Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2014 Emmy Awards: Playing It Safe in a Groundbreaking Medium

And so, another year, another Emmys. And...nothing was surprising. Breaking Bad and Modern Family won the awards for best drama and comedy respectively, just as they had last year. The Colbert Report won best variety series, just as it had last year. The Amazing Race won best reality competition program, just as it has done for all but two years in that category's existence.

Things were equally predictable in the acting categories. Jim Parsons won his fourth Emmy in five years for his work on The Big Bang Theory, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for the third year in a row. All of the acting winners in a drama series-- Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Julianna Margulies, and Aaron Paul-- have won in this category before, as has Ty Burrell, who won Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. The only actor to have not won in this category in a previous year was Allison Janney, and she's hardly a newcomer, having won multiple Emmys in the dramatic category, and even winning two Emmys in this single year alone (she also won the award for best guest actress in a drama series for Masters of Sex).

She uses this Emmy to hold her collection of rose petals.

None of this is to say that these awards are not deserving. You better believe that I cheered loudly every time Breaking Bad won anything. But, there was just a general air of familiarity, and a lack of any real surprises. Sure, I didn't predict all of the awards correctly, but the ones that I didn't predict still seemed expected. And the second that Ty Burrell won, I knew that Modern Family would take Best Comedy, even though I had guessed it would be Orange is the New Black.

It wasn't just the awards that felt safe, the whole ceremony felt generally bland. I like Seth Meyers-- it's really hard to not at least likes Seth Meyers-- but he's not exactly exciting. He was a fine host-- typically affable, and while some jokes fell flat, some were strong and in general, his opening monologue was good. Meyers was the picture of competence. His jokes were good, and generally pleasing, and he delivered them well. And that's not a bad thing. He was an enjoyable host of an enjoyable ceremony. But, there was no punch. There was no excitement. The beauty of Ellen DeGeneres hosting this year's Oscars, for example, was that she at times felt completely unscripted. With the famous/infamous star-studded selfie, and ordering pizza for the stars, there was a refreshing air of spontaneity. When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes, he was controversial, but that's because he took risks with his jokes. He really went after the celebrities in the audience in a way that had not been done before. So did Seth MacFarlane when he hosted the Oscars, but unlike Gervais, MacFarlane was an undeniable unfunny disaster, whose insults "punched down" instead of punching up. I certainly don't want more of what MacFarlane had to offer, but surely there's a middle ground between downright offensiveness and the bland performance Meyers offered. The best and most fun moments of the ceremony clearly came from the unpredictable antics of Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Bryan Cranston.

A tuxedo! Bold choice, Meyers!

The overall blandness of the ceremony seemed especially at odds with the content that it was celebrating. It has been said repeatedly that this is a golden age of television. Meyers commented that in 1976, there were only four nominees for best drama, and all of them were cop shows. Now, we have a varied lineup of nominees--all doing something new, and all doing something interesting. This is an important step in any story-telling art form. In the nineteenth century, for example, there was a rise in theater of what are called "Well-Made Plays," which follow a very specific format. If one reads any plays from that time, you will find that they're pretty much interchangeable, with stock characters and an almost identical plot. This doesn't mean that these plays were bad. Some most definitely were, but some were able to define the format, and use the conventions to their advantage (a great example is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest). The same thing happened in film, taking a long time for filmmakers to start taking risks with the use of film. Television is starting to do the same. On the drama side of television, for example, there use to be much more of an emphasis on episodic TV show, where each episode had a standalone plot (remember, the Law & Order franchise used to be an Emmy darling), but now, the Emmys are rewarding serial dramas more and more consistently, allowing for more chances to be taken in terms of storytelling and general series tone. Such dramas would have been seen as too risky just a few years ago, but now, they are the norm when it comes to most acclaimed drama series.

