It should be easy to feel sympathy for Emmy voters in 2014. There is more good television now than ever before, available in more places (including non-traditional streaming video outfits like Netflix and Amazon) than ever before. There is abundant category confusion, where a show like “Shameless” can jump from drama to comedy after presenting its bleakest season ever, where “True Detective” can be considered as a drama series while “American Horror Story” is a miniseries even though the two shows have the same basic structure, where the fourth season of “Tremé” has to be considered a miniseries because it didn’t produce enough episodes to qualify elsewhere, where voters are asked to consider what Jim Parsons does on “Big Bang Theory” in the same context of what Louis C.K. does as an actor on “Louie.”
It is an impossible job, really. Even TV critics whose sole job is to watch this stuff don’t have time to remotely see all of it, and we’re just as confused as everyone else by this blurring of genre and format lines. Even in the quaint old days when the broadcast networks and maybe HBO were the only game in town, Emmy voters didn’t have much time to actually watch television; how can they be expected to do it right now?
Yet even factoring in the enormous degree of difficulty, the 2014 Emmy nominations list is remarkably frustrating.
Obviously, it’s impossible to recognize every great show, performance, script, etc., from this golden glut of television. Some excellent work was always going to be ignored in the nomination phase, and come August 25 – when the epic final “Breaking Bad” season will likely be dueling with “True Detective” in many drama categories, and “Veep” and “Orange Is the New Black” in many comedy ones – a lot of the nomination mistakes will feel moot. But it’s the ways in which those mistakes were made that’s so aggravating.
Consider some of these situations:
* “The Americans” has given us perhaps the best drama season of this calendar year (though Emmy eligibility stretches back to last summer), yet it got only a single nomination, for Margo Martindale’s guest work. (She won an Emmy a few years back for “Justified,” and the easiest way to be nominated for an Emmy is to have already been nominated for one.) Not nominated for drama series, not for Matthew Rhys’ searing work, not for Keri Russell’s, just the one nomination.
* The most recent seasons of “The Good Wife” and “Hannibal” brilliantly refuted the notion that the only great dramatic TV work is happening on cable; the latter was ignored altogether, while the former received several acting nominations but nothing for drama series.
* On BBC America’s “Orphan Black,” Tatiana Maslany plays a half-dozen different roles, all of them wonderfully (well, we can quibble with the transgender clone, but I blame that more on the hair than the performance), but hasn’t been nominated two years in a row because she’s not a big-name actress (strike one), because her show is science fiction (strike two) and because it airs on a channel Emmy voters only ever notice in the movies and miniseries categories (strike three, you’re out until you’ve starred in a few movies and jumped to a new project on Showtime).
* “Ozymandias,” the greatest “Breaking Bad” episode ever and one of the single best hours of dramatic television ever produced, was deservedly nominated for Moira Walley-Beckett’s script, but not for Rian Johnson’s equally-brilliant direction. And despite his incredible work in the final batch of episodes, Dean Norris wasn’t nominated alongside many of his co-stars.
* Even so minor a category as stunt coordination somehow managed to omit the two dramas that are by far the best at it in “Strike Back” and “Arrow.”
Meanwhile, the terrible second season of “House of Cards” got thirteen nominations, a season of “Downton Abbey” that not even the show’s more vocal fans showed much enthusiasm for got a dozen. In many cases, those shows – not to mention other Emmy fuzzy yellow blankies like Jeff Daniels from “The Newsroom” – took spots away from potential nominees like those above, or Jeffrey Wright from “Boardwalk Empire,” Michael Sheen from “Masters of Sex” and so many more.
I should be thrilled this morning. The Emmy voters welcomed in a lot of new shows, and even some unfamiliar faces. “Orange Is the New Black” got a dozen nominations, including guest acting nominations(*) for the previously-unknown Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba. FX’s terrific “Fargo” got 18 nominations, not just for movie stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, but for the show’s once-obscure heroine Allison Tolman. It was nice to see recognition for HBO’s “Silicon Valley” (which bumped “Girls” out of the comedy series category), even if it would have also been nice to see “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” get recognition beyond Andre Braugher and the show’s stunt coordinator. And HBO’s decision to submit “True Detective” as a drama didn’t exactly hurt “Game of Thrones,” which led all series with 19 nominations and was able to get both Lena Headey and Diana Rigg nominated in addition to Peter Dinklage’s usual selection from the cast.
(*) The ability for some people who are essentially series regulars to submit in the guest category has always been a convenient Emmy loophole, but never more obvious than this year, with multiple “Orange” women, plus Robert Morse from “Mad Men” (whose name was in the opening credits) and prominent semi-regulars like Beau Bridges on “Masters of Sex” and Joe Morton on “Scandal” all getting nominations that way.
But even though there were many satisfying nominations, and even though I expect many of the winners to be the right ones – then again, consider Jeff Daniels’ win a year ago – the snubs rankle more this year than recently, because there are so many potentially great choices and the voters still made so many bad and/or lazy ones. If Norris got nominated and not Wright (or vice versa), or if Rhys had been edged out by Michael Sheen or Mads Mikkelsen, I would be disappointed, but I would recognize the impossible task at hand. But when Norris and Wright aren’t there because of Jim Carter (who had very little to do this year on “Downton”), or Rhys and Sheen aren’t there because of Daniels (not doing much to salvage a terribly-written character) and Spacey (coasting more often than not on a smirk and a bad South Carolina drawl), then it just feels like the voters aren’t trying hard enough. Ditto when “The Americans” can’t get anything but the most cursory, easy nomination. And when Rian Johnson can’t get nominated for an episode that is going to be analyzed in college classrooms for the next 50 years, then… I give up.
The system is broken. The categories don’t make sense any more (and the ridiculous “Shamless” switch to comedy only paid off with William H. Macy being nominated, but not Emmy Rossum), and there’s more television to watch then a voter – or, really, any human – has time for. Maybe come August, when I expect to be seeing Vince Gilligan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, one of Bryan Cranston or Matthew McConaughey, and some other deserving winners walking to the podium, today’s irritation will fade somewhat. But even in a year when the voters got so many things right, the many things that are wrong, or just illogical, stand out all the more.
What does everybody else think? Did you see more good than bad in the nominees? Is there a particular nod that made you happy? Snub that made you upset?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org