They don’t call it “Outstanding Comedy Series” for nothin’.
“Modern Family” — despite sagging ratings and weakening critical favor over the last few seasons — was one win away from reaching a pinnacle never met by any series in the 67-year history of the Emmys. ABC’s hit show had won the top comedy prize five years running, heading into Sunday night’s ceremony, and was looking to be the first 30-minute series to ever win six. Was it the “best” comedy of 2015? No way, and it hadn’t been close to the top for at least two years. Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd’s sitcom dropped off most Top 10 lists between 2011 and 2012, but the Emmys aren’t interested in what’s the “best.” The award is for what’s “outstanding,” and “Modern Family” was that — if only because of its legacy-establishing awards streak.
Yet somewhat remarkably, tonight the Television Academy finally chose to reward the best series; not the consensus pick or the hot freshman phenom. “Veep” finally forced its way into the ultimate winner’s circle by being the best of the seven nominees.
It wasn’t an easy path, or even a predictable one. As the winners were announced Sunday night, momentum seemed to slide between “Veep” and “Transparent,” with “Modern Family’s” active winning streak keeping it in the picture. Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Soloway took home a few big wins early on, providing fuel for the “Transparent” awards machine. Even wins for Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who, let’s face it, is absolutely the Emmys Queen now if she wasn’t already) and Tony Hale were marred by defeats dealt to the well-deserving Anna Chlumsky and director Armando Iannucci. Chlumsky’s loss particularly stung — though 2015 brought her most developed, challenging and ultimately triumphant season on “Veep,” she never seemed to have momentum during the campaign, nor had she received any attention at other awards shows (i.e. the Golden Globes). Her show-stopping speech was somehow thwarted by Allison Janney — who, if Louis-Dreyfus is the Queen, must be the Emmys Princess.
When it came time for Mel Brooks to announce the winner for Outstanding Comedy Series, nothing was a lock. Amazon’s breakthrough comedy certainly had its believers, as many prognosticators were split between “Modern Family,” “Veep” and “Transparent” in their predictions. The dramedy also had real-world momentum on its side with trans rights becoming a pertinent point of debate during the ongoing election season (and, less importantly, streaming networks becoming more and more prevalent every day).
“Transparent” was the trendy pick — and was certainly more “outstanding” than “Modern Family” — but it wasn’t the best comedy. While some may argue Jill Soloway’s personal and progressive half-hour series shouldn’t be slighted for being more of a drama than a laugh riot, I’d contend that stance only holds if you buy into the TV Academy’s new rules for separating series. If we are, in fact, simply choosing the best 30-minute show and not the best comedy, perhaps one could compare the merits of “Veep” and “Transparent” on a somewhat level playing field. Otherwise, we’re talking about two very different writing styles, editing techniques, performances and, essentially, entire programs. It’s a similar argument to the years-long debate being pushed by “The Good Wife” writers when it comes to cable vs. broadcast dramas. They’re simply different beasts.
As a comedy, “Veep” is far more efficient. As a show, I’d employ the ol’ “drama is easy” argument and contend “Veep” is more difficult to do well. Armando Iannucci’s frighteningly efficient structuring creates a ruthless takedown of politics with more jokes per minute than any other show in the field. Just as importantly, there’s no overt formula being relied upon. Each new episode feels fresh and the possibilities of what may come next are never-ending. We may know VP Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) will always be fighting an uphill battle for the power she craves, but what obstacles are thrown in her way are consistently surprising.
And while “insiders” and “experts” will tell you it was an older Academy voting body’s unwillingness to honor an “internet show” or HBO’s top tier awards strategy that pushed “Veep” to its first trophy for Outstanding Comedy Series, I choose to stand by its unimpeachable artistic merits. Like the show itself, the win came via a true team effort. Even without a trophy for her efforts, Chlumsky’s scene in Episode 5, “Convention,” remains an unforgettable turning point for the series. Her speech changed her character, Meyer and the show permanently (even if Amy ended up back with “the worst thing to happen to this country since food in buckets”). And Hale preempted Chlumsky’s face-off vs. Selina with an epic speech of his own during Episode 2, “East Wing,” when Gary grew a backbone after his biggest boo boo to date.
Of course, none of that would mean anything without an actress of Louis-Dreyfus’ caliber holding things together at the core. A true force of nature, the former “Seinfeld” star continues to find new depths to Selina’s selfishness. Acting and reacting with equal effectiveness, Louis-Dreyfus can’t take one second off during the intense verbal sparring matches that make up every episode, and she doesn’t. She elevates everything she touches, and that’s saying something when you’ve got an impeccable showrunner like Armando Iannucci handing you gold.
Season 4 marked the last year of Iannucci, a two-time Emmy-winner, on “Veep,” meaning HBO’s newly-crowned king of comedy may never be the same again. If not, that only makes its 2015 victory all the more sweet. Iannucci, Louis-Dreyfus and the rest of the cast and crew crafted a masterpiece of political satire at a time when politicians’ power is a little too frightening. “Veep” may not be the trendy pick despite that, and it certainly isn’t the popular one. But it is the best, and finally that’s enough.