Episodes: The Emmys are just fine

Every July brings one of my least favorite TV rituals: complaining about the Emmy awards.

Now, to be sure, there was a time when I was a veteran Emmy complainer. (I once even wrote a whole column full of shaking fury about what the Emmys needed to do to improve. My editor wisely sent it back to me to scale back.) And every year, I can identify a few things I really wish would have been nominated over, say, Modern Family or Downton Abbey. I'm sure I've tweeted about that before.

I'll also freely admit that my dislike of Emmy complaining comes from the point of view of someone who spends probably too much time thinking about the awards as a strategic problem more than anything else.

I'm less interested in, say, why the Emmys ignore Hannibal, when the answer to that is pretty easy to suss out (it's a dark horror show that's not for everyone!), than I am the question of whether FX can finally find the right strategy, whatever that is, to break The Americans, a seemingly Emmy friendly show, into the race. And for whatever reason (probably some combination of the continued critical acclaim, the increased prominence of Amazon [which owns Americans streaming rights] as an Emmy player in its own right, and FX's smart promotional billboards), this year, it finally happened.

Thus, as with the Oscars, I'm less interested in the Emmys achieving the best possible lineup across all TV universes, but the best possible lineup of shows that seem particularly Emmy friendly. Which is how you end up with a scenario where I'm far more upset about Will Arnett missing Voice-Over Performance for his work on BoJack Horseman than I am, say, Aya Cash missing Comedy Actress for You're the Worst, even though I prefer the latter performance. Within the narrower field of voice-over, Arnett seems like he could be a nominee; the same isn't really true of Cash, brilliant as her work is.

So take all of what follows with several massive grains of salt (I know you will!). But I hate how every year, there are tons of great Emmy surprises, and the focus almost inevitably shifts to completely random things that were left out, despite how unlikely they were to factor in at the Emmys at all. The Emmys are, more or less, the best TV awards show out there (give or take the TCA awards, which I vote in, which makes them better), but they're often treated as if they're still the awards from 15 years ago, when groundbreaking cable shows could barely get a word in edgewise.

Now, yes, the Emmys sometimes struggle to recognize shows right away, and they seem more hamstrung in the comedy categories (which require some sort of broad consensus -- which is exactly what peak TV has robbed from the comedy world, where everybody has a comedy that feels like it was made just for them, and who knows if other shows are worth it?) than they do in the drama and limited series categories. And, yes, they do stupid stuff, like only nominate Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for writing, or completely ignore The Leftovers (though that one was always a long shot).

But they also have begun to settle on a nice blend of conservatism and embracing change. If you can think back to even 10 years ago, the Emmys would nominate stuff for two or three years past its absolute prime. Now, for most shows, that's cut way back, even if the academy will occasionally become completely enamored of a show like House of Cards for what seem like specious reasons.

And the possibility for surprises has gotten much stronger than it was in the past. 10 years ago, The Americans would have been toast after missing out three years in a row. Now, thanks to streaming, it can hang in there and catch on later in its life. Indeed, in many ways, the late-in-life Emmy success of Friday Night Lights -- which very belatedly won major attention in its last two seasons -- now seems like a harbinger of the Emmys to come. It was the first show to send a complete season (on DVD!) to voters, and the first show to bank on that strategy paying off not immediately, but a few years down the line. That it pulled it off was a sign of where Emmy was heading: not toward total upheaval, but toward something less stable than before.

I mentioned above that I also think the Emmys' conservatism serves them well, and I'll point to Mad Men as an example. The other most prominent TV award is the Golden Globes, and the Globes ditched Mad Men in many of its best seasons, simply because it was no longer all that new. (Then, somewhat inexplicably, they gave Jon Hamm an award for the last season. It wasn't that he didn't deserve it, but that you'd expect the Globes to reward Sam Heughan or something.) The number of shows that have been left by the wayside simply in favor of something newer at the Globes is long, long, long, and you can even see it with Mozart in the Jungle's somewhat strange wins at the last ceremony. Yeah, on the one hand, Amazon probably wined and dined a lot. But on the other hand, Mozart in the Jungle?!

The Emmys certainly let their conservatism lead them down strange paths frequently. But the shows they over-embrace are usually shows that were really good at one time. Modern Family is now the poster child for a show the Emmys need to let go of. But for those first few seasons, it really was a show deserving of the love. (That first season, indeed, is pretty peerless.) And even as we speak, the show's number of nominations is dwindling, and it will probably be dropped next year. (Or consider The Big Bang Theory, which was an Emmy favorite until it very abruptly wasn't any more.)

What I'm trying to get at, I think, is that because TV is a personal medium, there's a sense that the Emmys should reflect the personal tastes of whomever's complaining about them at the moment. And I get that emotion. I've felt that emotion. But the universe of Emmy-ready shows is smaller than most of us think it is, the choices the academy makes are much better now than they were even a decade ago, and though that conservatism leads the Emmys down many dark paths, it also keeps them from feeling as if they're assembled by people who read only the first 20 pages of an Entertainment Weekly.

In short, I like the Emmys. I like the game-playing and the strategizing, and the fun of deciding which episodes to submit. They're not nearly as fun an awards show as the Oscars, Tonys, or Grammys (ok, they're sometimes more fun to watch than the Oscars -- especially when Andy Samberg is hosting), but they are probably the most fun awards show to follow as a casual or even hardcore predictor. There are so many variables to account for, and nobody can ever get it 100 percent right.

The Emmys, in other words, are a lot of fun. And it's OK if you admit that. I won't judge.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.