On Monday night, the gala celebrating the very same TV shows and actors from year to year — or, as was once the case with Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane, from decade to decade — will air live on NBC. You may know this deeply perseverative event as the Emmy Awards.
Unlike the Oscars, the annual trophy toss for movies, the Emmys have a few stubborn structural problems, based on the nature of the medium it honors. The Oscars are far from flawless, especially when it comes to telecast bloat and compensatory wins; but they feature only a few major categories, and the entrants generally change every year. Along with the Tonys and the Grammys, the Oscars — the GOT of the EGOT — don’t need to deal with endless nomination repetitions. Jim Parsons, Tony Shalhoub, Mariska Hargitay, Kiefer Sutherland, Tina Fey, “Modern Family,” Bryan Cranston, Allison Janney . . . the list of the rehashed honorees over the years is endless, like a broken record. Not that I automatically dislike the recurring nominees; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for example, is a predictable contender every year (except this one; “Veep” was on break), and she’s my fave.
But the central virtue of series TV — episodic storytelling across years — seems to require a different kind of recognition system, especially now. The award categories need some deep rejiggering to suit this crowded era of Peak TV, where many good shows can easily get lost in the crowd of re-nominees, many of which get automatically rubber stamped every year. The Television Critics Association Awards has an Outstanding New Program category — this year, the winner was “Killing Eve” — that helps to address that issue. Perhaps that’s part of the Emmy solution, separating out first and second year series from those that are older, and separating out the performances accordingly. That would put “Silicon Valley” in a different category from “Atlanta” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
I’m not suggesting the Emmys creates more categories, by the way; that would be absurd. But there has to be a tactic that would allow voters to congratulate the best of the year without the glut of repeat nominees. Maybe all categories should be for shows two years old and younger, and then there would be a single category for older shows, comedy or drama?
Maybe voters just need to be more rigorous about their robotic decisions to honor the likes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — whose return season was not particularly strong — simply because of its early innovations. Things have gotten better in making room for newbies in recent years – notice there were no kneejerk noms for Liev Schreiber or Uzo Aduba this time around — but there are still a few important miles to go. When there’s no room for gems like TBS’s “The Last O.G.” and its stars Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish, or HBO’s bittersweet “High Maintenance,” or Netflix’s “Lady Dynamite,” then the work is not done.
There’s also a pressing need to confront the fact that TV shows no longer easily break into either comedy or drama. The boundaries have been blurred, which is a good thing for ambitious TV writers who want to evoke the range of human experience. Once upon a time, all half-hour shows were comedies and all hour shows were dramas, but these days, the likes of “Atlanta,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Shameless,” and “Orange Is the New Black” aren’t easy to peg. “Barry” is funny, and the general tone suggests a happy ending — something usually reserved for comedy – but it’s about an ex-Marine-turned-hit-man struggling with numbness and confusion after serving in Afghanistan. It’s a dark comedy, but it has strong dramatic leanings and plenty of poignancy. The Academy needs to think hard about this growing porousness between genres, as it is only increasing as scripted TV moves forward.
Given the flawed system and its dependence on the same-old same-old, it’s remarkable that the Emmy nominations do manage to form a reasonable sketch of a year in TV. If you look at the nominees en masse, you see new shows (“Barry,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), newish shows (“GLOW,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”), and a few oldies (“Game of Thrones,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), all of them representing vital corners of scripted TV in 2017-18. They may or may not represent the best that’s out there, but they offer a broad survey. All they need is a good, old-fashioned, “Queer Eye”-styled “zhuzh.”
70th Emmy AWARDS
Hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che
On NBC, Monday at 8 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.