The TV Academy’s decision to deny Netflix’s appeal on behalf of “Orange is the New Black,” forcing the series to compete as a drama at this year’s Emmys, provoked the usual head-scratching when the news broke Friday. As I wrote of the Emmy telecast last August, the Academy has struggled to keep pace with the medium’s changing landscape, preferring the defensive self-awareness of Seth Meyers’ opening monologue to the boldness of awarding literally any other comedy besides “Modern Family” (ABC) the top prize. The tortured new eligibility rules only reinforce the sense that the Academy is out of touch, for which I propose the following solution: ditch the distinction between comedies and dramas altogether.
For now, regardless of content, half-hour series are defined as “comedies” and hour-long series as “dramas”—unless, that is, networks levy a successful appeal, which recently allowed “Glee” (FOX), “Jane the Virgin” (CW), and “Shameless” (Showtime) to be classified as comedies despite their length. Had the Academy simply changed the categories to “Best Half-Hour Series” and “Best Hour-Long Series” and left it at that, it might have been seen as an acceptable, if slightly spineless, compromise with the fact that today’s television increasingly defies genre boundaries. The “Shameless” and “Orange is the New Black” decisions, however, suggest that distinctions of tone are so thoroughly in the eye of the beholder that the comedy/drama divide is no longer useful.
It’s time for the Emmys to adopt a “Best Series” category with 10 nominees, which would in turn apply to acting, writing, and directing categories as well.
Hear me out. As Daniel Fienberg quotes an anonymous producer in his recent critique of the new rules, “the actual issue has much more to do with half-hour shows actually being dramas than it does with hour-long shows actually being comedies,” yet there’s zero chance “Girls” (HBO), “Looking” (HBO), “Nurse Jackie” (Showtime), or “Transparent” (Amazon) will be shoehorned into drama alongside the much funnier “Orange is the New Black.” Indeed, awarding the year’s finest achievements in “Best Series”—to go with the new “Best Limited Series”—would better reflect the key divide in current programming, which is not between “serious” and “funny” but between ongoing and one-off.
When I broached the idea on Twitter Friday, critic Carrie Rickey rightly pointed out that awards shows, in particular the Oscars, tend to favor dramas. Though it’s fair to worry that dramatic fare might dominate “Best Series,” the fact remains that the Emmys have largely failed to award innovation in the current “Best Comedy” category anyway. When “Modern Family” has won five years running, the separation of comedies and dramas isn’t bringing attention to deserving series that might otherwise be uncompetitive, it’s merely digging the rut deeper.
It’s hard to imagine a “Best Series” category without the likes of “Orange is the New Black,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “Transparent,” and the inclusion of dramedies that break the mold in terms of tone, episode length, and distribution model might indeed become more likely if Emmy voters no longer feel pressured to maintain the distinction. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I wonder if “Looking,” which concluded its second season last night as one of the best shows on television, would receive more nominations in an open field than it will against broadly humorous stalwarts like “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS).
In the end, then, this is a critic’s argument, one rooted in idealism: put simply, I want to Emmys to shine a spotlight on the rich, diverse, idiosyncratic best of what television has to offer rather than return to the same well again and again. As my 10 desired nominees in the proposed “Best Series” and related acting categories suggest, it’s not impossible to envision the Emmys populated by a provocative blend of bleak dramas (FX’s “The Americans,” HBO’s “The Leftovers”), period pieces (AMC’s “Mad Men,” Cinemax’s “The Knick”), hour-long comedies (“Jane the Virgin,” Orange is the New Black”), half-hour dramedies (“Looking,” “Transparent”), inventive sitcoms (Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Pivot’s “Please Like Me”) and primetime soaps (FOX’s “Empire,” ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder”).
The Emmys are sure to disappoint, as they always do, even if the TV Academy decides to adopt a new model. But wouldn’t it be more fun to be disappointed by unexpected match-ups that force voters to face the fact that TV ain’t what it used to be? I’d be hard-pressed to decide the winners from my own list of dream nominees (after the jump), but that element of surprise is the foremost reason for the TV Academy to shake things up. The Emmys may be stuck in the past right now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn the “Best Series” proposal into a brave leap forward.
“The Americans” (FX)
“Jane the Virgin” (CW)
“The Knick” (Cinemax)
“Mad Men” (AMC)
“Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
“Please Like Me” (Pivot)
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Louis C.K., “Louie” (FX)
Andy Daly, “Review” (Comedy Central)
Jonathan Groff, “Looking” (HBO)
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Timothy Hutton, “American Crime” (ABC)
William H. Macy, “Shameless” (Showtime)
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul” (AMC)
Matthew Rhys, “The Americans” (FX)
Michael Sheen, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent” (Amazon)
Gillian Anderson, “The Fall” (BBC)
Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
Viola Davis, “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
Taraji P. Henson, “Empire” (FOX)
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Lisa Kudrow, “The Comeback” (HBO)
Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black” (BBC America)
Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Gina Rodriguez, “Jane the Virgin” (CW)
Keri Russell, “The Americans” (FX)
Best Supporting Actor
Fred Armisen, “Portlandia” (IFC)
Tituss Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Noah Emmerich, “The Americans” (FX)
Daniel Franzese, “Looking” (HBO)
Tony Hale, “Veep” (HBO)
Kyle Mooney, “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
Mandy Patinkin, “Homeland” (Showtime)
John Slattery, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Steve Zissis, “Togetherness” (HBO)
Best Supporting Actress
Carrie Coon, “The Leftovers” (HBO)
Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Jane Krakowski, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
Debra Lawrance, “Please Like Me” (Pivot)
Helen McCrory, “Peaky Blinders” (BBC)
Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Lorraine Toussaint, “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
Lauren Weedman, “Looking” (HBO)
Maisie Williams, “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat” (ABC)