week, Dear Television—Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new
addition Anne Helen Petersen—will be hosting a very special Emmy Anti-Prom here
at Press Play. Why Anti-Prom? We love the Emmys—the red carpet, the goofy
speeches, the spectacle of Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt’s perfect
relationship—and we love reading Emmy coverage—the dissection of the host, the
hand-wringing, the Poehler-worship. But the world has enough think-pieces about
whether or not Emmy voters need to chill on Modern Family—they
do! Instead, we’ve decided to exploit the generosity of Press Play and get all
abstract, in order to showcase the snubbed, the losers, and all the other kids
who didn’t get invited to the dance.
This Emmy week, we will attempt the possibly foolish task of having a
conversation about the Emmys without stepping into the
Monica Potter’s Field
by Phillip Maciak
Last year’s Emmy red carpet rolled out in a completely different world. Host Jimmy Kimmel was not yet the P.T. Barnum-meets-The-Grinch figure he was to become post-Twerkgate; Lena Dunham was not yet running a Tammany Hall-style influence machine for the NYC comptroller elections; and Netflix was still just the place where I would compulsively watch The Office episodes until I fell asleep every night, not the place where I could pile all of my irrational hopes and dreams about the future of serial narrative. But here we are in 2013, the Emmys are back, G.O.A.T. awards show host Neil Patrick Harris is at the helm, and I am excited!
Before I start getting all gooey about it, though, let’s take a step back. This is an Anti-Prom, after all—we’re dancing to 70s-era punk music, everybody’s cross-dressing, we’re all using air quotes about everything. So now is not the time to start pinning corsages. As the first poster in this Anti-Prom, I want to try to shatter some paradigms, deconstruct cultures of value, put my distant-reading goggles on. But, as a human person with a heart and tear ducts, I also have an intense desire to moan about snubs! So, in order to split the difference, I want to talk a little about a performance I instinctively felt was snubbed and then think a little bit about why maybe my instinct was a false one.
Let’s begin with my instinctive reaction: Parenthood’s Monica Potter should have been nominated for an Emmy. If Judd Apatow and John Cassavetes had a baby boy, and that baby was raised by Connie Britton, he would grow up to be Jason Katims. Katims cut his teeth on the brilliant, belated My So-Called Life, he was head writer and showrunner for the pop naturalist epic Friday Night Lights, and, in 2010, he created NBC’s Parenthood, a show that many critics consider among the best ensemble dramas on TV and that Emmy voters have seemingly never heard of. The observational realism, improvisatory acting, and fragile humanity of the series he writes make them feel almost avant-garde compared to their network mates. And you would quickly run out of fingers and toes trying to count the number of previously unassuming actors who have given transcendent, career-best performances under his guidance. Chief among those actors, at the moment, is Monica Potter.
This past season on Parenthood, partly as a result of Potter’s own suggestion, her character Kristina received a breast cancer diagnosis. Her arc was predictably tough and redemptive—she weakens physically, goes through chemo, hides aspects of her illness from her college-bound daughter, and struggles with sex, drugs, and the oppressive support of her adoptive family before ultimately going into remission by season’s end. It sought a particular, almost polemical, sense of audience empathy, and it attempted to turn Kristina into a kind of Everywoman survivor. While the beats might have been familiar, Potter played them with heartbreaking comic style and a startling lack of vanity. A career television actress was handed a traditionally sentimental role, and what emerged was a performance that both embraced and challenged that sentimentality. Monica Potter crafted, this past year, a radiantly intelligent performance about the costs and benefits of feeling, at all.
In turn, I figured that Potter was a lock for an Emmy nomination. (And I was not alone—at least among the twitterati.) She was a dark horse—coming from a series that had, in its four seasons, received only a guest actor nomination—but the role was so juicy and so well-played, so topically direct even, in a way other Emmy-repellent Katims roles often resist, that many felt this was Parenthood’s breakthrough moment. Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman, in other words, had become “Emmy-bait.”
But the Emmys did not bite. Potter was “snubbed” in favor of Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski, Homeland’s Morena Baccarin, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, and, of course, the Dowager Countess Dame Maggie Smith. Gunn, Baranski, Hendricks, and Smith are all repeat nominees, coming from series that are also repeat nominees. Clarke and Baccarin are central ensemble members for two of the biggest Premium Cable sensations since The Sopranos. It’s not a surprise that Potter wasn’t included here—though it’s certainly dispiriting, considering the aimlessness of Baccarin’s performance. (It’s a surprise we ever thought Potter could be nominated in the first place.)
The role Potter played was identified as Emmy-bait almost as a knee-jerk reaction, but, looking at the above list—and others like it over the past number of years—it’s hard to find another performance like it. Do the Emmys really like to reward performances like Potter’s? In 2012, Smith won for her wit and gravitas; in 2011, Margo Martindale won for her matriarchal villainy on Justified; in 2010 Archie Panjabi won for the dangerous sexuality of her Kalinda on The Good Wife. In fact, you have to go back to 2007’s Katherine Heigl to find a supporting actress winner whose role was even remotely comparable to the emotionality that characterized Kristina Braverman and mistakenly marked the role as a perfect fit for the Emmys. And Katherine Heigl is no Monica Potter.
