Get With The Program

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July 27, 2007

Courtesy Entertainment Weekly Magazine

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If the Oscar contenders for Best Picture were chosen by people who watched 10-minute clips of a bunch of movies and then completed their ballots, would you take them seriously? Would anyone? Of course not. Yet this process - or its equivalent - is how the Emmy nominees are determined. Why, pointy-winged Emmy goddess, why?

Before we gut-punch the Emmys, let's give them credit: For decades, they have, at their best, helped extend the lives of series from Hill Street Blues to Arrested Development. And their complex nomination process - which combines a popular vote with volunteer judging panels - is intended to give high-quality, low-profile shows a shot at recognition. What still needs improvement is the voters themselves. Last year, in a display of sloth and dishonesty, they nominated Ellen Burstyn for a performance (in HBO's Mrs. Harris) that lasted literally 14 seconds. The rules now stipulate that an actor must appear on screen for longer than the duration of a burp, which I suppose is an indirect way of saying, "You actually have to WATCH the shows, not just check off famous names, you dozy bastards."

I'm writing this column before the Emmy nominations have been announced, but according to an early report revealing the semifinalists, they're going to showcase a far greater embarrassment: The Wire was out of the running for best drama series, despite a season that many TV critics ranked among the medium's great dramatic achievements. The Wire was doomed because voters had already decided that it wasn't even one of the year's 10 best dramas. The shows that did make that list include 24, for a season so implausible that even Chloe couldn't keep a straight face, and Boston Legal. That's right: Presented with a staggeringly powerful piece of work that wove politics, drugs, race, violence, and poverty into a crushing examination of the way inner-city public schools betray kids, the Emmy membership decided it just wasn't quite as incisive as William Shatner yelling, "Denny Crane!"

I'll concede that awards are a semi-silly thing to get excited about (unless you win one), but if you're giving them, you might as well do it right. (Kudos to's Tom O'Neil for being the first to point out how they do it wrong.) Some might argue the omission of The Wire is merely a matter of taste; let's file that under Sounds True But Isn't. The Wire was not excluded because voters weighed it against the competition. Most of them probably didn't even watch it.

And there lies the system's biggest failing. The top 10 drama series were chosen by popular vote, which favors shows with big audiences and/or network backing. That's why, in addition to The Wire, The Shield and Battlestar Galactica missed the cut. And the 10 were narrowed down to five by factoring in the ballots of judges who hunkered down to watch just one episode of each series in what Jack Bauer would call one very long day. (When I say "judges," feel free to substitute either "committed, intelligent industry veterans" or "ax-grinding rageaholics whose last major gig was a guest shot on Mannix," depending on your level of cynicism.)

The one-show rule favors series that can submit episodes with largely self-contained plots (House, Boston Legal, and the surprise entry Dexter were all in contention) and shows that are already familiar from years of Emmy voting (24 and The Sopranos). New series whose pleasures reside in the cumulative intricacy of their mythology (Heroes) or nuanced character development (Friday Night Lights) offered up their pilots in the hope that judges weren't too bewildered by them. But for the most part, programs with small, impassioned followings and dense backstories are at a huge disadvantage. In an era when most good dramas are at least somewhat serialized, is this any way to treat good TV?

The same rule also rewards flamboyant scenery-chewing over real acting: Each performer can submit only one show, a limitation that favors Very Special Episodes (you cry, you suffer, you battle alcoholism) over careful, character-building work during the course of a season. Last summer, this dopey rule essentially kept James Gandolfini and Edie Falco from nominations.

Nobody can accuse Emmy administrators of not attempting to fix the system. (They tried last year, too, but their only accomplishment was yielding the weirdest crop of nominees in recent memory.) Obviously, you can't ask hundreds of people to watch every episode of every show. So here's a proposal: Let the nominators do their best (and worst) - but create a separate panel of smart TV professionals (and, yes, maybe even critics and bloggers) with the power to add one or two nominees per category if they feel a worthy show or actor has been excluded. That would create a more exciting competition, and a fairer one than this year's, in which - as will become clear on July 19 - some of the season's best work never even stood a chance.

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