When Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson took to the stage to present this year’s Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries, Harrelson cracked a joke about McConaughey having all of the “plagiarized” lines in True Detective.
The lack of crowd response led Harrelson to dub it “too much of an inside joke,” but it was far from the only joke that seemed designed for those who spend their waking hours scouring industry trade press (or, to put a finer point on it, for me). I got the joke, and a good portion of my self-selected Twitter feed got the joke, and I even got the subtextual joke of McConaughey and Harrelson presenting the award many expected they’d be competing for until True Detective switched categories. However, one imagines the presumed mass audience of television viewers tuning into this year’s ceremony had no idea what Harrelson was referring to, just as they were confused by Seth Meyers’ jokes about Orange is the New Black’s category switching, or by Julianna Margulies’ pointed “22 episodes a year” reference in her acceptance speech, or by the words “Tatiana Maslany” in the Billy on the Street pre-taped segment.
The internal politics of the Emmy Awards are a rich discursive space, one that plays out each year in the nominating process, the nominations, and then the broadcast itself. Months of trade publication ad campaigns, Gold Derby Google Hangouts, and talk show appearances all converge in a single evening, and for those who follow that narrative it becomes a game of seeing whose submission tape won over the voters and how a show’s win in one category could signal a win in a different category later in the show. As one of those people, the Emmys broadcast is a dynamic experience, a vessel within which existing television industry narratives—the rise of Netflix, the miniseries/limited series debate, the “dramedy” problem—are highlighted, complicated, and narrativized. Although who wins may not actually “matter,” it is nonetheless part of the process by which the television industry understands itself, and thus a piece in the puzzle of how we understand the television industry.
However, the Emmys rarely present themselves in this way: instead, they are a celebration of television, heralding the greatness of the medium in this golden era. But this year’s ceremony made no effort to narrativize the year in television beyond a brief opening countdown and a Weird Al Yankovic theme song parody medley, even eschewing the typical tributes to each genre as the ceremony moves from section to section. The show’s lack of flow—including the In Memoriam beginning with no introduction—left no room for any attempt to make it all mean something more than a collection of subjective evaluations of television quality mixed in with jokes for people who read Deadline, a choice that made the awards feel remarkably niche despite the fact that broadcast series performed surprisingly well, in opposition to Meyers’ monologue joke about cable and Netflix’s dominance.
The lack of an effort to hail a more mainstream audience was particularly confusing when Television Academy president Bruce Rosenblum emerged for his speech about the state of the medium of television, the one moment in the show dedicated to the kind of self-narrativizing we’re used to seeing in other elements of the broadcast. However, Rosenblum delivered his speech as Sofia Vergara stood on a rotating platform as eye candy to distract us from this typical, “boring” award show ritual. The objectification of the bit was concerning, particularly given Rosenblum’s specific comments regarding the increased diversity of the Academy mashed up with Vergara’s “This is what it’s like in America” banter, but it was also puzzling given that the rest of the broadcast seemed designed for an audience tuned into the industrial logics surrounding multi-platform viewing.
The narrative of any given award show has always been discursive, determined by the winners and how those winners are spun by the press: you could sense the headlines changing as the night went on, with Modern Family and Breaking Bad’s continued success drowning out the possible “Rise of Netflix” or “Movie Stars on TV” narratives that were carried into the ceremony. The latter offered the broadcast’s most concentrated reference point, although one that was more reinforced by Jimmy Kimmel’s brief hosting takeover, Comedy Directing winner Gail Mancuso’s eye contact with McConaughey during her acceptance speech, and Julia Roberts’ inflection during her presenting gig than by any element of the production itself. In the absence of a production-sponsored narrative, narratives sprung from other elements of the evening, diving further into inside baseball territory as the night wore on.
It also, at least in my experience, amplified the role of social media in shaping these narratives. As following award shows on Twitter becomes a more accepted—if not necessarily mainstream—practice, it becomes a subsequent space through which award show broadcasts are translated. What would have historically been post-show overviews by trade press or major newspapers becomes color commentary and factual details that work in real time to transform the chaos of subjectivity into disappointment, excitement, surprise, or any other narrative imaginable. And when the broadcast itself is making minimal effort to contribute to that narrative itself or pull it away from the specifics of winners and losers, social media emerges to fill the gap for those choosing to view the show in a connected setting.
There is an argument to be made for an understated Emmys broadcast, especially given it came in at exactly three hours, but it creates a vacuum of meaning that needs to be explored further. While this results in some broad pro/con narratives in the context of the popular press, it also reminds us of the Academy’s disinterest in highlighting issues of race or gender in the context of their broadcast, and pushes us to continue exploring the identity politics—or lack thereof—of award shows that in their absence of narrative invites us to construct our own based on their disparate component parts and the filters through which we engage with them.