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The Emmy Problem: Is It Them? Or Is It Us?

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The Emmys have found their white knight. Tom O’Neil, the awards expert who blogs at Gold Derby under the auspices of latimes.com, says that critics who have lambasted the Emmys for rewarding old-fashioned, unadventurous programming and familiar faces don’t get how the Emmys work. Series and performers, he notes, submit individual episodes for consideration by the academy; whether a series is superior or inferior in general is irrelevant. Shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, he argues, committed "Emmy suicide" by submitting episodes that were either inferior, or, in the case of Lost, required too much knowledge of backstory for a judge unfamiliar with the show. TV critics, he says, refused to take into consideration how the individual episodes submitted to the Emmy voters could have affected the decisions because critics  "are too lazy and arrogant."

I would respond to that charge, but it would be too much work and it would be beneath me to do so.

Seriously, though, I would never match awards knowledge with O’Neil, who clearly knows his Emmys (and Oscars, etc.) backward and forward. In this case, though, he probably knows them too well. That is, he’s so invested in understanding, justifying and explicating the awards process that he doesn’t seem to get what the critiques or TV critics (and plenty of fans) are saying: that the process is the problem.

O’Neil is right about one thing: that the Emmys depend on submitting single episodes to the judges, often industry veterans who are not entirely up to speed on current TV–so, as he notes, if producers don’t choose episodes that play well in this context (for instance, episodes with easier-to-follow, self-contained stories), they have themselves to blame. But they don’t have only themselves to blame. There’s also the teensy issue that TV’s most prestigious awards ceremony is judged by people who are not required to watch a lot of TV.

One problem with any TV awards process is that TV is not like the movies: it tells stories over dozens, even hundreds of hours. It’s not reasonable to expect any person, even a critic, to watch every hour of every program theoretically eligible for Emmy nomination. But is familiarity with TV’s most popular and best-praised shows too much to ask? It takes things to the opposite extreme to say that it’s fine–desirable, even–for an Emmy judge to be, well, ignorant: to come in like a juror in a criminal trial, a tabula rasa unsullied by extraneous knowledge of the show other than the tape submitted.

Let’s take Lost, which O’Neil rightly identifies as a flashpoint for critics ticked off at the nominations. O’Neil says the producers sabotaged themselves by submitting "Man of Science, Man of Faith," an early second-season episode that O’Neil describes thus: "A dog runs away into the jungle at night and a couple of islanders go
looking for it. Whoopdeedoo. Meantime, a few other islanders blow the
lid off a hatch in the jungle floor and we see partial glimpses of a
man living in a modern-style apartment down below. Huh? That’s it. That’s the whole episode."

Um, yeah. That’s also the nature of Lost. (I’d love to hear O’Neil’s description of Ulysses someday, by the way: "What? Some guy walks around Dublin all day. He goes to a bar, he meets some pretentious writer, then his wife gets a big internal monologue. Helloooooo? Where’s the action?") Lost unfolds its story gradually, over time, doling out bits of information and relying on the audience to invest scenes with significance using what they’ve learned in the past months. Most episodes of Lost, described or watched out of context, would seem borderline nonsensical–because the show is not meant to be watched in random order out of context.

O’Neil suggests that the producers should have submitted an episode about the "tailies" (the other group of refugees stranded on the island)–a rare, self-contained story–because it would have fared better in the nominations. He’s probably right, but that doesn’t make the list of nominations, or the process used to compile it, any better. If, to get nominated, Lost needs to submit its least typical episode, the ultimate problem is not with Lost but with Emmy. Lost, after all, is not Veronica Mars, a tiny cult hit. It’s one of the most popular dramas on TV. If you don’t know as much about it as the 15 million or so people who watch it every week–forget about the critics–isn’t it just possible that you should not be judging an awards show about television?

The bottom line is, the Emmy process today is set up to reward precisely the opposite of the best TV being made today. Today’s best shows–Lost, Big Love and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few slighted programs–tell serial stories. They require attention to detail. They rely on you to remember things from week to week. The Emmy process and Emmy voters are still best set up to evaluate TV from the mid-70s: sitcoms where characters don’t change from year to year, dramas that wrap up their major stories in each episode. (The dramas that did get nominated this year were either very familiar, like 24 and The Sopranos, or very conventional, like Grey’s Anatomy.)

Of course, this process is no secret, and O’Neil is right that producers ignore it at their peril. But the fact remains that if superior shows are losing out to inferior ones, there’s a problem with the Emmys, period. It’s as if the Emmys were a baseball game, and at the end, the winner was declared to be the team whose pitcher threw the fastest individual pitch, regardless of the final score.

Now I’ll cheerfully admit I don’t have an easy solution. It’s hard to
empanel a group of judges who are truly up-to-date with TV and yet
don’t have conflicts of interest. And I’m the last one who wants the
process handed over to critics: we’re swollen-headed enough as it is.
But even if the problem is intractable, that doesn’t make it less of a
problem.

If O’Neil, or anyone else, wants to argue that conventional TV is just better, that shows like Lost are too big for their britches, that TV is supposed to be easy to watch and and that critics are eggheads who like TV that makes them feel smart, those are defensible arguments. But there’s a kind of Stockholm-syndrome-like quality to O’Neil’s defense of the Emmys, which has a weirdly personal, chivalric tone. Critics, he says, are "too, too busy beating the bejesus out of TV’s Golden Girl because she had the nerve not to nominate who they told her to."

Trust me, critics are used to people ignoring them. But if she finds it too challenging to watch and evaluate TV the way TV’s own fans do, the Golden Girl has only herself to blame.

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