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The One-Win Emmys

What if Bryan Cranston could win only a single Emmy for ‘Breaking Bad?’ We did the math.

Ringer Illustration
Ringer Illustration

Ever since TV was invented in the mid-’90s with the debut of Friends (“The One Where Ross Doesn’t Die”), they have been giving out awards for TV shows. These awards are called Emmys. Emmys are given out during a special TV show — I know, it’s complicated, a TV show that gives out awards for TV shows — called The Emmys. It’s pretty good.

But a curious thing has happened over the past 20 years. TV has been getting better and better (this is easily measured by running the phrase “good TV” — NOT “I like TV” — through Google Trends), and more and more plentiful. It has become what we watch, and what we talk about. It has threatened to displace film as our dominant narrative medium. There is even a terrible name for it: Peak TV. In 2016, like it or not* (*are you a cop), TV is king.

But the Emmys are not. As far as awards shows go, the Oscars are still the most weighty, and the Golden Globes are still the most watchable. The Emmys? They’re … not doing great. In fact, 2015’s Emmys were the lowest-rated in the show’s history. If we’re at Peak TV, why aren’t we at Peak Emmys?

Here’s one idea: It’s always the same.

OK, that’s a little reductive. The Emmys have their share of standout moments. But all too often, in the six major categories — Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Actress and Actor in Comedy and Drama — the Emmys feel like watching someone repeat themselves, over and over. We get it: You like Modern Family. And so on.

The Oscars can play favorites, too … but you can’t win for literally the same movie in multiple years. That’s why it feels like stars — Brie Larson, Lupita Nyong’o, Mark Rylance, and onward — are “born” at the Oscars. The Emmys have tended to be more, like: “Dennis Franz is good.”

Which:

True. But still.

Granted, to say that Modern Family — or The West Wing or Bryan Cranston or whatever — is/was winning for the same material every year is not strictly true. (Each year, nominees are judged on a submitted episode from that season.) And shows and performances do “fall out of favor” with Emmys voters, all the time. But by and large: If you deem Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White Emmy-worthy, then you deem Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White Emmy-worthy. You’ve made your point. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a great point. Still — you’ve made it. You don’t need to make it twice.

So what if … you couldn’t? What if, once someone won an Emmy in a given category for a given series … they were deemed ineligible to win another Emmy for that same category for that same series? For example: Once Bryan Cranston wins an Outstanding Actor (Drama) Emmy for Breaking Bad, he can no longer receive a nomination for Outstanding Actor (Drama) for Breaking Bad. Would that make the Emmys any better? Who knows? But in the spirit of “fuck it, it’s Emmys Week,” we’re asking.

Here’s how we asked:

We took a look at the Emmy results for the “Big Six” categories from 1996 to 2015 and made the following adjustments:

1. If someone won an Emmy in a given category for a given show, then we removed them from eligibility for the remainder of their run in that category for that show.

2. If they won again: Using the remaining eligible nominees, we predicted a new winner based on our most educated guesses of the Emmys’ tendencies.

3. We then removed that new winner from eligibility for the remainder of its run (in that category for that show).

And that’s it. We just kept plugging along, retroactively applying those three rules over a 20-year period.

Here are the results:

Outstanding Comedy Series

1996: Friends
1997: The Larry Sanders Show
1998: Mad About You
1999: Ally McBeal
2000: Will & Grace
2001: Sex and the City
2002: Everybody Loves Raymond
2003: Curb Your Enthusiasm
2004: Arrested Development
2005: Desperate Housewives
2006: The Office
2007: 30 Rock
2008: Entourage
2009: Weeds
2010: Modern Family
2011: The Big Bang Theory
2012: Veep
2013: Louie
2014: Silicon Valley
2015: Parks and Recreation

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

The biggest early domino in this category is removing Frasier, which — holy shit, Emmys — won five straight times, from 1994 to 1998. The immediate “reducing Frasier to one Emmy” beneficiaries: The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You (look, this isn’t perfect), and Curb Your Enthusiasm. None of them ever won an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, and all now get their due.

From this angle, the Emmys begin to reflect a series of “moments.” For example: Desperate Housewives now wins the Emmy in 2005. Was Desperate Housewives an overlooked masterpiece? No. But it definitely had a moment. And on some level isn’t it just more fun — like: much, much more fun — to have a 2005 Emmys that reflects that moment than it is to have Everybody Loves Raymond win a second Emmy?

