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Showing Signs of a Lingering Inferiority Complex, the Emmy Awards Try to Keep Up With The Golden Age of TV

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire September 24, 2012 at 10:11AM

TV's changing and growing at a marked pace right now, and last night's 64th Primetime Emmy Awards were an example of how the industry image of itself is not quite keeping up.
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Aaron Paul and Claire Danes
Emmys.com Aaron Paul and Claire Danes

The fact that the confusing jumble that is the "Miniseries or Movie" category is placed toward the end of the Emmy Awards like a cherry on top is a sign of TV's lingering inferiority complex in what most people would agree is a great time for the medium. What was once a prime category in which to find slumming movie stars to spice up the awards show has become a place that groups odds and ends like HBO's "Game Change," History's "Hatfields & McCoys," anthology show "American Horror Story" and ABC's "Missing," which was somehow recategorized after being cancelled.

There were certainly movie stars to be had there, with the winners including Julianne Moore, Kevin Costner and Jessica Lange, but there races were far less interesting than those for comedy or drama. The prospect of someone from the big screen turning up at the Emmys is no longer an exciting novelty when the medium has plenty of legit talent and innovative creative voices of its own, and crossover is incredibly common. It's nice to see Moore accept the prize for her eery impersonation of Sarah Palin, but I was more excited to see another redhead, Louis C.K., up at the podium.

READ MORE: "Homeland," "Modern Family" and "Game Change" Lead 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards

TV's changing and growing at a marked pace right now, and last night's 64th Primetime Emmy Awards were an example of how the industry image of itself is not quite keeping up. For the first time, the big four networks were shut out of the running for Outstanding Drama Series, the six series nominated all coming from cable or PBS. And the major surprise of the night, the triumph of Showtime's "Homeland" in not just the acting categories for Claire Danes and Damien Lewis but in the overall drama prize, seemed an act of recognition not just of that show's quality but of the TV drama in general. While most assumed the category was going to come down to the AMC duo of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," both terrific shows that have maintained their quality over several seasons, the "Homeland" win signalled that we're not just in an era in which one network happens to be white hot, but that there's an influx of complex, sophisticated storytelling happening in several places around the dial.

At least, that's true when we're being all serious. The prize for outstanding series in comedy went to ABC's "Modern Family," a popular and nice enough show that has nothing on the likes of "30 Rock," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Girls," not to mention the not nominated "Louie," "Community" and "Parks and Recreation." "Modern Family" also picked up repeat supporting actress and actor wins for Julie Bowen and Eric Stonestreet, while Jon Cryer nabbed yet another trophy for the unfortunate but hugely successful "Two and Half Men."

These were woefully safe picks given how edgy and button pushing and genre expanding TV comedy has gotten over the last few years -- as represented by the spectacle of a nude Lena Dunham eating cake in the bathroom during the opening sketch -- but were a symbol of the small screen's growing pains. It's always been easier to recognize and praise innovation in drama, while shifts in comedy are simpler to acknowledge as great in retrospect. But at least in term of its treatment of the genre, last night's Emmy Awards seemed uncomfotably self-aware of chickening out, with the running gag of Louis C.K. refusing to participate in the back-patting clips or scripted stage banter with Amy Poehler (whose pre-planned bit with comedy series lead actress winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus was one of the evening highlights).

Televised award shows are never going to be cutting edge (just like they'll never not seem overlong) but last night's Emmy Awards was an encapsualtion of how the way we think of TV is changing. Even the gag about "Breaking Bad" done in the style of "The Andy Griffith Show" opening credits felt outdated for pairing the series' violence with genial, old-school format -- to look at cable as a place where there's more sex and gore is to miss the far edgier point that it's where old ideas of narrative conventions and characterization are being remade. There's no need to place such weight on movie stars like Kevin Costner making traditionally "important" work like "Hatfields & McCoys" when there are interesting and indie talents like Damien Lewis and Lena Dunham, like Steve Buscemi and Michael Cuesta, working on the small screen too and well deserving of their own recognition.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Emmys, Homeland, Modern Family