Film and TV

Emmys: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Cancel 'Em

Nominating ballots for this year's Emmy Awards were due Friday, June 24. As usual, columnists and bloggers devoted no small amount of space to the series, performers, and writers they'd like to see honored with an Emmy (HitFix's Alan Sepinwall has been running his annual "If I Had an Emmy Ballot" column, and they've been predictably good). But all this talk of the Emmy horse race tends to detract attention from the real issue: The Emmys are pointless.

Do the Emmys honor good TV series and performers? Even great ones? Absolutely. Recent winners in the drama series category include Mad Men, The Sopranos, and the first four stellar seasons of The West Wing, while earlier winners include modern classics like Hill Street Blues. The comedy category has awarded some fantastic shows, too, including Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Cheers, 30 Rock, and more. Those shows read like a power-hitter list of modern TV.

But the problem is that the there are just as many shows and actors who've never taken home the winged gold. Parks and Recreation has yet to win an Emmy, and though The Office won in 2006, no one in the cast has yet won a trophy (though there's a chance Steve Carell might snag one this year in a show of goodwill tied to his farewell from the series). The Bob Newhart Show never won, either. The most egregious example, though, is the fact that The Wire never received an Emmy despite earning a pair of writing nominations. The HBO series is usually ranked among the best ever made, but it never got an award. You can draw one of two conclusions from that: (1) despite being revered by critics and praised by audiences, The Wire didn't deserve the same trophy once given to Thirtysomething, or (2) the awards themselves are fundamentally flawed. Spoiler alert: It's the second one.

They're flawed in the same way all awards are flawed: they imply that the winner of the award is the only entrant worth your consideration. The other nominees go forgotten in the aftermath of the awards, and those series and performers who don't get nominated have to rely on word-of-mouth and fond viewer memories to survive. Most dangerously, they trick you into thinking that only one show a year is really a cut above the rest. Mad Men gets the Emmy imprimatur, the crew from The Wire goes home empty-handed, and that's that.

There's a second problem that's just as dangerous: Emmy backlash. This is the perception that any series or actor who wins an Emmy is a tool of populist entertainment and a symbol of bland mediocrity. It's the position of that TV lover who wants to position themselves as so firmly against the grain that they think anything lauded by an organization like the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is hopelessly out of touch. Wins for shows like Arrested Development are viewed as flukes, at best.

In the years I've been reviewing TV and movies, I've learned that the truth, as usual, is somewhere between two extremes. Great shows earn awards, and great shows miss out entirely. Awards do not confer or determine quality. They get it right, and they get it wrong. If your favorite show wins an Emmy, great; if not, it doesn't mean a thing. The best way to think of the awards is as a bonus tossed out to random shows every year. For instance, Margo Martindale was phenomenal this season on Justified. If she gets an Emmy for best supporting actress, it'll be totally deserved. If she doesn't, she still will have given one of the best performances on network TV in years. Nothing can change that. A good TV show is a good TV show, Emmys be damned.

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Daniel Carlson
Contact: Daniel Carlson