I used a similar logic for Entourage and Weeds, which now win Emmys in 2008 and 2009, respectively. They weren’t perfect shows, and each tapered off well into the “this is still on?” zone in their final seasons. But when we look back on 2000s comedy, Entourage and Weeds are absolutely (and influentially! Think about how many shows there are in 2016 about weed or douchebags) part of that conversation. From that perspective, I don’t mind giving them Emmys at all.

The final domino in this category is Modern Family — which won five straight Outstanding Comedy Emmys from 2010 to 2014. Fallout from capping Modern Family at one trophy includes: The Big Bang Theory, one of the highest-rated shows of the decade, getting its Emmy; Veep winning for its breakout second season; and three excellent 2010s comedies — Louie, Silicon Valley, and (in its final season) Parks and Recreation — taking their turns climbing to the top of the mountain.

Outstanding Drama Series

1996: ER
1997: Law & Order
1998: The Practice
1999: The X-Files
2000: The West Wing
2001: The Sopranos
2002: 24
2003: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
2004: Joan of Arcadia
2005: Lost
2006: House
2007: Grey’s Anatomy
2008: Mad Men
2009: Breaking Bad
2010: The Good Wife
2011: Friday Night Lights
2012: Game of Thrones
2013: House of Cards
2014: True Detective
2015: Better Call Saul

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

First things first: Not even TIME TRAVEL ITSELF could save The Wire from being snubbed. When I started this, I was all too excited to see if there was a chain reaction that would net The Wire an Outstanding Drama Emmy. But of course, I forgot: It wasn’t even nominated. Ever. And since — in the interests of being predictive and not descending into total chaos — we’re redistributing Emmys only from within the pool of already-nominated shows … well, it turns out that, one way or the other: Fate was always going to fuck The Wire.

In other news, this is a real thing that we have to do in this exercise: Cap The Practice at one Emmy. The Practice — whose premise is essentially Dylan McDermott flirting his way through the overeducated part of Boston and saying, “It’s not about the money,” a lot — won back-to-back Emmys in 1998 and 1999. Not anymore. Instead, one of The Practice’s Emmys goes to the otherwise winless X-Files, which — I have the opposite of complaints.

The second domino is getting The West Wing — great show, four straight Outstanding Drama Emmys 2000–2003, I like America and talking and walking and being, like, “the space program is about love” too but it’s TOO MUCH — out of the picture. No West Wing opens up a lane for The Sopranos to win three years earlier than it did, and for the (groundbreaking? Groundbreaking!) first season of 24 — miss you, David, miss you, Nina, miss you, Kim’s increasingly inexplicable choices, miss you, Jack — to win instead of its fifth. Elsewhere down this timeline, Joan of Arcadia (competing against itself because every other 2004 nominee is a prior winner) gaining a win might not hold up so well. But Grey’s Anatomy (13 seasons, launched Shondaland into the stratosphere) and House (his methods are unconventional, but I’m telling you — they might work) having Emmys feels right.

Paring back Mad Men to one Outstanding Drama win (instead of four straight, 2008–2011) also opens up interesting avenues: Suddenly Friday Night Lights and The Good Wife — two of the best network-drama critical successes of the last several years — are Outstanding Drama winners. Stripping Breaking Bad of one of its two Emmys lets House of Cards in for a W in 2013, which doesn’t feel great. But when the history of TV is written, the first season of House of Cards (and its role in the Netflix boom) will get a chapter.

Finally, the Mad MenBreaking Bad chain reaction ends with two more outcomes: Game of Thrones winning in 2012 instead of 2015, carving out room on the back end for wins by the first seasons of both True Detective and Better Call Saul. That works, I think: True Detective Season 1 was a big deal; Better Call Saul Season 1 was a small miracle.

Outstanding Lead Actress (Comedy)

1996: Helen Hunt, Mad About You
1997: Patricia Richardson, Home Improvement
1998: Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal
1999: Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond
2000: Debra Messing, Will & Grace
2001: Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle
2002: Jennifer Aniston, Friends
2003: Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City
2004: Bonnie Hunt, Life With Bonnie
2005: Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives
2006: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine
2007: America Ferrera, Ugly Betty
2008: Tina Fey, 30 Rock
2009: Toni Collette, United States of Tara
2010: Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
2011: Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly
2012: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
2013: Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
2014: Lena Dunham, Girls
2015: Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

Our interest in this category more or less boils down to two (benevolent) reigns of terror: Helen Hunt’s performance in Mad About You (four straight Emmys from 1996 to 1999) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance in Veep (four straight from 2012 to 2015). Among the otherwise-winless beneficiaries of bringing Hunt and Dreyfus down to an Emmy apiece: Patricia Richardson (Home Improvement), Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), Lena Dunham (Girls), and Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer).