There are also risks being taken on the comedy side of things, but more to do with subject matter than anything else. The idea, for example, of setting a comedy (although, again, much could be said about whether Orange is the New Black is a comedy or a drama) in a women's prison would have been unbelievable at one point. This year's best comedy series Modern Family, which has now won the award for five years in a row, initially received great praise for its diverse cast and focus on "unconventional" families. I'm all for diversity, but as the show has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that, despite its strong cast, Modern Family is pretty much just like every other sitcom. Its storylines are pretty typical and, for the most part its characters never change. The premise of the show, for those who have not seen it, follows three branches of one extended family. The antagonist, if there is one, is Jay (Ed O'Neill), whose children Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the parents in the other two families. Jay was clearly designed to be the "stick in the mud" character. He is at odds with his somewhat eccentric stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and we hear constantly about how he was not supportive of his gay son Mitchell when he was growing up. But the problem is that Modern Family strives to be pleasing. Jay can never be too much of an antagonist because the show tries to stay away from any real conflict of any kind. Jay, in fact, usually comes across as INCREDIBLY reasonable, supportive, open-minded, and level-headed-- the Jay described by his children is nothing like the one depicted to us on the show. And if he ever is at odds with Manny, he typically comes around by the end of the episode and "learns his lesson." Only to then have to learn that same lesson the very next week. Aside from the child actors who have LITERALLY grown over these five years, the characters remain pretty much in the same place they were in the pilot episode.

In short, aside from its original premise, there's no longer anything all that interesting about Modern Family. It is still a funny show-- although I have not seen any of the recent episodes, I imagine that the writing is still strong and the cast is undeniably incredible-- but, it feels like every other sitcom on the air. It's a good show, but is it the absolute best comedy on the air? In this "golden age of television?" Especially when one compares it to the truly groundbreaking Orange is the New Black, or even an unconventional show like Louie, it's pretty clear that Modern Family may be the safe choice, but I don't think anyone can actually say with certainty that it's the right one.

And so, Modern Family wins again. And while I like the show, and at one time considered myself a fan, I can't help but feel frustrated by its fifth win. Especially when a more deserving series could have easily won. Does this signal "THE END OF TELEVISION?!" Of course not. There are still some amazing and clever shows out there-- and Modern Family is one of them. And Orange is the New Black not winning best comedy does not take away from the acclaim and popularity that that series has already achieved. But the Emmys tonight served as a reminder that, even in this "golden age of television," there is still room to grow. In a few years, there will be many more series out there. And I look forward to watching both them and the more exciting awards ceremonies which will honor them.

When this baby robot grows up, it will win the 94th Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 Emmys: Award Predictions

As you probably know, this Monday is the Primetime Emmy Awards. It's a really fun ceremony and tends to be one of the more unpredictable awards shows. I've already talked about this year's Emmys, but below, here is my official rundown of all of the main categories-- including who I think will win. As always, I'm choosing what I think the winner WILL be, as opposed to who I want it to be.

And, if you want to see which shows I wish I were talking about, be sure to check out my list of shows which I wish the Emmys would have recognized. Enjoy my predictions, and be sure to share yours in the comments!

Outstanding Drama Series:
Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men
True Detective

This is a battle between the old and the new. Two series are competing for this award. One (Breaking Bad) is an acclaimed series which has finished its run, the other (True Detective) is a brand new series which arrived with a lot of fanfare. When Breaking Bad aired its final episode “Felina,” I thought it would be absolutely unbeatable, but True Detective has built up a lot of momentum. To the point that this category is no longer the certainty it once was.

That being said, I still think Breaking Bad is the favorite by a longshot. Remember, the reaction to the final season was not just “That was great!” it was “THAT WAS THE GREATEST SERIES OF ALL TIME!” And while True Detective has undoubtedly received high praise, it has not quite received that level of praise. Sure, the Breaking Bad finale was a long time ago, but it is still the most talked about show of the season. For it to not win this year seems inconceivable. True Detective has a chance, certainly, but it’s a slight one.

Any other series here could really just give up now. They’re great shows, but this is just not their year.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series:
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson—Masters of Sex
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison—Homeland
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley—Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick—The Good Wife
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope—Scandal
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood—House of Cards

This is possibly the most contested major category of the year, to the point that there really isn’t a favorite. Claire Danes has won the past few years, and could win again this year, but there’s also a lot of support for Juliana Margulies, Kerry Washington, and Robin Wright. And I really have no idea who will win—it could be any of those four. So, sorry Michelle Dockery but you’re really not in this race at all, and Lizzy Caplan, you maybe could have been a contender if the Emmy voters had responded more favorably to Masters of Sex.

