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Emmy Voters Suffer from Awards Lag Syndrome

It doesn't really matter how much juicy screen time an actor commands in a given year; Emmy voters look to the past and often catch up with a nominee after several seasons.

Bloodline 204 Ben Mendelsohn & Kyle Chandler

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

“You were robbed,” I told Jay Duplass at Amazon Studios’ “Gleason” premiere last week. He was a tad crestfallen about not landing a supporting actor Emmy nomination for his excellent performance as Josh Pfefferman on “Transparent,” until I reminded him how hard it is to get nominated for the first time. There’s often a lag.

Look at “The Americans.” It took four seasons of campaigning and increasingly positive reviews for it to finally land a Best Drama slot this year. The TV Academy turns to the same old popular favorites so often that it’s tough for someone new to break into the ranks.

This year, during the intense campaigning for the Emmy Awards, I realized that my hard-won understanding of how Oscar voters think does not apply to the TV Academy. I felt out of step with some of the Emmy pundits on Gold Derby who were picking Reg E. Cathey as guest actor on dramatic series “House of Cards,” along with that show’s supporting actor Michael KellyBen Mendelsohn for supporting actor for dramatic series “Bloodline,” and Allison Janney as guest actress on dramatic series “Masters of Sex.”

“What do they know?” this Emmy newbie asked, having actually watched all these shows through the seasons. Clearly, anyone who had watched the most recent season would know that each of these extraordinary actors had given their juiciest performances, with a higher percentage of screen time and a more focused narrative arc on their characters, in seasons past.

I figured correctly that Ellen Burstyn would get nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for playing Claire Underwood’s dying mother and that Paul Sparks would score Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for playing the wily biographer who ends up in Claire’s bed. (It went without saying that Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn would land third nominations.)

I was also sure that Samantha Bee was bound to break into the white male talk show enclave for her outstanding hosting of “Full Frontal.” But no.

Jax Media/TBS Productions

This only reveals my Emmy naiveté. The content of these seasons don’t matter. They’re looking to the past. And, once these voters decide they like someone, they will vote for them again. And that includes Jerry Seinfeld, who took Bee’s spot with “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It’s a popularity contest. They love this guy.

Reg E. Cathey, Michael Kelly, Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker  (“House of Cards” Season 4)

Cathey has been nominated all three times for “House of Cards,” and won last year. In the Oscar race, a prior win usually counts against you. But not at the Emmys. Once you are in the club, you get a return season pass.

In Season 4 Cathey appears in Episode 50, in a brief scene equivalent to Judi Dench’s bravura moment in “Shakespeare in Love,” which garnered her an Oscar. And it’s a doozy!

Once-loyal and deferential Freddy Hayes, who used to provide Frank Underwood with a welcome oasis at his hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint and later took on a service job at the White House, tells the president he is moving on to a Georgetown flower shop. Underwood asks him to cook him some ribs as a good-bye.

“I’m just the help, ain’t I?” Freddy says. “I don’t know how Claire does it.”

“Call me Mr. President,” says Underwood.

“You a mothafucka,” Freddy returns. “My bad, my bad. You a mothafucka, Mr. President.” He walks out, leaving Underwood stunned.

Veteran New York actor Kelly was rewarded with a second nomination for playing Doug Stamper, Underwood’s fiercely loyal chief of staff. In Season 4, he was back to his usual role as the fixer, the muscle guy who will stop at nothing to get Underwood what he wants. But the year he took the spotlight in the series was Season 3, when he was sidelined after a debilitating brain injury, battling to recover his strength and deal with his addictions, darkly brooding over killing Rachel (2015 nominee Rachel Brosnahan), the woman he loved, which lands him back in Underwood’s good graces.

Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker in 'House of Cards'

Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker in ‘House of Cards’

The newcomer with all the juicy screen time in Season 4 was Swedish “The Killing” star Joel Kinnaman, who didn’t register with Emmy voters, while returning vets and on-screen power couple Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker landed Outstanding Guest Actor and Actress in a Drama Series, respectively, partly because they, like Kelly and Cathey, had not been killed off.

Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline” Season 2)

Again, Mendelsohn dominated this dysfunctional Florida family noir in its first season, as the black sheep brother Danny who returns to the Rayburn family fold and falls afoul of his three siblings, led by detective John Rayburn (nominee Kyle Chandler). SPOILER ALERT. John eventually kills Danny, and Season 2 is all about how he and his brother and sister deal with keeping the murder a secret as John runs for sheriff. But Danny is still talking to the increasingly distraught John in his head, and we also see Danny’s son’s flashbacks to his dealings with his father, revealing that all was not as it seemed—and Danny emerges as a far more sympathetic character.

Allison Janney (“Masters of Sex” Season 3)

Again, Janney’s character, an older woman who discovers her sexuality after being married for years to a closeted gay man (2015 nominee Beau Bridges), had already won for supporting actress on “Masters of Sex” (2014, the same year she also won for “Mom”). That’s how much Emmy voters love this woman: she has won 6 Emmys out of 10 nominations. So she won Guest Actress even though her role this season was relatively tangential —while she was, as ever, great.

Next year I will know better.

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