumption that underlies these stories being considered "better" is that these stories are somehow more "real", more connected to how the world really is. And that's not true. The world is not full of awful, self-absorbed, broody men and women. Sure, they exist, but the world is also full of decent people trying to lead decent lives and experiencing all the humor and emotion of simply living. Our art and entertainment should reflect that variety of life, and that variety should be acknowledged as quality, too. It should not be the worldview that determines merit, but the quality of the artistic endeavors- sharp dialogue, poignant emotions, nuanced acting, etc. The sooner critics and awards catch up, the better.