Again, of the four, I really have no idea. I know a lot of people are predicting a win for Wright, but I don’t see it. The most talked about performance of the show is Kevin Spacey’s, and given that a win for him is unlikely (more on that in the next category) I don’t see Wright winning when Spacey does not. Washington definitely has a chance, but I feel like she had more buzz last year, and still did not win. This year, the buzz for Scandal had seriously diminished, so I think it’ll be between Danes and Margulies. Margulies—a former winner in this category—actually failed to get a nomination last year, and possibly only just narrowly made the nominations this year. But, now that she actually is a nominee, maybe people will start paying more attention to her performance. While it didn’t crack the Best Drama Series nominees, The Good Wife had what many consider to be its best season ever, and that might be the boost Margulies needs to dethrone Danes. Margulies is my pick, but again, any of these four could win and I wouldn’t be surprised.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series:
Bryan Cranston as Walter White—Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy—The Newsroom
Jon Hamm as Don Draper—Mad Men
Woody Harrelson as Martin Hart—True Detective
Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle—True Detective
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood—House of Cards

Oh boy, this is a tough one. Much like the Best Drama Series category, this one is going to come down to Breaking Bad and True Detective. Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White has been heralded as one of the greatest in television history, and the episode he’s nominated for (“Ozymandias”) was the absolute right choice. It seems inconceivable that they would not give him this award one last time (especially since he has not won for the past couple of years).

But, just like True Detective might have enough momentum to win Best Drama Series, we have True Detective’s star Matthew McConaughey, who is basically the human embodiment of momentum. The Emmys love when movie stars do television—especially movie stars who just won an Oscar. And while I pretty confidently believe that Breaking Bad will win best drama, I cannot stand so firmly in my convictions here. I really want to believe that it will be Cranston, but as time has gone on, McConaughey seems more and more likely. He’s my prediction to win, and I hate myself for it. I’m hoping that I’m wrong and Cranston wins the award that is rightfully his.

Or maybe they’ll just not know what to do, panic, and give it to Jeff fucking Daniels again. Even though nobody wants that.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:
Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart—The Good Wife
Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates—Downton Abbey
Anna Gunn as Skyler White—Breaking Bad
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister—Game of Thrones
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris—Mad Men
Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham—Downton Abbey

It’s an interesting lineup here. Maggie Smith and Christina Hendricks would have been contenders at one point, but have since lost a lot of buzz (I’m hoping that the outstanding Hendricks might win one day—although, she might have to wait for Mad Men’s final season of eligibility given how the Emmys have been going). There has been some buzz for Christine Baranski—another actress who has been nominated a lot but never won for her work on The Good Wife, but it seems far and away as if this award will go to Anna Gunn. What with True Detective’s rise in momentum, she is actually Breaking Bad’s most certain award of the night.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:
Jim Carter as Charles Carson—Downton Abbey
Josh Charles as Will Gardner—The Good Wife
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister—Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson—Homeland
Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman—Breaking Bad
Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan—Ray Donovan

Another contested category. It seems likely that Aaron Paul will win for his performance as Jesse Pinkman—he’s the favorite, and is my prediction. But, last year, there was a huge upset when Bobby Cannavale won, and there could be another upset here. If anyone unseats Paul, it would be either Josh Charles or Jon Voight (who keeps winning awards for his performance despite the fact that everyone’s reaction to Ray Donovan is a perfect “Meh.”) Bet on Paul to win, but an upset is not without the realm of possibility.

Outstanding Comedy Series:
The Big Bang Theory
Modern Family
Orange is the New Black
Silicon Valley

Modern Family has won this award every year it has been on the air, and as the incumbent, seems like a strong contender to win again. But, in this case, its many wins are probably the best case for why Modern Family will not win in this category again this year. It’s too stale at this point, and the Emmy voters will want to vary it up. This could be seen last year, when it failed to win the supporting actor and actress awards that it used to dominate. Now, it’s time for another comedy to be given this award.

While Louie definitely has its supporters, it’s never going to be mainstream enough to win this award. And Silicon Valley should just feel lucky to be nominated, to be honest (not speaking at all to its quality, just in terms of buzz). This leaves the Emmys with three options for what will win Best Comedy Series.

On one hand it could be The Big Bang Theory.

  • Pros: it is by far the most popular comedy out of all the nominees. Reruns of this show on TBS get better ratings than some of the other nominees. And the Emmys clearly love it, having awarded the Best Actor Emmy to Jim Parsons three thousand times.
  • Cons: If this show is declared the best comedy on television, then it will merit the death of all comedy and we will be forced to live in a humorless world where laughter is forbidden. This may seem like hyperbole. It is not. The Big Bang Theory is so jaw-droppingly not funny…I just…I just don’t get it. This show’s popularity makes me cry if I think about it too much. It just can’t win. It just can’t. Please. Please do not let this show win. If it wins, I might have to stop watching television.

So, hopefully it won’t be that show. Perhaps it will be Veep.

