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Press Play Hosts Dear Television: Letter # 3: In Praise of the Haven't-Seens

Television
by Jane Hu
September 19, 2013 9:10 AM
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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.)

(To read Anne Helen Petersen's previous post, click here.)

Dear Television,

Happy to be here with you all at our first Emmys Anti-Prom! Not that I ever expected an actual invitation from the Emmys, but I think I like this better anyway. Not being invited to the dance is the new being invited to the dance! Or something. And from what I've gleaned of the Emmys, actual prom doesn't look all that gratifying anyway. (Though those dresses—I will say that the sartorial surprises of the Emmys can make up, at least for me, for some of its other disappointments.) But “Will cream colours rule the red carpet this year” questions aside (not that these aren’t taken seriously, let’s turn to some more pressing questions asked by critics.

The annual Who-Will-Who-Won't (Who-Should-But-Won’t) predictions and buzz anticipating the Emmys will never flag, but let's be serious: it can only end in heartache. We even know to prepare, as HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg separate their thoughts into who should win and who will win. As Phil and Anne have already noted, some things don't change about the Emmys—and one of them is that this award show that purportedly celebrates television has a rather narrow, indeed bland, view of what exactly television is today. At least in America, the Emmys' TV might not really coincide with viewers' (and critics'!) TV. The Homecoming Queen rarely turns out to be who you hoped, as the women of Mad Men might sympathize.

So Anti-Prom starts looking less and less like a collection of outliers than like the majority. And we all know that to rage against the machine is, partly, to be absorbed into it. It’s hard to talk against the conventions of the Emmys without falling into speaking in conventions ourselves (as Phil’s “snub-bait” might attest). Ah yes, Parenthood’s Monica Potter: a classic Emmy snub. In a way, though, this gives us more leeway in how we celebrate Anti-Prom—as well as how we approach who won't be attending (that's not to mention those that simply can't, and I want to stretch this expansive space of the snubbed to include those who, though they are attending, might still feel a little out of place.

Yes, I'm talking about Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category. That thing that happens in the final third of the awards show, and which has that palpable force of making the ceremony suddenly feel verrrry drawwwn outttt. You might not remember the Miniseries/Movie section from last year if you, like so many, stopped watching at that point. Most Emmy viewers have seen at least some scenes of Modern Family or Two and a Half Men. But what percentage of them have watched, say, Phil Spector or Behind The Candelabra? I'm not trying to affirm HBO's elitist judgment that "It's not TV," but it's good to remind ourselves that "It requires a subscription to watch" 1/3 of the shows nominated under this category. This year, also nominated are FX's American Horror Story: Asylum, the History Channel's The Bible, USA's cable miniseries Political Animals, and Sundance's miniseries Top of the Lake. More and more, this loosely-grouped set of odd nominees feels like they could stand in for a kind of insurgent Anti-Prom themselves. We have two Oscar-studded HBO films, an Oscar winner film director's miniseries, a commercial hit docudrama from the History Channel, a campy season of horror that you might read as a miniseries by virtue of the fact that it is contained, and a cable miniseries that never really caught on. Also, it’s partly a category of convenience—how else would film talent get their EGOTs otherwise??

Though in the current heat of week-to-week exegeses on the current final season of Breaking Bad, there might be especially something vital to be said about not just what gets snubbed and subsequently mourned, but what is never really noticed to begin with: what is untimely, or watched on one’s own time, or belatedly. There are some things you can’t live-tweet; for everything else, there’s the Outstanding Miniseries and Movie category. There cannot be enough said about the sheer fact of access and convenience that would hinder a person from watching even one, not to mention all, of the nominees under the category, but we should also take into consideration that because most of these nominees don't fit the traditional season-long week-by-week episode format, it makes generating viewer interest or investment that much harder.

The rhythm of a miniseries like Top of the Lake is dramatically different from that of a two hour film, or a season of American Horror Story. Jane Campion's miniseries—when it did finally find its way to television—aired its seven episodes on three separate nights. To split the seven hours of Top of the Lake—originally aired without breaks at the Berlin Film Festival—into three chunks of seven episodes each feels not just odd, but arbitrary. (My desire to keep watching only speaks to the power of Campion’s storytelling—maybe this season’s Breaking Bad episode cliffhangers can take a page out of her book,

e.g., you can give your audience enough credit that if they’re still watching at this point, they don’t need episodes to black out with literal questions of life and death. ) Still, the very otherness of the Miniseries/Movie-On-TV genre makes me wonder if we can find a better way to fit, say, Campion's miniseries into the context of our television sets. Or, is it best to just think of it as a long film, however interrupted? You can always, after all, stream it on your computer. And for TV bingers, seven hours is hardly an outlandish commitment. The slipperiness of miniseries into movie is also affirmed by the Emmys’ choice to group them together (funny for an award show that acknowledges the genre differences between comedy and drama!)—a pairing that happened only 2011, when the Emmys realized there weren’t enough miniseries in production. But the miniseries has also recently made a comeback—just this time in extended and pay cable, rather than in its previous realm of broadcast. Due to FX’s and Sundance’s newfound interest in the genre, though, might this change again in the future?

Whether we consider it a miniseries or an extended film, Top of the Lake didn't create too much buzz when it premiered on the Sundance Channel. Michelle Dean and I found that by the time we had time to complete the second instalment of our yak about the show, it was no longer, as they say, timely. Hence, no second instalment. But speaking with filmmaker Barry Jenkins afterward (who came to the series months after it aired), he expressed how much he wished we’d written on how the show ended. And even if we were looking for pegs, Top of the Lake has something the rest of its fellow nominees this year don’t: it was available on Netflix Instant almost immediately upon completing its run on the Sundance Channel, giving the miniseries a chance to experience another surge of interest. People watched it. Of course they did—it's really, really good.

But will Top of the Lake win among its category of outcasts come Monday evening? Certainly more people have watched American Horror Story or The Bible, both of which are important experiments in genre and storytelling especially when it comes to television. Sepinwall and Feinberg agree that the Emmys are too conservative to vouch for AHS, and that “‘Top of the Lake’ is probably too challenging and Sundance is probably too inexperienced at making the push,” so HBO’s Candelabra will probably, in the end, bring home the goods. Perhaps one cheering aspect of the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie subset is that almost any win will feel like a virtuous act on behalf of the Emmys. These nominees! They're so different. Let's not forget them; let's throw them into this crazy category we don't really know what to do with. Still, it’s a category that rewards experimentation to a point. We still want our glossy prestige film to win, for goodness sake.

The fact that the Emmys can be, well, unpredictable at times, by virtue of not giving prizes to what, as Phil said, might be judged as Most Aesthetically Inventive or Most Subtle Acting Range (can you imagine Elisabeth Moss might get her first Emmy not because of Peggy Olson, but because of her portrayal of Robin? I mean, I sort of can!) can also mean that the Emmys can also go so far as to surprise us. And as Anne said, television qua television isn't getting much respect out there in Promland, so when it does—when the mundane and milquetoast gets recognition—it sort of results in a mixed delight. Remember when a burgeoning Modern Family racked up all those awards after its first season? Such results give viewers hope that they’ve got a say in their television.

So this year, don't turn off the television when the Emmys turn to their miniseries and movies. Because the question "Who Cares?" is tied to the more simple question "Who Has Seen It"—and the best way to start is to tune in. This Anti-Prommer wants more American Horror Stories, more Top of the Lakes, more Behind The Candelabras, just as much as she wants Elisabeth Moss to get her damn Emmy.

It's not just TV, it's the Emmys,

Jane


Jane Hu is a writer and student living in Montreal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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!

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