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


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.

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.

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!

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