Hunt is incredible in Mad About You, and Dreyfus gives one of my favorite performances of all time with her turn in Veep. But if it means making room for the performances above … I’m willing to make that trade.

Outstanding Lead Actor (Comedy)

1996: John Lithgow, 3rd Rock From the Sun
1997: Michael J. Fox, Spin City
1998: Paul Reiser, Mad About You
1999: Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond
2000: Eric McCormack, Will & Grace
2001: Frankie Muniz, Malcolm in the Middle
2002: Bernie Mac, The Bernie Mac Show
2003: Tony Shalhoub, Monk
2004: John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules
2005: Jason Bateman, Arrested Development
2006: Steve Carell, The Office
2007: Ricky Gervais, Extras
2008: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
2009: Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
2010: Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
2011: Louis C.K., Louie
2012: Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
2013: Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
2014: Don Cheadle, House of Lies
2015: Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

John Lithgow is great! I love John Lithgow. John Lithgow’s “known for” movies on IMDb are Interstellar, Shrek, and motherfucking Cliffhanger. John Lithgow is a proper legend. But John Lithgow does not need three Outstanding Actor Emmys in four years for 3rd Rock From the Sun. (The third rock is Earth.) And while our initial redistribution of those Emmys doesn’t lead anywhere thrilling — Michael J. Fox wins for Spin City, and Ray Romano wins for Everybody Loves Raymond — it does get there eventually. Because Fox and Romano’s fake wins here mean that we have to strip them of their actual, later wins in the category. And the chain reaction caused by stripping those wins away … well: It takes us to a very, very special place.

That place is called “Frankie Muniz winning Outstanding Actor in a Comedy at the 2001 Emmy Awards.”

We did it.

Perhaps to balance out the Triumph of Muniz, the no-repeater model also gets Emmys to previously shut-out performances by established geniuses Bernie Mac (for The Bernie Mac Show), Steve Carell (for The Office), and Larry David (for Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Outstanding Lead Actress (Drama)

1996: Gillian Anderson, X-Files
1997: Julianna Margulies, ER
1998: Christine Lahti, Chicago Hope
1999: Edie Falco, The Sopranos
2000: Sela Ward, Once & Again
2001: Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos
2002: Allison Janney, The West Wing
2003: Jennifer Garner, Alias
2004: Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
2005: Patricia Arquette, Medium
2006: Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer
2007: Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
2008: Glenn Close, Damages
2009: Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
2010: Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
2011: Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
2012: Claire Danes, Homeland
2013: Kerry Washington, Scandal
2014: Robin Wright, House of Cards
2015: Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

While the last 20 years of Outstanding Actress in a Drama haven’t featured any dominant stretches, they’ve seen a high volume of two-to-three-time winners: Edie Falco for The Sopranos (three), Allison Janney for The West Wing (two), Glenn Close for Damages (two), Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife (two), and Claire Danes for Homeland (two). That’s a lot of Emmys to redistribute.

And it opens up the floodgates. In our model, Falco gives one of her Sopranos Emmys to costar Lorraine Bracco —

— and another to Jennifer Garner for Alias. (Question: To what extent does recent human history get altered forever if Jennifer Garner wins an Outstanding Actress Emmy for Alias? Does she not date, and then marry, Ben Affleck? Does he then not start making good choices again? Does he then not direct? Does he then not spend his directing capital on playing Batman? Does he then not try to wash the taste of playing Batman down by doing a movie with Gavin O’Connor wherein he plays a randomly bulked up math savant who does freelance accounting for the mob? Would that movie, absent Affleck’s starpower, then not get green-lit? Would The Accountant then not be out October 14? Would you then not have plans on October 14? What would you do on that night instead? Would you die doing it? Is Jennifer Garner not having won an Emmy for Alias literally keeping you alive? I don’t know, just some questions I had.)