  • Pros: The show is already an Emmy darling, wining multiple awards and featuring a fantastic cast, fantastic writing, and all-around universal acclaim. It’s probably the safest choice of the nominees.
  • Cons: It has been around too long. For a show to be rewarded by the Emmys, it needs to either be new, or something has to have happened to change its status. For example, The Office unseated Everybody Loves Raymond for Outstanding Comedy series in 2006 for its second season (also known as the first season that it was good because the first season doesn’t count). It was then unseated by 30 Rock, which won for its first season and then continued to win for three years, until it was unseated by Modern Family for its first season. If Veep had an exceptionally remarkable season, then maybe it would have more of a chance, but it didn’t. This previous season was, generally, just as good as its previous ones. So, there’s nothing to distinguish this particular season enough to allow it to defeat Modern Family.

Which means that the most likely winner in this category, and my prediction for the win, is Orange is the New Black.

  • Pros: It’s a new show. It’s an acclaimed new show. It’s a groundbreaking acclaimed new show. It’s a groundbreaking acclaimed new show that has already picked up a few Emmys at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. It will almost definitely win this award on Monday.
  • Cons: If anything is working against Orange is the New Black, it’s the fact that it’s just not that funny. Granted, some scenes are laugh out loud hilarious, but if you were to consider this series as a whole, it’s tough to classify it as a comedy as opposed to a drama. The other nominees are more easily defined as comedies (with the exception of The Big Bang Theory which can only be defined as a Kafkaesque torture device created as part of some sort of social experiment to see if people can be convinced something is funny just because there’s a laugh track). But, while it may not be definitively a comedy, Orange is the New Black is 100% a great show. It has the best chance of winning, and it will absolutely deserve it.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series:
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath—Girls
Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton—Nurse Jackie
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer—Veep
Melissa McCarthy as Molly Flynn—Mike & Molly
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope—Parks and Recreation
Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman—Orange is the New Black

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won this award for the past two years, and many seem to think she’s going to win a third time. It could definitely happen. However, the Emmy voters are usually very inconsistent in this category in particular. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the first consecutive winner in this category since Patricia Heaton won in 2000 and 2001, which means there were ten whole years without a single repeat winner. Louis-Dreyfus is the frontrunner, but I think it’s likely she might be dethroned. The question is, by who?

The likeliest actresses to take this award from Louis-Dreyfus are Amy Poehler and Taylor Schilling. This is Poehler’s fifth nomination and she still has not won, despite near-universal acclaim for her performance. Fresh off of a Golden Globe win (unbelievably, the first major acting award she has won in her career), this might be Poehler’s year to finally get her due. Schilling’s chances have less to do with her performance, and more to do with the show as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I like Schilling, and I think she does great work on Orange is the New Black, but I don’t think anyone would consider her performance to be the standout within that cast. Unlike Poehler and Louis-Dreyfus, the show doesn’t hinge on her performance. It all depends on how Emmy voters react to the series—if they decide to show universal love to Orange is the New Black, then Schilling will undoubtedly benefit from it. Even though her performance is far from the most comedic on this list.

Eie Falco has had her day in the sun and an Emmy win for her seems incredibly unlikely, but the Emmys do love her and she should never be counted out. Melissa McCarthy, however, can be counted out—she no longer has the Oscar-nominee buzz that she had when she won previously. At one point, I would have thought that Lena Dunham would be a strong contender here. I am not a fan of her or of her show, but the show is undeniably hers, and she certainly has the acclaim to pull off a win. But, the fact that Girls failed to crack the Best Comedy category (surprisingly losing its spot to fellow HBO show Silicon Valley) shows that The Emmys are not as nuts about Girls as, for example, the Golden Globes. The show’s lack of a nomination leaves Dunham all but out of the running.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series:
Louis C.K. as Louie—Louie
Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan—House of Lies
Ricky Gervais as Derek Noakes—Derek
Matt LeBlanc as himself—Episodes
William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher—Shameless
Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper—The Big Bang Theory

Words cannot express how much I do not want Jim Parsons to win this award. It’s nothing against him personally—in fact, I think he’s a wonderful actor and I look forward to seeing him in other projects—but The Big Bang Theory is just not a good show, and it frustrates me that he has won so many times for it when there are so many better shows which could be rewarded. But, the sad thing is, I don’t see any of the other nominees here being able to unseat him. If you look at the nominees, you’ll notice that only Parsons and Louis C.K. are on shows which are nominated in the other major categories. And that is a big boost for both of them. As wonderful as Don Cheadle is, Emmy voters are not going to rally behind House of Lies, and it’s going to make it tough for him to win such a major award. Same goes for Matt LeBlanc, and DEFINITELY goes for Ricky Gervais, who managed to get nominated for Derek purely because the Emmys will nominate him for anything.

