The Emmys: Why Some Shows Soar And Others Sink

Jon Cryer: “That this happened is ridiculous!”

My heart broke during last Sunday’s Emmys, as the portrayals of Walter White, Leslie Knope, and Schmidt went unappreciated while Homeland, Modern Family, and HBO swept up the awards. As a TV junkie, I was well aware that the Emmys are not an absolute measure of quality, and that I was bound to be let down. But the feeling of disappointment, followed by the shame of caring so much about an awards event, made me question why the Emmys are given out to the winners, and why I even cared to begin with.

Why I care about the Emmys is simple enough to answer: media and advertisements continually hype the importance of these awards. Though the statue itself is meaningless, the status these awards command is exceptional in the Hollywood industry. For instance, I’m still wrapping my head around the phrase “Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill”, yet the Superbad star now instantly possesses a level of credibility that many actors spend their entire lives striving for. These awards are reified in our society, and can have a huge effect on what we watch. If it weren’t for the Emmys, we likely wouldn’t have more than the first season of Arrested Development, one of the most critically-acclaimed comedy shows ever.

The importance of these awards is clear. But to understand why some shows are beloved while others are ignored, we have to examine the Emmy voting process.

The Pritchetts and Dunphys win again!

As I see it, it all boils down to the voting group. The Golden Globes have the Hollywood Foreign Press, the People’s Choice Awards have the public voters, and the Emmys are determined by the Emmy Academy, which consists of a large peer group. Actors vote for actors, directors vote for directors, etc. Like any vote, the demographic is essential to how the decision is swayed, and we cannot trust the Hollywood industry to remain unbiased.

This demographic of industry specialists will ignore lowbrow shows (Jersey Shore), critical darlings that haven’t garnered enough attention (Community), or even immensely popular shows that the Academy does not want to be represented by (such as NCIS, The Mentalist, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.).

“Snob appeal” also plays a key factor. Successful Hollywood-ers will relate more to a snobby show, and will vote for what they believe represents them the best. Lets face it, both Frasier and Modern Family, two huge Emmy winners in comedy, are about rich white people. The Academy relates to what they know.

So why did this year’s Emmy winners strike gold? Let’s dive in.

The biggest upset was Homeland stealing the Drama category’s awards for best show, lead actor, and lead actress. Looking back I shouldn’t have been so shocked; Mad Men’s time seemed over as it had already reached 4 series wins in a row (a record it shares with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and The West Wing). Homeland was Mad Men’s perfect storm, a favourable change of pace: a dramatic thriller with exceptional writing and cinematography, a large audience for premium cable, a riveting plot that relates to current events, and two leads that have starred in Emmy-winning miniseries. The new show on the ballot was exactly what the Emmy voters were looking for, a bold but safe choice with snob appeal and popularity.

(By the way, if any of you MIT geeks had hopes for Game of Thrones, I’m sorry to say that it will be a long time before Hollywood is ready to have a “swords and sorcery” fantasy series represent the television industry. Perhaps Emmy voters would have taken the show more seriously if there were more nudity. Kidding, I saw enough birthday suits for a lifetime.)

Much like Homeland was Mad Men’s kryptonite, Modern Family had stiff competition with the HBO comedies Veep and Girls. Both were serious contenders with premium cable budgets and strong leading ladies. Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus (otherwise known as Elaine from Seinfeld) is an Emmy favourite with 14 nominations, and brought her A-game to win her second award for lead comedic actress. Meanwhile, Girls’ Lena Dunham – who created, wrote, directed, and starred in the show – gave the Academy strong reason to drop their Modern Family obsession for an edgy interpretation of life in NY city as a young female. Perhaps Girls was too edgy, however, because Emmy voters stuck with the safe and popular Modern Family for several major awards.

In short, the Emmys are determined by a small demographic that decides how they want their industry to be portrayed. Their votes spoke volumes: Hollywood is tired of Mad Men, excited by Homeland, and happy with Modern Family. Remember that Emmy voters are individuals just like us, who can be swayed by personal bias, egos, and media hype (I mean, how else could Jon Cryer have won for his ninth year playing Alan if not for all of the Two and a Half Men publicity?) Though the voters’ opinions shouldn’t affect us, the media spends the other 364 days of the year emphasizing how important these awards are in order to promote films and shows. I can’t help but root for my favourite series because these meaningless trophies have real world effects, and I want my shows to get the recognition they both need and deserve. However, this awards show is not about quality. It’s about the entertainment industry, and the shows that it decides to represent itself with.

HBO’s Girls

So where do I stand in all of this? I still resent the Academy for not showing more love to Parks and Recreation and Community this year. Both of these critically acclaimed comedies are on the brink of cancellation, and even one or two Emmy nominations could have made the difference between them staying on air or not. In addition, I gave up on the Emmy voters’ judgment of quality when the beloved faces of Ron Swanson, Troy, and Abed were absent because of the deserving but wearisome nominations for all four male cast members of Modern Family. Not only did the two funniest shows on TV warrant more recognition, but they needed it now more than ever. Enjoy these gems while you can.

But hey, that’s just my opinion.


Kevin Chao is a 2nd-year MIT student, TV junkie, political enthusiast, and chocaholic. In his spare time, he plays Frisbee, browses Reddit, and puts off going to the gym.

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