As for the rest of this redistribution: Close cedes her 2009 trophy to Elisabeth Moss (otherwise winless) for Mad Men; Margulies cedes her 2011 trophy to Connie Britton (otherwise winless) for Friday Night Lights, and her 2014 trophy to Robin Wright (otherwise winless) for House of Cards; and Danes cedes her 2013 trophy to Kerry Washington (otherwise winless) for Scandal. That’s pretty incredible, right? Four of the best lead performances of the decade, all snubbed, and all suddenly becoming Emmy winners. Out of every alternate timeline, Outstanding Actress in a Drama might be the best.

Outstanding Lead Actor (Drama)

1996: George Clooney, ER
1997: Jimmy Smits, NYPD Blue
1998: Andre Braugher, Homicide: Life on the Street
1999: James Gandolfini, The Sopranos
2000: Martin Sheen, The West Wing
2001: Andre Braugher, Gideon’s Crossing
2002: Michael Chiklis, The Shield
2003: Kiefer Sutherland, 24
2004: James Spader, The Practice
2005: James Spader, Boston Legal
2006: Denis Leary, Rescue Me
2007: Hugh Laurie, House
2008: Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
2009: Jon Hamm, Mad Men
2010: Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
2011: Timothy Olyphant, Justified
2012: Damian Lewis, Homeland
2013: Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom
2014: Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
2015: Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

Denotes that the show actually won in that year.

Let’s start with the obvious: Clooney. Like, Emmys: How’re you going to have a multiply nominated ASCENDANT CLOONEY in your midst and not throw him a trophy? Awful, awful, awful. Our model fixes that. 1996, George Clooney, ER, done and done. We can all now move on with our lives.

How did a snub like this happen? Three letters: DTF — Down To Franz. Dennis Franz won four Outstanding Actor Emmys in six years for his work as [sorry — one second]

[thank you] Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. Great Dennis Franz trivia, bad television history. We let Franz keep his 1994 Outstanding Actor Emmy, but strip him in ’96, ’97, and ’99. Clooney gets the first; Jimmy Smits (Franz’s NYPD Blue costar) gets the second; and James Gandolfini gets the third. If you have a complaint about James Gandolfini getting an Emmy for Season 1 of The Sopranos, then please send it to me by writing a letter in a Word doc, dragging the file icon of that Word doc to the “TRASH” icon at the bottom of your screen, and clicking “Empty Trash.”

The next handful of years are dominated by Gandolfini and James Spader. The no-repeater model rejects three of their wins, combined, and redistributes them across a (somewhat convoluted) chain reaction — ultimately rewarding three terrific (and otherwise shut-out) performances: Martin Sheen in The West Wing, Denis Leary in Rescue Me, and Hugh Laurie in House.

The final — and most famous — Outstanding Actor domino, of course, is Cranston. Much was made of the Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) vs. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) head-to-head Emmys battles of the 2000s — in which Cranston came out with three wins, Hamm came out with zero wins, and, umm …

Damian Lewis and Jeff Daniels each came out with one win. Our model doesn’t want any of that drama: Cranston gets his win in ’08; Hamm gets his in ’09; Kyle Chandler gets [extremely Coach Taylor pat on the back] his in ’10. And best of all, with all of those IOUs taken care of in advance, the 2010s Emmys can actually stretch their legs. Timothy Olyphant’s woefully overlooked (and, yeah, iconic) Justified performance gets its never-would-have-happened Emmy. Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) gets an Emmy, which is very cool even though it may yet happen anyway. And yeah, of course:

McConaughey gets an Emmy, too.

And isn’t this last correction — of Matthew McConaughey’s snub for True Detective — perfectly emblematic of what we lose when the Emmys award the same things over and over? Like: If you made a list, literally from scratch, of “memorable cultural touchstones from 2014–15,” Awards Show McConaughey would probably be near the top. He was one of the best parts of the Golden Globes in 2014. He was one of the best parts of the Oscars in 2014. And he was one of the best parts of the Golden Globes again in 2015.

But at the Emmys — right smack in the middle of the McConaughey awards vortex, at the peak of his “All Right, All Right, All Right” World Tour, punctuated by the three shows aforementioned — in September of ’14?

Cranston.

We got Cranston — for his FOURTH Emmy.

It’s like a great man once said:

OK, no, that’s not quite right. But with all due respect to Breaking Bad, which I loved, and Cranston’s performance in it, which I liked a lot — I think the letdown of 2014 captures the Emmys’ repetition problem in a nutshell.

The Emmys should not be about old favorites, or carried-over preferences, or well-received bodies of work. They should be about the specific years in which they’re happening. They should be about moments.

And that’s the thing about moments: They happen only once.