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The Emmys Can’t Keep Up With TV

But that won’t stop the awards show from trying

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Netflix/Ringer illustration

Much as we like to complain about how much TV we have to watch, we can let The Americans pile up on our DVRs with minimal blowback. Not so with the Emmy voter, who faces the theoretical burden of anointing the very best of literally hundreds of series — and counting. That burden is diffused among a Television Academy membership of 20,000, but you get the idea: With voting power come responsibility and a million blog posts calling you out for snubs no matter which five to seven shows or performances you pick.

Add in a near-exponential growth rate with no signs of slowing and you have a lose-lose situation: an institution practically defined by its inertia tasked with evaluating an industry so in flux that basic terms like “comedy” have lost all tangible meaning. Given the odds, though, the Emmys have made a surprisingly good-faith effort to keep up with the times. The academy hasn’t necessarily honored the best of Netflix, but it knows the streaming service exists; it may not come around to the most culturally significant show on the air right away, but it’ll get there eventually.

It’s like when your dad finally catches wind of Pitchfork’s favorite band of two years ago because they’re featured in a Pontiac commercial — tragically unhip, yet endearing all the same.

This is a brief history of the Emmys trying — and failing — to keep up with Peak TV.

Just Like You, the Emmys Were Late to ‘The Wire’

No one likes to admit this, but let’s be honest: The Emmys did a pretty decent job with the Golden Age, that period when TV acquired some prestige, but not enough to outgrow self-loathing slogans like, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Sure, genre fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one-hit wonders like Freaks and Geeks never got their due, but run down the heavy-hitter checklist and you’ll find most had their time in the sun. The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad all earned their Best Drama stripes; Sex and the City, 30 Rock, and even Arrested Development snuck in Best Comedy wins between Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends.

You already know the lone exception, because it’s been haunting the academy since 2008. In retrospect, The Wire was the canary in the content coal mine — the first sign that the Emmys didn’t have room for everyone, and quietly excellent shows with vocal but small fan bases would be the first to go. The mid-aughts were a kind of sweet spot: There was just enough quote-unquote Great TV to float to the top, but not enough to crowd out equally worthy competitors — or split the vote, which is how you end up crowning Modern Family the best comedy on television in a world where Louie, Veep, and Orange Is the New Black exist.

Circa 2008, Netflix was still in the DVDs-by-snail-mail business, but two measly writing nods for The Wire’s five seasons of excellence was the writing on the wall.

Don Cheadle Is Still on Premium Cable — and the Academy Has Noticed

It’s not like the Emmys haven’t tried. Netflix started racking up nominations the very year it launched original series! The problem is that even though the intention is good (“Streaming is a thing now”), the execution is flawed. For instance: The show the academy apparently considers the most consistent standard-bearer of excellence in internet TV is … House of Cards, which has grown more aimless and less ambitious with every passing season. Meanwhile, Orange Is the New Black got stuck on the wrong end of some rules adjustments (keep scrolling!) and BoJack Horseman can’t even scrape a nomination in the Animated Series category.

The same logic applies to the academy’s inexplicable yen for Showtime’s B-list: Cable dramedies are where it’s at … so let’s nominate Don Cheadle for four years in a row! Given that the Emmys have a such a large votership, they’re less prone to weird pet affections than the Golden Globes — but they still really like Matt LeBlanc. It’s an almost endearing human touch, but it also hogs some crucial real estate.

This Is How You Get “Ty Burrell, Multiple Emmy Winner”

This is by far the academy’s biggest structural problem, and by far its most predictable. Television’s great tragedy, and the flip side of its defining trait, is that shows often keep going past their artistic peaks or even logical ends. In the real world, this has led to Peak TV–adjacent practices like the show divorce or the minimal-commitment limited series. In Emmy Land, it’s led to a tic I’ll call the inertia vote, in which shows keep getting nominated — and taking up space — years after they should. It’s how you wind up with Homeland getting nominated for its first and best season — but also its second, fourth, and fifth. And the effects of the inertia vote can be much more pernicious than prior winners getting consolation nods: How has Downton Abbey snuck in there four out of the past five years? Is Ty Burrell really the comic powerhouse a half decade of nominations says he is? How did The Big Bang Theory hold in there until 2014?

The inertia vote has been around as long as the Emmys, but it’s been truly obstructive only in the last five or so years. What was once a unique quirk (the Oscars may reflexively nominate certain directors or actors no matter what, but they don’t literally vote for the same thing twice) is now the reason it took until 2016 for The Americans to claw its way in there. Speaking of which …

The Emmys Can’t Decide If ‘Game of Thrones’ Is an Upstart or a Titan

2015 will forever go down as the Emmys’ shit-we-gotta-do-something year. To their credit, the academy made some substantial revisions to its eligibility and voting bylaws. In previous years, while the nominees were determined by the entire voting membership, the actual winners were determined by so-called “blue-ribbon panels,” small clusters of volunteers designed to ensure the most important votes were cast by academy members who’d actually watched all the eligible material.

The problem is that said volunteers were people who actually had time to do this, i.e., older members, i.e., members with more … conservative tastes. So the academy scrapped the practice, opening up final voting to the entire membership — which had a noticeable effect on the final winners. For an awards show with a distinct bias against the new, the Emmys giving out Best Drama and Best Comedy awards to shows in their fifth (Game of Thrones) and fourth (Veep) seasons, respectively, is remarkable, a fact that got somewhat lost in all the “ding-dong, the Modern Family reign of terror is dead” celebration. When Game of Thrones — a relative newbie, sure, but also a massively watched phenomenon — lost out to equally acclaimed but lesser-watched shows like Homeland, it almost felt like the academy was making up for lost time.

Looking forward, it’s a mixed blessing: On the one hand, cable and streaming comedies can finally emerge victorious; on the other, mass voting in an age when no one has time to watch everything threatens to turn the Emmys into a popularity contest where the most widely seen show wins. (The blue-ribbon panels may not have liked Louie, but at least they definitely watched it.) What looked like justice when it came to Thrones might look like the lowest common denominator in years to come. The academy made a good-faith effort to change with the times — it just might have swapped one set of structural biases for another.

‘Fargo’ Is on Every Year — So Why Is It a Limited Series?

To the layperson, though, the more noticeable change to the Emmy bylaws had to do with genre. Basically, the academy just gave up on the concept: Whereas individual shows used to submit themselves as comedies or dramas, the Emmys have now laid down the law and drawn the dividing line at half hours versus hours. Running time has more of an impact on how a show is categorized than anything that actually happens on it.

All things considered, this is a smart and valid move. It’s designed to put a stop to gamesmanship like Orange Is the New Black’s, which submitted as a comedy in its first year of eligibility more to avoid competing against Breaking Bad than to make sure the prison show was known for its laughs. If you think about it, it’s also truer to the way we make, categorize, and watch TV now. All good dramas are occasionally funny and all good comedies have emotional stakes, so why not separate shows by their size, scope, and structure?

Of course, shows can apply for dispensations, a loophole that already has a decidedly shaky track record in the limited-series category. (Much as I love Fargo, I don’t think it’d be competing there if FX thought it had a shot against Thrones.) And the optics of the change are lovably ridiculous: Television has gotten so hard to take in, let alone evaluate and award, that basic categories have come completely undone.

Peak TV broke the Emmys. And by the time the Emmys find enough glue, who even knows what — or how, or who, or when — we’ll be watching?