(Jonathan Bartlett / For…)
What is there to say about the Emmys that has not been said before? Rather than flip for writing up the obligatory pre-broadcast essay, Times TV critics Robert Lloyd and Mary McNamara had a conversation in which they aired their grievances, their preferences and gave praise where it was due.
Robert: Well, Mary, the fall season is breaking and the Emmy Awards are upon us once again Sunday night. And once again I have failed to pay much attention to them; I understand that they're popular and fun and give newspaper writers something to write about; but they seem to me irrelevant to the art and crafts they celebrate. Like most every other similar award — Oscars and Grammy and Tonys and on and on — they assume an impossible task and then do it poorly. They compare apples and oranges, even as they neglect the less obvious or talked-about fruits — the rhubarb and loganberries and exotic Asian pears that also make up the market, but which fewer people might have tasted. I am being metaphorical.
Mary: I must admit I did give some thought to boycotting this year's broadcast when Hugh Laurie was left off the best actor in a drama category — the idea that he finished an almost decade-long run helping to create one of the most influential TV characters around without an Emmy to put in his loo seems proof of precisely what you say. But even so, I cannot bring myself to dismiss the Emmys. They are inevitably much more fun to watch than the Oscars. There is always a fair amount of repetition. Bryan Cranston is back in the front-runner slot this year, "Mad Men" has crowded the writing category again and is attempting to break the best drama record, "The Amazing Race" is apparently the only reality show academy members will cop to watching and if Jon Stewart wins over Stephen Colbert again, I may have to set fire to my hair. But inevitably I am mostly happy that people who do terrific work get feted for doing it.
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The problem is there is just too much good TV. Take "Homeland," for instance, which certainly deserves to be a top contender for best drama, best writing, best actor and best actress, and yet is considered an underdog in all but the last. And that's a cable show, so pity the poor networks, with their necessary commitment to procedural elements and other less creatively exalted dimensions.
Robert: Yes, it's nice to celebrate excellence, which is, after all, what you and I do for a living, even, in a way, when we're denigrating its opposite. Still, I have to think that Hugh Laurie knows he's good, whether or not the academy dubs him the best. And that John Lithgow knows that those three Emmys (out of five nominations) for "3rd Rock From the Sun" were the result of factors not entirely based in his incomparable comic genius. If you didn't consider these things kind of a crapshoot, you'd have to feel bad about your not winning them all or nearly all the time. And yes, there is more good TV than any person can watch.
As to your point about cable versus broadcast, obviously there are a number of things at work there: the larger audience a broadcast show needs to be considered a hit, the conservatism that comes into play when huge amounts of money are at stake, the ongoing commitment to the 22-episode season versus cable's creator-driven, short-run series, with their clearer arcs, and the fact that cable networks succeed by creating prestige — getting people to talk about them, and to look where they otherwise would not — and can do this with just a few (or even one) good series.
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Mary: Exactly. The television equivalent of doping — the premium networks can use profanity, nudity and violence in ways the network can't. More important, they aren't tied to the episodic confines of the procedural, which is the workhorse of American drama, or the sitcom, ditto the American comedy. And that gives them the freedom to more thoroughly, or at least more vividly, examine the darkness of the human soul, which is currently the hallmark of "great drama." But I would argue that it is actually more difficult to create and maintain a show like "The Good Wife," which miraculously manages to combine high art with commercial necessity, than it is to make "Mad Men." That doesn't make "The Good Wife" a better show, necessarily, but I can't help wishing there was some way, short of setting up separate network and cable categories, to acknowledge that.