What we’re talking about when we talk about Emmy-bait in this way is really, to some extent, Oscar-bait. The Emmys, in this category’s recent history at least, don’t seem that interested in the kind of broad sentiment and deep tearful emotion of a performance like Potter’s. The Oscars, however, eat that up. Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz—for the past several years, the best supporting actress Oscar has primarily been a prize for raw emotion. If Parenthood had been a film, Monica Potter would be picking out a dress and borrowing designer jewelry Shirley MacLaine-style.
But what does all of this mean? I certainly don’t claim that I’ve definitively disproved the concept of “Emmy-bait,” but the past few years in this one category certainly don’t hold up as evidence. So if it’s not based on precedent or logic, why do we sometimes have a tendency to conflate what the Emmys want with what the Oscars want? I think part of this is aspirational. Online writers like us continue to claim that either television is becoming more like cinema or that television is now the place where a certain mid-budget mode of filmmaking now lives and breathes, and we want the Emmys to act like it. Not only do we feel these awards should nominate a certain type of performance, we retroactively insist—despite evidence to the contrary—that they traditionally do reward a certain type of performance.
The Oscars, for their part, have notable and exploitable pressure points. Mental or physical illness, historical roles, complex villains, alcoholics, old actors making last stabs at profundity, young actors taking ambitious first stabs at it, attractive actresses “going ugly”—these are reliable prejudices that provide entry-points for marginal performances or major performances in marginal films. Moreover, they are archetypal roles, roles that define certain traditions in American screen acting. The Oscars have prejudices, but they are based in what we are constantly reminded is a storied and glorious—and conservative and misguided and sometimes pretty racist—history. Asking the Emmys to have prejudices like these is a way of asking television to have a more prestigious—more cinematic—history. And this perspective—an admittedly snobbish one—invites disappointment. Monica Potter’s performance was less Emmy-bait than it was snub-bait.
On the other hand, there’s also a tendency to apply a qualitative logic to a profoundly non-qualitative selection procedure. Sure a lot of those performances are great, but a lot of the nominations are based alternately in habit and trend. Performances like Clarke’s and Baccarin’s get swept up in fever for their shows, and Dame Maggie Smith will have a slot in this race until the day she dies, if that ever even happens. Christina Hendricks will likely never have the clout or the momentum to win this category, but she’s been nominated four times and likely has a fifth coming for next year’s final season. Hendricks is and has always been sensational on Mad Men, but you have to ask yourself why the voters keep nominating an actress they never intend on awarding. The quality of a performance is often secondary to the context in which it occurs, and the Emmys are not often friendly to breakthrough performances that are not otherwise a part of some larger zeitgeist. (It’s worth noting that Connie Britton basically had to become a meme before the Emmys would even nominate her supernaturally good lead performance on Katims’ Friday Night Lights.)
And then there’s the question of popularity, viewership, and cultures of taste. Hopefully, you all will delve a little further into this than I have, but I just want to note here that Adam Sternbergh’s recent spectacular spread on popularity in the New York Times Magazine is particularly enlightening here. For every TV critic who felt Potter was snubbed, there is a viewer who doesn’t know Parenthood is a show on television. The viewing world is made up now of micro-cultures, some of which are silent, others of which are loud and influential. The snubbing of Monica Potter is, in some sense, the result of some weird Venn-diagramming of these cultures. As Sternbergh says of HBO’s Girls, “By one measure, no one watches Girls. By another, it’s fantastically popular.” Parenthood has fallen under the bleachers of this popularity contest. The season four finale of Parenthood was watched by nearly five times the number of people who watched the season two finale of Girls. But Girls has captured popular culture in a way that Parenthood never will. Likewise, despite its commanding lead over Girls, Parenthood has by no means the same kind of numbers that The Big Bang Theory—another Emmy favorite—has. We talk optimistically about the idea that small-scale, naturalist, emotional adult drama has found a home on television after having been evicted from Hollywood, but, in between prestige and popularity, does it really have a home at the Emmys? And who else is hanging out with you, me, and Monica Potter beneath the bleachers?
Clear eyes, full hearts,
Phillip Maciak is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Louisiana State University, and he is at work on a book about secularism and U.S. culture at the turn of the twentieth century. His film and television criticism has appeared at Salon, The House Next Door, Slant Magazine, In Media Res, and The New Republic. He is co-founder—with Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, and Lili Loofbourow—of the weekly television criticism blog, Dear Television. He tweets @pjmaciak and keeps a website at phillipmaciak.com.
A head's up: Dear Television will be blogging each week at the Los Angeles Review of Books this fall, so keep an eye out for them there!