Emmy promo

This 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 who-will-win/who-deserves-to-win maelstrom. We have plenty of personal investments in the outcomes of this crazy program, but, for the moment, we want to ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about the Emmys?

(To read Phillip Maciak's previous post, click here.)

Dear Television,

Here’s the thing about the Emmys: it doesn’t matter who wins so much as how we talk about it. Which is why we’re having an Anti-Prom—we want to change the tenor of the conversations that have previously been organized around the awards and their merit.

It’s notable, for instance, that what we know as “The Emmys” are but one of six Emmy Awards ceremonies—it’s just that the primetime Emmys honor the shows that are ostensibly watched by more people and, as such, are more important. But that assumption belies a general understanding that primetime offerings are, by default, more important than what airs at all other times, because primetime is when serious adults, with their serious tastes, come out to watch. Under this rubric, everything that airs during the day is either kid stuff or sappy soap operas for bored housewives: juvenile, feminized, less than.

That might sound a bit old fashioned, which it is. But it’s also just one of the ways that we cordon off “quality” television from “trash,” creating an explicit hierarchy with pay cable primetime at the top and daytime broadcast at the bottom. Quality television looks better; its seriality demands sustained engagement; it’s for smart people, people who like novels and films, Dickens and Tolstoy—or so the rhetoric goes. The rise of the cult of the showrunner is thus just one of many narratives, woven by the industry and embraced by its public, positing that quality television is art, e.g. everything that its commercial cousins are not.

But you’ve heard this before. The giddy haze of the so-called “golden age” has begun to fade, and several authors, our own Phil Maciak included, have attempted to complicate this overarching narrative of quality, in which we can only appreciate television if we wrap it in the rhetoric of other, more highbrow mediums. It’s only okay to talk about television, in other words, if we’re not talking about that television.

It’s hard to think of this division as anything other than elitist. Television has long been “the democratic medium,” a distinctly American mode of entertainment, distinguished by its intermingling of commercials and spectacle. The vast majority of Americans are still consuming television in this traditional mode, commercials and all. Many critics, especially those “slumming” in television from the fields of film and literary criticism, only want to talk about what people aren’t watching: it’s a curious form of hipster logic, one that I’ve seen defended in and outside of the academy with the type of condescension usually reserved for, well, hipsters.

The Emmys have been tasked with negotiating this divide. How can the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) acknowledge and flatter the legions of “quality” television fans, many of whom pay attention to the Emmys for the sole reason of having their tastes validated, while remaining dedicated to television qua television?

I’d argue that much of the Emmys’ irrationality can be traced to this divide. Like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the ATAS is divided into “peer groups” according to who does what on set—actors, directors, set designers, etc. Also like the Oscars, each peer group votes on its own category, but everyone gets to vote for the “Outstanding” categories (Best Drama, Best Comedy, Best Actress in a Comedy, etc.). Shows, performers, and writers “present themselves” for nomination, then the entire academy—15,000 members!—gets to vote on those nominations. I’m sure the return rate is somewhat akin to wedding RSVPs (meaning: middle-aged and old people do it; young people forget how to use stamps) but you can understand how many varied understandings of television, its purpose, its future, and definitions of “outstanding” are vying against each other.

Connie Britton Nashville

Take, for example, the somewhat bonkers nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. You have Vera Farmiga in A&E’s Bates Motel, a show that garnered mixed reviews at best but has a sort of nostalgic support: it’s not that people were nostalgic for incestuous relationships so much as Hitchcock, Psycho, and the early days of the high concept era. There’s Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey, a show labeled as quality simply because it airs on PBS, it’s a costume drama, and the actors speak with posh accents; and Connie Britton in Nashville, a pale shadow of her turn in Friday Night Lights in a primetime soap with dismal reviews, disappointing ratings, and a fabulous soundtrack. There’s Kerry Washington’s showy performance in Scandal, yet another primetime soap; and Robin Wright’s understated turn in House of Cards, the Netflix-Emmy-Generator-That-Could that is also notably less than the sum of its beautiful parts. Finally, there’s the perennial bridesmaid Elisabeth Moss for Mad Men and the incumbent Claire Danes for Homeland.

