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
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.)
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,
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.
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
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.
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!”)
Game of Thrones is a soap opera with swords,
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!