News Column

The Emmy Awards: A season of change

September 15, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 15--Television is no longer just a means of providing entertainment and relaying information from a console in one's family room. As the nominees for next Sunday's 65th Primetime Emmy Awards proved this year, one's favorite shows can be enjoyed on a laptop or PC, iPad or iPhone.

It is indeed a new world, and the Emmys are catching up.

For the first time ever, programs offered only online were nominated in the drama series and acting categories honoring, respectively, "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," both Netflix series.

It's a tip of the hat by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to the evolution of home entertainment. However a nomination is one thing; actually winning the trophy is quite another.

So next Sunday night's awards telecast, 8 p.m. on CBS, will tell the tale. Has online programming truly been welcomed into the club, or will voters resist change a little longer and perhaps instead choose a compromise?

One thing we can be sure of is that the academy will put on a good show. It had the wisdom to choose the immensely talented Neil Patrick Harris as the evening's host. And as Harris proved on the Tony Awards in June, he is as funny as he is shrewdly fearless. Everyone is fair game.

There's plenty to lampoon from the season that ran from June 1, 2012, to May 31. The distracting diva battles between judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj that eviscerated the ratings for "American Idol" come immediately to mind. The offscreen Jekyll-Hyde behavior of "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin is another.

Be that as it may, the evening is about choosing the best of the best in television. And the Emmy remains perhaps the most difficult award to determine that, because politics plays such a huge role in a medium as competitive as television. Ratings mean everything because that's how advertising dollars are determined.

So programs that may be critically acclaimed but not necessarily drawing large audiences may not do as well as those that attract more mainstream viewers. In addition, winners are chosen based on a selection of episodes, not on the overall season.

Thus the outcome of the Emmys is more difficult to predict than, say, the Oscars or the Tonys, which are pretty much a done deal before the night of the telecast.

Moreover, voters tend to be conservative in their choices, particularly when it comes to comedy. Even if HBO's "Girls" is the best-reviewed, most groundbreaking series among comedy-series contenders, it may be too new for an academy with many elderly voters. Also, broadcast networks are feeling the pinch from cable, both basic and especially premium, and now from broadband.

So a show such as "Modern Family" has a better chance. It's gently edgy without being unrecognizable as a comedy series. This season, comedies just may be the most difficult category to call with a disconcerting ballot of traditional and offbeat programs.

Among drama series, AMC's "Mad Men" had a controversial year. People complained it was too bizarre, too inaccessible. That's exactly why, for me, it was the year's best. Jon Hamm's Don Draper can't handle change. As late 1960s America collapses around him, he begins to unravel. He is riddled with guilt and despair, haunted by his past, and those feelings permeated the show's scripts in a way that served as a kind of metaphor for a transformative decade.

With AMC's "Breaking Bad" coming to an end, and "Homeland" coming off a terrific second season, could the Netflix series "House of Cards" pull an upset? My guess is probably not, and here's where the aforementioned compromise may come into play.

"Breaking Bad" wins best drama series, with Kevin Spacey ("House of Cards") slipping past Hamm and "Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston. Again, its just a hunch. But this way, dues are paid.

Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men" had yet another brilliant season, and her work on the Sundance Channel's miniseries "Top of the Lake" blew away the critics. So will she win one or neither? I would vote for her subtle turn on "Mad Men" as the year's best by an actress in a drama series, but at the moment the academy is in the midst of a love affair with Claire Danes, and who can argue with that?

The "Homeland" actress looks to grab her second statuette for that Showtime series.

For lead comic performances, I don't see how Louis C.K. of "Louie" can't win. It's such an quirky, oddly moving performance, at once hilarious and sad, creepy and sweet. I think only Jason Bateman of "Arrested Development" can beat him, but don't count out that crazy Baldwin guy. The voters love him to death.

Lena Dunham of "Girls" gets my vote, but then Edie Falco of "Nurse Jackie" had a remarkable season. Tina Fey's "30 Rock" has run its course, so she has sentiment on her side. But last year's winner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Veep," conveys a kind of humor that wins over voters. It's tough to call, but I think Louis-Dreyfus wins a second term.

It's really unfair, I think, of the academy to mix movies and miniseries in the same category. How can anything beat the Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra"? There's a lot of support for FX's "American Horror Story: Asylum." But I can't see "Candelabra," with 15 nominations, losing this one.

Even though Matt Damon was better in the movie, Michael Douglas will win best actor in a miniseries or movie. Al Pacino gets my vote for "Phil Spector," yet another HBO gem.

For me, the best television performance of the season was Laura Linney's thrilling turn in the miniseries "The Big C: Hereafter," which wrapped the Showtime program. Understated yet audacious, her work toed the line between heartbreak and humor with unparalleled emotional dexterity.

I don't know, maybe the academy is freaked out by the subject, but cancer is something that touches everyone's lives, and the struggle to beat it involves humor. When Cathy Jamison's gives out, all is lost. I can't remember a sadder moment of television fiction.

Will she win? Not a chance. Look to either Jessica Lange of "American Horror Story: Asylum" or Helen Mirren of "Phil Spector" to capture this race.

Just hand the Emmy for best reality-competition series to "The Amazing Race." It has won all but one in the last 10 seasons. Nevertheless, "So You Think You Can Dance" brings genuine artistry to the genre. It celebrates choreography and dance in ways "Dancing With the Stars" cannot even imagine.

But the Emmys aren't really about artistry, are they? It's about favorites. And apparently until "The Amazing Race" ends its run, it can pretty much expect an Emmy every September.

Sadly missing from this year's nominees are "Boardwalk Empire," a great gangster drama from HBO; Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper, Don's teenage daughter on "Mad Men"; Emily Mortimer as producer MacKenzie McHale on HBO's "The Newsroom"; and especially Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman of AMC's breathtaking, moody "The Killing."

The last is more than an oversight; it's an outrage.

Contact Entertainment Editor George Hatza: 610-371-5075 or ghatza@readingeagle.com.

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