So we have seven shows, six “channels,” a mix of broadcast, public broadcast, extended cable, pay cable, and internet delivery. The sheer number of nominations—each category is normally limited to five—betrays the diffusion of voter tastes. But to return to Phil’s argument about the type of performances that the Emmys prefer, whether they’re more “naturalistic” or showy, this list runs the gamut: bordering on camp (Farmiga), high melodrama (Britton, Washington), mannered and traditional (Dockery), psychological realism (Wright, Moss), and the showy illness route (Danes). It’s like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley McLaine, and Elizabeth Taylor vying for a single award, which coincidentally happens to be my idea of heaven.

The relative diversity of the nominations makes the voting members of the ATAS look pretty savvy: they’re resisting being sticks in the mud about Netflix, instead essentially inviting the bully to the party in the hopes that he’ll play nice. They’re acknowledging that excellence manifests in different genres and in different performance modes. They’re not just watching pay cable. Just like us, they’re willing to forgive Connie Britton’s weak vocals if it means they can get close to her hair.

But what happens if, say, Kerry Washington wins? After Danes won last year, many wanted to believe that the Emmys had come to their senses: they’d put away childish things—like awarding actresses on Law & Order SVU, Brothers and Sisters, and other primetime soaps and procedurals—and joined the adults at the quality tv table.

I can’t overemphasize what an aberration Danes’ win was. For the last ten years, the winners have been from shows that share DNA with quality television (Damages, Medium, The Good Wife, The West Wing) but are never grouped with the “golden era.” Apart from Edie Falco’s three wins for The Sopranos c. 1999 - 2003, all of the winners have been from broadcast or broadcast’s cable siblings (FX, TNT). A win for Washington, then, wouldn’t be surprising—but I can only imagine the sort of critiques it would inspire, rife with the implication that awarding an “old-fashioned” show (read: non-quality) is yet another testament to the Emmys’ irrelevance.

Kerry Washington Scandal

In truth, Scandal might be the best reflection of the current state of television. It’s on a broadcast channel but it garnered much of its fandom through its availability on Netflix. It boasts an outspoken, successful showrunner—it just so happens that that showrunner is a black female, and that her previous projects have also been primetime soap operas. It mixes series qualities (a new case opened and solved every episode) with serial ones; over the course of season two, the serial arcs have almost wholly overtaken the “case of the week.” It has steamy sex—arguably as much as Game of Thrones—which is all the more titillating because of the creative ways the show employs montage to suggest hotness instead of lazily throwing boobs in your face. And its devoted fans have made it the Most Tweeted Show on television, underlining the new modes of engaging with televisual texts and shattering the myth that audiences refuse to watch in real time. It’s proof of the ways in which the markers and modes of quality have “trickled down” from on high, but it’s also a testament to their mutability.

Like Justified, The Americans, and The Good Wife, Scandal is a quality mutation. It confuses the hierarchy; it resists classification. Which is part of why I love all of those shows: I have little interest in sustaining the bifurcation between “quality” and non-quality, especially since that divide, at least as popularly propagated, has very little room for women, whether in the role of stars, showrunners, or writers. Indeed, so much of the discursive labor invested in turning television into something of value has, in essence, been to distance it from its feminized roots. The feminine soap opera becomes the masculine “serial”; the passive viewer of broadcast becomes the active viewer of quality.

These quality mutations have but a smattering of nominations and are unlikely to win. But my hope, again, is that you think less about who wins and whether you agree with it, and more about the language employed to circumscribe “good” television and various programs’ refusal to hew to that definition. If we are, to some extent, the media we consume, we are also the shitty things we say to separate “our” television (“it’s not TV!”) from others’.

Game of Thrones is a soap opera with swords,


Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.  Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin Press in 2014.  She writes on scandal, celebrity, and classic Hollywood for The Hairpin and on her own blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.

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!