William H. Macy is a bit of a wildcard—up until this year, Shameless was entered as a drama, and Macy failed to get nominated there. Switching categories helped him gain a nomination, will it help him get a win? Possibly, but not probably. The best hope to defeat Parsons is Louis C.K. Many have called for C.K. to win, but the truth is that he’s not much of an actor. He’s a wonderful comedian, but the strength of Louie is in its writing, directing, and C.K.’s overall artistic vision. He would be the first to admit that he’s not much of an actor (and, in fact, there’s an episode of Louie where he talks about his poor acting skills). He’s certainly competent, but he’s not really Best Actor quality. He could win just because The Emmys love Louie. But, let’s be honest. It’s going to be Jim Parsons. Again.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:
Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler—The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy—Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer—Veep
Allison Janney as Bonnie Plunkett—Mom
Kate McKinnon as various characters—Saturday Night Live
Kate Mulgrew as Galina “Red” Reznikov—Orange is the New Black

This is an especially tough category, as last year’s winner Merritt Wever is not even nominated. While it is great to see Kate McKinnon nominated, she’s not going to win. Things don’t look great for Julie Bowen either. She’s the only person who has won this award before (although Allison Janney has approximately five thousand Emmys in other categories) but, as I’ve already mentioned, the Emmys’ adoration of Modern Family has cooled considerably, and her chances of winning seem low. Repeat nominees Mayim Bialik and Anna Chlumsky definitely have a chance here, but they’re not the frontrunners.

This award will either go to Janney or Kate Mulgrew, and there are points to be made for both of them. Most people are saying this award will go to Janney. She certainly is a great actress (probably because of the training she received in college. Whatever college she attended must be super great and any actors who graduate from there must be really, really talented) and has won a ton of Emmys in the past. In fact, she has already won an Emmy this year, being awarded the Emmy for Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series for Masters of Sex. If she wins this year, it’ll be a two-Emmy year for Janney. The only thing working against her is the fact that Mom didn’t do that well in the nominations, and so the votes she receives are going to be coming from people who don’t necessarily love the show that she’s on. Conversely, she’s going up against Mulgrew, who is on the show that will probably win Best Comedy (and who, surprisingly, is the only cast member from that show to be in this category). Mulgrew is exceptional on Orange is the New Black, delivering a career-reviving performance and has plenty of opportunities to show off both her comedic and dramatic chops. To me, she seems like the natural favorite to win here, but most other oddsmakers are predicting that Janney will win it. Maybe they know something I don’t know. I’m going to go ahead and predict that Janney will win. But if Mulgrew wins, then I’ll go ahead and say “I knew it!” anyway.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:
Fred Armisen as various characters—Portlandia
Andre Braugher as Raymond Holt—Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy—Modern Family
Adam Driver as Adam Sackler—Girls
Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell Pritchett—Modern Family
Tony Hale as Gary Walsh—Veep

Much like with the supporting actress in a comedy series category, it’s a two-horse race. After Tony Hale won last year, the Modern Family actors lost all of the momentum they had built up, and it seems unlikely that either Ty Burrell or Jesse Tyler Ferguson will  be able to pull off a win (although, Ferguson definitely has his fans, considering he has yet to win in this category). Another longshot is Adam Driver of Girls, and even more of a longshot is Fred Armisen, as sketch comedy actors rarely actually win the award.

This leaves last year’s winner, Hale, and newcomer Andre Braugher. Both are wonderful, and I’ve seen other commentators be totally split on who will win—it seems like it’s a 50/50 shot here. Personally, I think it would be exciting if Braugher won here, and Janney won in the Supporting Actress category—as the winners would be two veterans who are the only nominees for their new series. And it would be great for Braugher to win because it would give more attention to the wonderful and fun Brooklyn Nine Nine. Hale has a definite shot at a repeat win, but I’m giving a slight edge to Braugher.

Anyway, those are my predictions. We could see a total sweep in both the drama and comedy categories, depending on how well Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black do. We’ll find out soon. Be sure to watch the Emmys on Monday! Oh, and while I usually don’t know much about the miniseries categories, bet on The Normal Heart to do really well. It’s definitely going to dominate.