In many respects this year's Emmy Awards was a fairly typical one. I cannot say that there were any big surprises. For the most part the shows and performers I thought would probably win did so. That having been said, I must say that for a medium that almost never gets respect (namely, television), the Emmys have always been the awards that I respect the most. At the same time, however, I have to admit that throughout their history, the Emmy Awards have always been a bit schizophrenic.
On the one hand, the Emmy Awards have always been willing to recognise shows that are off the beaten track, shows that are innovative and original. This is the reason I respect the Emmy Awards more so than awards for other media. Far too often the Oscars simply nominate those movies that one expects it would, those movies that tend to be more conservative, those movies that tend to be more pedestrian (this year Brokeback Mountain does show that there is the occasional exception). Indeed, it is very rare that genre movies (that is, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy movies) ever get nominated for any Oscar outside of Special Effects, Art Direction, or the Sound categories. Consider this. Even though Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope is considered by many to be the best movie of 1977, it only won the Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Score, and Best Sound. Given the fact that the Oscars rarely nominate genre movies in these categories, I guess we should feel lucky that it was even nominated in the categories of Best Supporting Actor (for Sir Alec Guiness), Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (for George Lucas), Best Director (Lucas again), and Best Picture. Most genre films don't even get that far, even when they are truly the best movie of the year. The Bride of Frankenstein is now considered a classic. Some even consider the greatest horror movie of all time. I suspect many believe it to be the best movie of 1935. When it came to the Oscars, however, all it received was a nomination for Best Sound Editing! Here I must point out that as bad as the Oscars may be about snubbing certain genres of films, the Grammys are even worse when it comes to music. It seems to me that traditionally the Grammys have always favoured pop and jazz over any other music form, even (perhaps especially) rock 'n' roll. The Beatles are widely considered the greatest rock artists of all time. There are those who would even put them on a level with such composers as Gershwin and Porter. Yet, The Beatles only received eleven Grammys in their career, and four of those were such things as Best Album Cover (Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and Best Engeineered--Non-Classical (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road). Quite frankly, in my humble opinion, The Beatles should have swept the Grammys every year from 1964 to 1968. The list of respected artists who have never won a Grammy is astounding: Sam Cooke, Credence Clearwater Revival, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, and many others.
The Emmy Awards present a stark contrast to the Oscars and the Grammys in that often times shows that are well off the beaten track, even sci-fi and fantasy shows, can and do get nominated. A few have even won. In 1961 the classic fantasy series The Twilight Zone was actually nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Drama. Over the years it won Emmys for both Cinematography and Writing. Although we take it for granted today, in 1961 The Dick Van Dyke Show was a revolutionary, almost subversive idea for a sitcom. It was a sharp break from such Fifties sitcoms as I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, and Father Knows Best. Yet it won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actor in a Comedy (Dick Van Dyke, naturally), Direction, and Writing. In 1966 two revolutionary comedies were nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. Both Batman and The Monkees were far different from anything that had gone before. What is more, not only was The Monkees nominated for the award. It won. Over the years the list of decidedly different series that have either been nominated for or won Emmys is fairly impressive: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Star Trek (nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series two years in a row, nonetheless), Mission Impossible, All in the Family, The Sopranos, and Lost, among others.
On the other hand, however, despite a willingness throughout their history to recognise new and inventive shows, the Emmy Awards have often settled for the tried and true. For the 1962 Emmy Awards Shirley Booth won the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead)for the title role in Hazel, beating out such actresses as Irene Ryan (who was nominated for Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the all time great TV characters), Mary Tyle Moore (for The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Lucille Ball (for The Lucy Show). Now anyone who has seen Hazel knows that it is simply another in a long line of "stupid dad" comedies or, in its case, stupid family comedies (Hazel the maid was smarter than the family she worked for!). In 1971 Marcus Welby M.D., a well done but fairly standard medical drama, beat out such worthier series as Ironside and The Name of the Game for the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series. Cagney and Lacey was a fairly standard police drama (and not even a good one at that), whose only twist on the genre was that its leads were two women, yet over the years it won six Emmy Awards, among them the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series (which it actually won twice).
While the Emmys often go for the tried and true, they also often recognise those shows that are considered hip and popular. In some cases these shows may well be inventive and original, although the overall quality may actually be very poor. There can be little argument that The Mod Squad was not a fairly original idea when it debuted in 1968. In retrospect, however, it was actually a poorly executed series, with very little in the way of good writing or performances. Despite this, it was nominated for Emmys six different times! Other "hip and popular" shows are not quite so original or inventive, and their formats as old as the dawn of time. I realise my readers could well be bored of me harping about this series, but Grey's Anatomy is the perfect example of this. It is essentially a soap opera more than it is a medical drama. In fact, the only thing that separates it from Dr. Kildare are unusual medical cases (which has been done before--on St. Elsewhere and, more recently, on House) and sex (which Dr. Kildare really couldn't show back in 1961 when it debuted).
Of course, it is hard to tell whether the Emmys will continue to recongise original and inventive series as they historically have or if they will start staying with the tried and true or the hip and popular. One thing that concerns me is the changes in the Emmy's rules. At one time nominees were decided upon by a vote of the general membership. Under the rules that the Emmy Awards just recently enacted (this year's awards were the first ones using these new rules), blue ribbon panels determine the nominees through screening episodes selected by prospective nominees. This makes it difficult for series with serialised storylines or that tell their stories in arcs (such as Lost, Deadwood, and The Wire) to get nominated, as one or two episodes does not give one an idea of the series' over all quality. This explains why Lost was snubbed this year (The Wire always has been, so I have given up on it ever even being nominated for an Emmy), yet Grey's Anatomy received many nominations. These new rules have not only angered members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but rank and file television viewers as well. Given this, the rules could be changed back to the way they once were, but there is no certainty that they will be.
Anyhow, as I said earlier, I have always thought that the Emmys were a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand they do often recognise original and inventive, quality series. On the other hand, they can just as easily recognise the tried and true. Given that the Oscars and the Grammys simply stick by the tried and the true, rarely giving that which is inventive or original a chance, I suppose I should be thankful that series such as Get Smart and Lost were even nominated, let alone win.
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