The Emmys have recently been dominated by two shows, 30 Rock and Mad Men, and tonight’s the night when we see if those two winning streaks will come to an end. 30 Rock seems likely to lose the award for Best Comedy Series, unless Glee and Modern Family split the Big New Thing vote between them and allow the old favourite to sneak through. (Despite my belief that Glee is not a comedy, I enjoy watching it more than Modern Family so I’m probably leaning toward rooting for that, if tepidly.) I don’t know about Mad Men, though; though I would rather see Breaking Bad or some other show win the Best Drama award, the appeal of Mad Men to Emmy voters is probably too great to give anything else a chance. Mad Men and 30 Rock happen to be perfectly positioned for Emmy glory, since they appeal to all ages and demographics — not among general audiences, who don’t watch much of either show, but among Academy members. Young ‘uns like them because they’re hip and edgy; old ‘uns like them because of the old-school factor on the one hand (30 Rock is a very old-fashioned comedy in many ways, and people like Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels are respected as having paid their dues in the business) and the nostalgia factor on the other.
But neither of those Emmy winning streaks can be considered real candidates for most undeserved (if 30 Rock wins for the fourth time in a row tonight, it’ll qualify). It’s hard to say what makes an undeserved Emmy streak, but I’d say it happens when a show or actor wins many times, sometimes for work that is less than its best, while taking Emmys away from equally or more deserving nominees. A really classic modern example of the undeserved streak is Frasier winning best comedy for every one of its first five seasons. Was Frasier a great show in its first five seasons? Yes. Did it deserve to get everything while Seinfeld never got an award again (its only Best Comedy Emmy was before Frasier existed) and Larry Sanders never got anything? In my opinion, no. By handing out so many Emmys to one show, the Academy seemed to be suffering from inertia, as well as making a great age of TV comedy look like it was mostly about one show.
But at least Frasier stopped getting the Emmys once its quality went downhill (in its sixth season). And in some ways, its domination of the award wasn’t quite as unfair as L.A. Law‘s domination in the late ’80s and early ’90s; as part of the stranglehold Stephen Bochco used to have on the award, it kept beating out the many other more experimental, formally innovative dramas in one of the most experimental eras of U.S. network TV drama. (By the ’90s, everybody was back to doing cop, lawyer and doctor shows with a little sci-fi thrown in, and that’s remained largely true of the broadcast networks ever since, though luckily cable has come along to fill in most of the gaps.)
And speaking of strangleholds, the almost complete lock of Candice Bergen and Helen Hunt on the best actress in a Comedy award seems a little problematic now, though there’s been a built-in problem with the award and its best actor in a Comedy cousin: professional comedians, or people without a film pedigree, have a tough time getting respect from the Emmys for a comedy. At least Roseanne managed to get one Emmy; many comics, male and female, either never won or, as with Bill Cosby, couldn’t even get nominated. (Update/correction: As noted in comments, Bill Cosby did not submit himself for Emmy consideration. Luckily the point about comedians’ difficulties winning an Emmy still stands up without that example.) The assumption is always that people like Garry Shandling or Bob Newhart aren’t really acting because they’re just playing themselves, but of course they’re not really playing themselves, and even if they are, they can still act more convincingly than Candice Bergen.
Some awards have managed to avoid inertia, like the award for Best Actor in a Drama — there’s been quite a bit of variety in who gets the awards, though it does seem like there was a bit more variety in the ’70s and ’80s than there is now. An actor from an action show like Tom Selleck from Magnum P.I., or an actor from a light comic mystery like Bruce Willis from Moonlighting – to name two ’80s winners — wouldn’t stand much of a chance now unless he submitted himself in the comedy category like Shalhoub does. (The award for lead actress in a drama had less variety — Cagney and Lacey pretty much owned it for years — but that’s a truthful reflection of the fact that there were many fewer good roles for women on U.S. TV.) Still, James Spader winning three awards in four years has to be considered one of the more egregious streaks in the award’s history, because a) he took it away from guys like Hugh Laurie and Ian McShane, and b) it’s James Spader and his voice gets on me nerves.
Update: Tonight’s Emmys reminded me of one more: The Amazing Race has dominated the Emmys to an extent that’s kind of ridiculous, even for a show that’s generally considered the best of its type. It was good to see Top Chef break the streak tonight, just on the general principle that it’s time to let another good show have a turn.