Ban the Emmys!
But I was thinking about the Emmys as I read the coverage on Monday morning, wondering why, exactly, I hold the entire spectacle in such contempt.
It's not the Barbra Streisand I'm-not-here-no-I-really-am thing -- although I do have to wonder why someone who has vowed never to perform in public again just won't go away -- nor is it the emaciated visages of Les Mesdames Rivers standing on the edge of the red carpet in a manner that reminds one of the women who knitted at the foot of the guillotines during the French Revolution. It's because, in many instances, the people and shows who get nominated just rub me the wrong way.
Permit me to restate. I have nothing against Lisa Kudrow, or Michael Imperioli, or even Everybody Loves Raymond. Many of the shows, actors and actresses nominated are deserving of the kudos. However, the entire contest is flawed.
By nature, most contests are going to be less than perfect:the merit of everything from the qualifying rules to the nominee pool is up for debate and, as we do not live in a world in which Aristotle's Golden Mean is readily apparent, there's no guarantee that any one set of criteria is optimal for truly assessing the best television of the season.
But there's always room for argument, and my argument is this: modify the rules by which shows are nominated and judged. The modest proposals below could go a long way in preventing head-scratchers like this year's Best Drama nominees The Practice and E.R..
Modification Number One: Cable series get their own categories. Say what you will about segregating shows, mutter dark imprecations about how those who do not remember the Cable Ace awards are doomed to repeat them, but the simple fact of the matter is that cable shows and networks are two completely different creatures. Comparing a cable drama like The Sopranos to a network drama like The West Wing is completely unfair to both parties.
Consider The Sopranos: each season is composed of thirteen episodes, the result of David Chase taking months at a time to go retreat to the wilderness and do God-knows-what while he plans what will happen over the course of one or more seasons. Now imagine Aaron Sorkin calling Jeffrey Zucker over at NBC and saying, "Jeffrey, I'm going to take off a year and spend it plotting how the next season or two of The West Wing is going to work. And I'm also going to halve the number of episodes I write next season. That's okay, right?"
While it might be okay with the viewers, it would most definitely not be okay with the networks. Like it or not, the networks' number-one priority is moving commercial air time; that's how they make their money. Viewer numbers translate into ad rates, which translate into profit margins. Take The West Wing off the air for a year, and watch the numbers go down -- something that most networks do not hail as a sign of good television. Keep 23 episodes of The West Wing on the air, the numbers -- and the ad rates -- stay up.
Contrast that to cable, where the money is made off a combination of advertising dollars (your basic pay cable channels) and subscriber fees (your premium channels). Since the revenue model is different, HBO and its brethren can afford to encourage the kind of show model that spawns The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under or Band of Brothers -- short series that, owing to a schedule unencumbered by the demands of sweeps, can run over consecutive weeks, thus encouraging sustained plot arcs and season-wide themes.
Few network shows have this luxury; even if a show manages to spin all of its plots around one central theme -- as Homicide: Life on the Street did in season 5 with its recurring motifs of victimhood and responsibility, and by the way, that's a show that was criminally neglected by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences -- it's hard to keep viewer attention and enforce continuity in a schedule punctuated by frantic sweeps programming and long stretches of re-runs.
To cut short an already over-long argument, money talks, and it says different things under different circumstances. People who write for HBO are basically writing a different kind of television show than those who write for NBC. The types of shows one can develop on a network -- dramas and comedies that can continue to bring in new viewers over the course of the series, composed of plotlines that can be reworked until there are enough episodes to guarantee a syndication deal -- are simply going to turn out differently that those developed by pay cable. To compare them side-to-side is ridiculous.
Modification Number Two: Any and all acting nominees must submit more than one episode per season, to demonstrate actual sustained talent.
Look at it this way -- anyone can hit one out of the park once. Showing up week after week and turning in performances of unwavering quality is the true barometer of a good performer.
Besides, if we go to this rule, then we can solve a few mysteries -- like how on Earth Aida Turtorro and Stockard Channing got nods for Best Supporting Actress when they each had roughly thirty minutes of screen time over the course of a season. How is that supporting? Doesn't "support" imply consistent underpinning or foundation? How is that possible when someone isn't around? The same goes for Dominic Chianese who, although he did run away with each scene he was in, didn't provide a supporting presence to the same extent as the non-nominated Steve Schirripa or Tony Sirico.
Another pleasant side effect to the multiple-episode submission rule: this frees showrunners to spike those Very Special Actor Showcase Episodes that practically scream, "This is my Emmy nomination tape! Watch me emote! Watch me skew the narrative structure of the entire season because I stood on a desk and demanded that someone write an episode in which I am the focus! Give me a nod!"
Sure, those episodes do a great job of pointing out to the unobservant that -- surprise! -- someone pursued a career in acting for a reason. But if an actor or actress is that good, they won't need to pin all their award hopes on one episode; they'll be just as easily assured a win with three episodes under their belt.
Modification Number Three: All members of the academy will be force-fed a rigorous curriculum of horror, fantasy and science-fiction programming until they realize that shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are typically better-written and more carefully nurtured than bilge like The Practice. You want artful use of metaphor to tackle weighty themes? You want whip-cracking dialogue? You want meticulous attention to detail combined with a fast, sharp sensibility? Look no further than what some vidiots call "silly sci-fi for the kids." A couple pounds of latex makeup or characters named Na'Toth do not automatically place a show in the "piffle" category.
And for the record: yes, I am still bitter that Babylon 5 never got recognized for its writing.
Modification Number Four: Members of the Academy will actually have to watch each of the nominees in the presence of a witness and a notary public. This practice will either confirm that some voters are so limited in critical capacity as to believe that E.R. is still a quality show, or it will shock slacker members into actually paying attention to the shows before voting for them.
Sure, the Academy members are busy. Sure, it's easy to vote for whatever's got name recognition -- using the fallacy of majority opinion, it's tempting to rationalize that "well, 26 million people can't be wrong." As a matter of fact, they can. Keeping the voting members honest will go a long way toward clearing the deadwood out of some categories and, with luck, broaden the pool of shows and actors who get singled out as the year's best and brightest.
Too often, the Emmys feel reactionary or retrospective, composed of nominees who are selected to reinforce impressions from years past, rather than represent what was exciting and exemplary about what we recently saw. A few changes in how the nominees are selected could go a long, long way.
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