not in our stars, but in ourselves
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I didn’t watch the Emmys last night, because there’s literally nothing that happens during the entire bloated mess that I can’t just catch up on the next morning – usually in .gif and/or hot-take form. This morning, therefore, I was glad to see that Jon Hamm finally won for Mad Men; and glad to see that Viola Davis won for a leading role on a show that seems like (enjoyable) trash, but that owes almost all of its appeal to her performance; and I guess glad to see that there weren’t too many cringe-inducing moments.
Except, like, the Drama categories.
I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get back on this particular warpath for another few months, but fuck it: Game of Thrones for Best Drama? After its worst season? Game of Thrones for Best Directing and Best Writing? Really?! The Best Drama category included Mad Men and Orange is the New Black. This category did not (UGH) include Hannibal. My boyfriend is upset that the category didn’t include The Americans, which I really need to get around to seeing. The Best Directing category included Steven Fucking Soderbergh for The Knick, which was the best thing on TV last fall. The Best Writing category included several Mad Men episodes, an episode of The Americans, and an episode of Better Call Saul – which, again, I’m a loser and haven’t seen, but hear is terrific. Anyway, the point is: there has been a hell of a lot of great drama on TV, drama that deserves all kinds of awards and accolades, and instead…they gave the Emmy to a fucking hack job of a season? Why was THIS the time to reward the fantasy genre? I don’t want it to be shut out of serious consideration in the future, but I don’t believe for a minute that this show, this year, was the right one to be anointed as The Best. With all the disgusting, unnecessary rape? With the hamfisted dialogue? With the continued assassination of everything that made every female character cool and interesting and “strong” in the books?
Here’s the thing, as far as I can tell: the Emmys are tied inextricably to network TV. Network TV is a dying empire, and it’s well aware. Like network TV, the Emmys are out of date except for the occasional, token nod to the twenty-first century. Do you think the Emmys spoiled all those season finales by accident? No, they wanted to take a cheap shot at the superior offerings on cable and streaming platforms, so that people (like me) who are slow to catch up (but would like to see what everyone’s buzzing about without knowing every plot twist ahead of time) would perhaps say “fuck it” and just settle in for whatever ridiculous pap the networks have on air this fall.
Network TV is seldom brave, or bold, or interesting – especially not since they canceled Hannibal. (I will never let that go, NBC. You are to me as Alana Bloom is to Hannibal Lecter at this point.) Fox did well with Empire, so I hear, but that’s the exception that proves the rule: a vibrant, giddily sudsy family drama with – shock! – a hugely talented, all-black cast was inherently more likely to gather attention and viewers. When it turned out that it was good TV on top of its novel premise: boom! Ratings gold. Because of that, Empire will be rewarded with another season, at least, and perhaps some awards of its own in the future – but make no mistake, it’s not because Fox wanted to commit to the show on its artistic merits. The show made Fox buckets of money, despite Fox dumping it onto its schedule in January, obviously not believing it would do much.
This is the worst fall season in modern television history, and I don’t believe it’s close. After a riveting summer of breathtaking innovation and deep-seated pleasure, the four broadcast networks — that’s ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox for those from other planets and/or under the age of 25 — approach our couches not as swaggering colossi back to reclaim their rightful place in the culture but rather as broken, humbled giants. Long gone are the days of zeitgeist-straddling immortality: Prime-time ratings fell 16 percent from 2014 to 2015. But gone, too, are the days when these four dinosaurs were either too arrogant or too foolish to know the entire world had changed around them. (I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but historians might point to an early 2000s asteroid that was delivered in a bright red envelope.) Now they know their time is up — or at least diminished. And that depressing realization has seeped into every decision on display this fall.
This is my fifth autumn on the TV beat, and in previous years, even as cable demanded more and more of my attention and respect, I was always struck by the wild swings, the spectacular hits, and the far more common spectacular misses of the Big Four. There was something noble and, occasionally, inspiring about the way in which they strove to stave off extinction or, worse, irrelevance. Sometimes their attempts were legitimately impressive; other times they were horrific. Some even involved actual dinosaurs. But even amid inevitable carnage, every fall carried with it a flicker of passion, a resilient, dark-denying spark that said “I am alive!” Or at least, “I am worth loathing!”
No kidding. Even though network TV is dying, it’s still the Roman Empire; it still commands more respect than it truly warrants at this point in television history; and it still dictates – through its awards and favors and control of the “news” media – what we humble viewers consider good and worthy of our time. I don’t think they’ll be able to fool all the people all the time with the dreck they’ve scraped up for this season, but I think that they’re run by the same people who look at utter shit like Modern Family (during Emmys past) and Game of Thrones and think, “Ah, yes, this is what the people will like!” They’re absolutely immune to quality. They have a tin ear for the music that is good TV. If they occasionally make a right decision, you can bet that it was accidental or politically motivated.
Call me cynical; I don’t care. I am terribly tired of seeing mediocrity rewarded so often.
EDITED TO ADD: Greenwald just put this up on Grantland. He’s much more measured and better-informed than I am, and super sharp. Read it.