The Prime Time Emmy nominations will be announced tomorrow (Thursday) morning. Most of the slots are, as always, nailed down tighter than something tight, so most of the predictions involve questions like “assuming 30 Rock, The Office, Modern Family and Glee always get nominated, who gets the other two spots?”
I’m mildly surprised that most of the predictions have Big Bang Theory getting a nomination for Best Comedy; I feel like the network gave it an intense amount of promotion last year, as well as the biggest viewership numbers it’s ever had, and it didn’t get a nomination. As I understand it, the logic is that shows have to pay their dues and build an audience among voters, and last year’s Best Actor win could be the gateway to a Best Comedy nomination this year.
Similarly, there’s a perception that of NBC’s two beloved low-rated comedies, Parks & Recreation has a better shot than Community, because Parks got a Best Actress nomination last year, demonstrating that there is some industry awareness of it.
Industry awareness overlaps with critical or fan awareness. But there are differences. Emmy voters tend to be older and, more importantly, have somewhat different barometers of quality. The reason Buffy the Vampire Slayer rarely got Emmy nominations was not just that it was a teen show, or that it was a fantasy show; it was that for many voters, the things it did well were not as important as the things it didn’t do well. I recall an older writer saying it did have good dialogue, but that the plotting was ramshackle and haphazard – and that’s sort of true, albeit not very important to the show. (It would be like complaining about Moonlighting‘s terrible mystery plotting. And in fact, writers of mystery shows did complain about that, frustrated that their careful plotting got less acclaim than a show that didn’t care about well-made mysteries.)
Emmy voters don’t usually nominate shows that are plodding or completely unadventurous – they like shows that do edgy stories and morally ambiguous characters, hence all the nominations for Showtime every year. But I think they also don’t like shows that discard the rules of well-made storytelling. Nominees and especially winners are often the shows that are extremely well-structured and very literate-sounding dialogue.
In the comedy category, Modern Family had the advantage last season and will probably have it this season too: there’s nothing ramshackle about it, and every plot always seems like it’s been carefully planned from beginning to end. (Another comedy that is a dark horse, and may get a few nominations though not the big one, is Hot in Cleveland. It’s not really very good in my opinion, but it does seem to command a fair amount of industry respect, and the very tight plotting and structure is a big part of why. It’s no surprise that Modern Family and Hot In Cleveland are both from former producers of Frasier, the most tightly-structured and most Emmy-loved sitcom of the ’90s.) Shows that de-emphasize plotting, or wink at their own plots, may be doing the right thing: whether it’s Moonlighting or Buffy or Community we’re talking about shows that respect their genres up to a point, but clearly signal that the plot is not as important as the theme. The likeliest route to Emmy love is a show that places a lot of emphasis on both plot and theme; not that these shows are inherently the best, just that they make Emmy voters happy.
Side note: did you know that Murder, She Wrote got three consecutive Emmy nominations for Best Drama back in the ’80s? Okay, there was less drama competition then, but still, that’s a bit startling; I can’t imagine a show like that getting a nomination today (it wasn’t even common then, despite the age of the voters; Matlock never got nominated).