The Emmy nominations , bringing with them some surprises and some old groaner bores. Imperfect institution as they are, the Emmys have felt in recent years like they're at least doing some work to repair its reputation after years of doing boneheaded things like not nominating The Wire in more than one category, once. Shows like Louie and Enlightened, small, innovative, unconventional, and staggeringly smart series, are getting nominated for top awards, a welcome change from the years of Boston Legal. But that doesn't mean that the Academy isn't getting anything wrong. They certainly are. There's just more right to balance it out.
While we can't know the exact motivations behind their votes, somehow Academy members have started to pay attention to smaller, trickier stuff. Maybe the chorus of critics, online and off, has finally become loud enough to demand attention. Maybe the screener process works better. Maybe there's just not as much boring sh-t on TV anymore. Whatever the reason, we're seeing a more diverse array of shows, of surprising nominees. Laura Dern scored a nomination for Enlightened, a terrific and tiny show that HBO gave up on after two marvelous seasons. While the show deserves all the accolades, a nod to Dern is at least an honorary acknowledgment of all the good work the series did. Adam Driver, offbeat and potentially off-putting as he is, was nominated for his intense, completely committed performance on Girls. He's nominated alongside three of the four chuckleheads from Modern Family (no love for past winner Eric Stonestreet this year), which means the category isn't changing too rapidly, but hey, he's there, isn't he? Enough voters recognized his oddball appeal to get him into a category with a bunch of stuffy old sitcomers. That's progress!
Speaking of progress, how about Netflix, huh? Is Netflix even TV? No one really knows, but for the purposes of the Emmys it certainly is. The subscription service's first original series House of Cards sauntered off with a cool nine nominations, including two for its leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and the coveted, credibility-bestowing Best Drama. While it's perhaps a bit silly to cite a $100 million series directed by an Oscar-nominated director as some sort of outsider crashing the party, it does say something about the Academy's ability to think forward that it so heartily recognized a series that was presented so unconventionally. Sure it cost the GDP of Kiribati to get people to pay attention to House of Cards, but it worked! Maybe someday a low-budget web series could get some attention too. "Someday" meaning a long, long time from now.
This year's Emmys didn't just recognize interesting stuff from the major prestige networks or cool new platforms. They dug even deeper than that, wading into basic cable to single out one of the most interesting things on television this year. Meaning, Vera Farmiga got a nomination for her beguiling, batshit, bonkers, blissfully un-self-conscious performance on Bates Motel. She is the strangest thing on a seriously strange show, making it must-see television. Good for the Emmys for seeing past all the silliness and camp and assessing the sheer full-tilt wizardry of what that maniac is doing on that show. Cheers!
THAT SAID, there are certainly some bones to be picked with these nominations. First off, how could voters have watched this past season of Game of Thrones and enjoyed it enough to nominate it for Best Drama, and give nods to not only Emilia Clarke's ascendant queen, but also to Dame Diana Rigg's wily old fox, and not throw something Michelle Fairley's way? I know the bulk of her outstanding work this past season came in one extremely hard to watch episode, excuse me scene, but Fairley's work was so good, so ferocious and primal and horrifying, that it seems absurd to not recognize it with all the glittery gold stuff in Tinseltown. I just don't get it.
In a more macro sense, it's a good sign that three of the six Best Comedy nominees are smart, slightly less accessible cable series — and that one of the network shows, 30 Rock, is the zenith of current broadcast sitcoms — but that tired, warmed-over Big Bang Theory is still getting nominated means there's more work to be done. I know, I know, Big Bang is wildly popular, the popularest even, but if it keeps getting these plaudits for quality, it's only going to encourage networks to make more junk like it. It's absurd that Chuck Lorre's laff-a-minute hokum is in the same category as daffily nimble 30 Rock or soulful and searching Louie. I get that Big Bang is a different kind of show, an older model, but that model can be brilliant in a way that Big Bang just... isn't. Though, it's probably shortsighted to complain about this when, hallelujah, no one from Two and a Half Men got a nomination this year, finally.
There might also be an argument to be made that the utter snubbing of Fox's New Girl is a serious problem, but I'm not as devoted to that show as others. But, yes, the performances, especially those of Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield, are spry and likable and weird in a way one doesn't expect the show to be. So, they could have swapped out Jim Parsons or one of the Modern Family doofs and given them some love.
But they didn't, because the Emmys have slavish, year-in-year-out devotion to certain shows, even long after they've lost their luster. Look at all of Homeland's nominations. Sure there was a good episode or two in the second season, but mostly it was all-over-the-place muck, wasn't it? Claire Danes deserves the nomination for effectively playing a woman so looney-tunes that the show starts to make sense if you figure we're watching it through her prism, but beyond that, there was nothing about Homeland this past season that put it above other worthy dramas, like the stately Boardwalk Empire or, I don't know, something completely overlooked but thoroughly captivating like Sundance's Rectify. But the Emmy voters, who named Homeland Best Drama last year, don't want to have backed a turkey, so they doubled down. As they did for years with things like Frasier and Monk and Boston Legal. Oh well. It's just the way of things, I suppose.