According to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the five best-written comedy episodes of the 2011-2012 season were from four shows: FX’s Louie, NBC’s Parks and Recreation (with two nominations), NBC’s Community, and HBO’s Girls. However, of these four shows, only one—Girls, whose writer Lena Dunham also garnered Directing and Acting nominations for the series—was recognized in the Outstanding Comedy Series category.
The disparity is a source of a great deal of online outrage given the reputation of Louie—which some expected had a chance to break through—and Parks and Recreation—which was nominated last year—among both critics and the people who follow them. However, it reveals a consistent tension between the part and the whole when it comes to evaluating television in this capacity. While the writers who decide the nominations in this category are pushed to focus on individual segments, those nominating series or performers are supposed to be focusing on entire seasons; of course, this requires them to have seen entire seasons. It’s no secret that most Emmy voters don’t watch as much television as critics or other engaged viewers, which often leads to presumptions that they don’t actually bother watching anything at all.
However, let’s give the Emmy voters a bit more credit: instead of watching nothing, what if they watch the episodes provided for them? At this stage in the race, networks send screeners to Emmy voters, but they usually only send a representative sample, selecting a handful of episodes—while networks have sent out entire seasons before (which helped DirecTV break into the Emmy race with Friday Night Lights), generally speaking even the more diligent Emmy voters who sit down to watch the material sent to them will only see a sliver of the seasons under consideration.
On this note, allow me to float a theory regarding the big story of this year’s awards, which is PBS’ Downton Abbey dominating the Drama Series categories. I discussed the series’ problematic definition as a Miniseries during last year’s awards (a discussion we could have again regarding FX’s category fraud with American Horror Story), and PBS managed a stunning collection of nominations moving into the main race, including six acting nominations (most among Drama Series), Writing, Directing, and a nomination in Outstanding Drama Series (knocking off the only commercial broadcast series in contention, CBS’ The Good Wife). While many predicted the series to break into the race after its success last year and its increased profile in season two, supporting nominations for Mr. Bates, Mr. Carson, and Anna were never part of the conversation.
For me, there are two factors to consider here. First, while the series is now in its proper category, there’s a certain degree of genius in PBS’ accidental Emmy gamesmanship: by launching first in the safety of Miniseries, Downton took advantage of the prestigious but sparse nature of the Movie/Miniseries categories, gaining considerable profile in “high-class” categories before trying to break into the series race. While shows like Mad Men had to share the Drama Series narrative with shows like Friday Night Lights and Boardwalk Empire last year, Downton swept Outstanding Miniseries/Movie and the attached writing and directing categories despite strong competition from the HBO machine and Mildred Pierce.
However, more importantly, PBS treated Downton like a Miniseries even while submitting it in the Drama Series category. They only submitted a single episode for consideration in Writing/Directing—the season-ending Christmas special that brought the season’s storylines to a romantic and tragic conclusion respectively— where other series submit 8-10. However, they simultaneously sent the entire season to Emmy voters, meaning that those who desired to consume the whole series could do so (more quickly than with longer runs for shows like Mad Men or Homeland). Its ability to be both easily reduced and easily consumed makes for a strong combination, and it seems to have worked: the presence of Michelle Dockery—prominent in the Christmas Special—over Oscar nominee Elizabeth McGovern (who was nominated last year), and the dual nominations for Brendan Coyle—whose Mr. Bates was wrongfully convicted of Murder in the episode—and Joanne Froggatt—playing his wife—would both suggest that the Christmas Special was at the forefront of voters’ minds when they cast their ballots, meaning that voters either started at the end or made it there eventually.
I raise this point not to cast aspersions on Downton Abbey’s nominations—although my punny title may betray my thoughts on the series’ second season—so much as to understand the context in which they appear in such number. While some could suggest its presence in these categories as a win for populist, non-commercial television, that its reputation was born in the highbrow Movie/Miniseries category frames its presence here very differently. Additionally, it is a presence that could very well be framed by a single episode, either as a standalone installment or an emphatic end note to a short-run season viewed in its entirety.
At this point in the race, the Emmy Awards become all about selection: actors and actresses submit a single episode of exemplary work (which is aired in its entirety for Lead Acting nominees and edited into only scenes featuring the nominee in Supporting), while series submit three sets of two episodes with each Emmy voter receiving one of the three at random. While this does mean that no show is ever judged based on an entire season, and no actor is ever considered based on a larger body of work, it does mean that Downton’s focus on a single episode or an entire season is no longer so easy to control—whether they have three sets of two episodes that can equally wow voters now becomes the question of the hour.
[For more analysis of the awards, see News for TV Majors’ Roundup post.]