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It's the Mary's Choice Awards

TV isn't the easiest medium to judge, but why let that stop a viewer who's quite discriminating?

December 24, 2010|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

The always irreverent and not at all bitter Peter Tolan recently categorized the Golden Globes as an award show run by a bunch of "whores," called the Emmys voting process deeply flawed, and suggested that television critics be the only ones allowed to give out awards because they actually watch television.

Having just seen the devastatingly predictable list of Golden Globes nominations -- oh look, "The Big C" and "Boardwalk Empire," which honestly thrilled no one but still, Laura Linney and Martin Scorsese and all that -- I say "amen, brother." Not to the whore part, a term that is inevitably sexist and offensive to the integrity of hard-working prostitutes everywhere, but to the "let the critics decide" part. I would narrow it even further and say let me decide. And possibly my colleague Robert Lloyd, though maybe not because he often has the unmitigated gall to disagree with me. Which would totally hang up the voting process.

Kurt Sutter, who was on the same incendiary Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel as Tolan, seconded his colleague's sentiments, adding that his show, "Sons of Anarchy," got a nomination from the Television Critics Assn., which meant more to him than any Emmy or Golden Globe recognition.

Sweet of him to say, but utterly ridiculous, and possibly Sutter has changed his tune in the light of "Sons of Anarchy" star Katey Sagal's recent Golden Globe nomination. One hopes not. It's easy to dismiss criticism by the oft-overlooked as sour grapes; had "Rescue Me" received a few statuettes over the years, Tolan might feel differently. But that is, of course, the point.

It is shocking, and indefensible, that a groundbreaking, well-performed show like "Rescue Me" should go without while other much less remarkable shows rack up the noms and the gold. "Rescue Me" is not alone in this distinction of course -- both "The Wire" and "The Shield," two of the best shows of their time, were rarely, if ever honored. Even certain shows that have attained the Holy Grail combo -- critical acclaim and big audience numbers -- often don't seem to have the appropriate hardware; if the television academy is really never going to give Hugh Laurie an Emmy for "House," it should just stop nominating him.

There is something to be said for Tolan's argument that the members of the television academy are inevitably passing judgment on shows with which they are not familiar. The screening process -- in which members watch a bunch of stuff in a small amount of time -- is even more unfair to television than to film, not only because there is just so much more TV. Judging a show based on one or even a few episodes seems antithetical to the art form itself. The wonder and beauty of television is that, unlike any other form of entertainment, it is sustained, which is why TV critics often write again and again about various shows they have already reviewed. A good television show is an ever-shifting biosphere. But during the awards process, television is judged less like television and more like film. It has to be -- no one, not even a television critic, could possibly watch entire seasons of every single show.

So is a show that has one or two stellar episodes among consistent mediocrity more award-worthy than a show that is less flashy but more solid in its excellence? Should the fact that network dramas air twice as many episodes as most cable shows be taken into account? Or is excellence excellence no matter what the package, and how on Earth is that judged anyway?

Certainly critics have an advantage over the members of the various academies and even the foreign press association. We do watch a lot more television than the ordinary human and spend, or at least our editors hope, even more time thinking about it -- what the emergence of certain themes and genres mean, if and how, the popularity of certain shows reflect viewers moods and concerns, why some shows founder while others soar, which shows are courageous and which simply smug, and on and on until a person (or at least a person's spouse) could scream out loud and hightail it to Amish country.

But the problem with awards of any kind is that they are voted upon by people -- and people, as Jerry Seinfeld, channeling Larry David, once said, are the worst. We admire things for a whole host of reasons, few of which have anything to do with intrinsic value.

To say that award shows are political is absurd -- they are the most emotional institutions around, tangible indications of what we love and hate, fear and covet, of our desire to seem smart but not elitist, to be independent but not alienated from the pack, and, most important, of the entertainment industry's insecurity regarding the value and nature of entertainment, and by extension, its own work. How else to explain both the television and film communities consistently rewarding their most boutique offerings.

Would that change if the voting were in the hands of the critics? I'd like to believe that critics would cast a wider net -- the sight of "Covert Affairs'" Piper Perabo's name on the Globes nominee list gladdened my heart because I hope to see more of the fine USA shows recognized at future award shows. But the only people who believe that critics would somehow transcend the same blind spots -- the tendency to sentiment, the fear of appearing out of step -- that afflict everyone else are people who don't know any critics.

The problem with awards is not that they are often imperfect to the point of ridicule. The problem is that we know this and we make them seem so important anyway. Which they aren't.

Except, of course, if I'm handing them out.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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