Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2014 Emmy Awards: Playing It Safe in a Groundbreaking Medium

And so, another year, another Emmys. And...nothing was surprising. Breaking Bad and Modern Family won the awards for best drama and comedy respectively, just as they had last year. The Colbert Report won best variety series, just as it had last year. The Amazing Race won best reality competition program, just as it has done for all but two years in that category's existence.

Things were equally predictable in the acting categories. Jim Parsons won his fourth Emmy in five years for his work on The Big Bang Theory, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for the third year in a row. All of the acting winners in a drama series-- Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Julianna Margulies, and Aaron Paul-- have won in this category before, as has Ty Burrell, who won Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. The only actor to have not won in this category in a previous year was Allison Janney, and she's hardly a newcomer, having won multiple Emmys in the dramatic category, and even winning two Emmys in this single year alone (she also won the award for best guest actress in a drama series for Masters of Sex).

She uses this Emmy to hold her collection of rose petals.

None of this is to say that these awards are not deserving. You better believe that I cheered loudly every time Breaking Bad won anything. But, there was just a general air of familiarity, and a lack of any real surprises. Sure, I didn't predict all of the awards correctly, but the ones that I didn't predict still seemed expected. And the second that Ty Burrell won, I knew that Modern Family would take Best Comedy, even though I had guessed it would be Orange is the New Black.

It wasn't just the awards that felt safe, the whole ceremony felt generally bland. I like Seth Meyers-- it's really hard to not at least likes Seth Meyers-- but he's not exactly exciting. He was a fine host-- typically affable, and while some jokes fell flat, some were strong and in general, his opening monologue was good. Meyers was the picture of competence. His jokes were good, and generally pleasing, and he delivered them well. And that's not a bad thing. He was an enjoyable host of an enjoyable ceremony. But, there was no punch. There was no excitement. The beauty of Ellen DeGeneres hosting this year's Oscars, for example, was that she at times felt completely unscripted. With the famous/infamous star-studded selfie, and ordering pizza for the stars, there was a refreshing air of spontaneity. When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes, he was controversial, but that's because he took risks with his jokes. He really went after the celebrities in the audience in a way that had not been done before. So did Seth MacFarlane when he hosted the Oscars, but unlike Gervais, MacFarlane was an undeniable unfunny disaster, whose insults "punched down" instead of punching up. I certainly don't want more of what MacFarlane had to offer, but surely there's a middle ground between downright offensiveness and the bland performance Meyers offered. The best and most fun moments of the ceremony clearly came from the unpredictable antics of Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Bryan Cranston.

A tuxedo! Bold choice, Meyers!

The overall blandness of the ceremony seemed especially at odds with the content that it was celebrating. It has been said repeatedly that this is a golden age of television. Meyers commented that in 1976, there were only four nominees for best drama, and all of them were cop shows. Now, we have a varied lineup of nominees--all doing something new, and all doing something interesting. This is an important step in any story-telling art form. In the nineteenth century, for example, there was a rise in theater of what are called "Well-Made Plays," which follow a very specific format. If one reads any plays from that time, you will find that they're pretty much interchangeable, with stock characters and an almost identical plot. This doesn't mean that these plays were bad. Some most definitely were, but some were able to define the format, and use the conventions to their advantage (a great example is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest). The same thing happened in film, taking a long time for filmmakers to start taking risks with the use of film. Television is starting to do the same. On the drama side of television, for example, there use to be much more of an emphasis on episodic TV show, where each episode had a standalone plot (remember, the Law & Order franchise used to be an Emmy darling), but now, the Emmys are rewarding serial dramas more and more consistently, allowing for more chances to be taken in terms of storytelling and general series tone. Such dramas would have been seen as too risky just a few years ago, but now, they are the norm when it comes to most acclaimed drama series.

There are also risks being taken on the comedy side of things, but more to do with subject matter than anything else. The idea, for example, of setting a comedy (although, again, much could be said about whether Orange is the New Black is a comedy or a drama) in a women's prison would have been unbelievable at one point. This year's best comedy series Modern Family, which has now won the award for five years in a row, initially received great praise for its diverse cast and focus on "unconventional" families. I'm all for diversity, but as the show has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that, despite its strong cast, Modern Family is pretty much just like every other sitcom. Its storylines are pretty typical and, for the most part its characters never change. The premise of the show, for those who have not seen it, follows three branches of one extended family. The antagonist, if there is one, is Jay (Ed O'Neill), whose children Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the parents in the other two families. Jay was clearly designed to be the "stick in the mud" character. He is at odds with his somewhat eccentric stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and we hear constantly about how he was not supportive of his gay son Mitchell when he was growing up. But the problem is that Modern Family strives to be pleasing. Jay can never be too much of an antagonist because the show tries to stay away from any real conflict of any kind. Jay, in fact, usually comes across as INCREDIBLY reasonable, supportive, open-minded, and level-headed-- the Jay described by his children is nothing like the one depicted to us on the show. And if he ever is at odds with Manny, he typically comes around by the end of the episode and "learns his lesson." Only to then have to learn that same lesson the very next week. Aside from the child actors who have LITERALLY grown over these five years, the characters remain pretty much in the same place they were in the pilot episode.

In short, aside from its original premise, there's no longer anything all that interesting about Modern Family. It is still a funny show-- although I have not seen any of the recent episodes, I imagine that the writing is still strong and the cast is undeniably incredible-- but, it feels like every other sitcom on the air. It's a good show, but is it the absolute best comedy on the air? In this "golden age of television?" Especially when one compares it to the truly groundbreaking Orange is the New Black, or even an unconventional show like Louie, it's pretty clear that Modern Family may be the safe choice, but I don't think anyone can actually say with certainty that it's the right one.

And so, Modern Family wins again. And while I like the show, and at one time considered myself a fan, I can't help but feel frustrated by its fifth win. Especially when a more deserving series could have easily won. Does this signal "THE END OF TELEVISION?!" Of course not. There are still some amazing and clever shows out there-- and Modern Family is one of them. And Orange is the New Black not winning best comedy does not take away from the acclaim and popularity that that series has already achieved. But the Emmys tonight served as a reminder that, even in this "golden age of television," there is still room to grow. In a few years, there will be many more series out there. And I look forward to watching both them and the more exciting awards ceremonies which will honor them.

When this baby robot grows up, it will win the 94th Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

1 comment:

  1. Also, I didn't type this into the post itself because it seemed irrelevant to the specific commentary I was making, but...what the hell was that thing with Sofia Vergara on the pedestal? I mean, it was sexist first and foremost, but it was also just totally bizarre in every way.