The glass half-empty view of the 2011 Emmy nominations (the full list is here): NBC’s ridiculous “Harry’s Law” now has as many nominations as “The Wire” ever got, and AMC’s maddening “The Killing” now has three times as many nominations as “The Wire” ever got, while NBC’s audacious, hilarious “Community” didn’t get a single nomination for the second year in a row.
The glass half-full view of the 2011 Emmy nominations: “Friday Night Lights” and “Parks and Recreation” (aka the best drama and comedy on network TV) were nominated for best drama and comedy, all the “Justified” castmembers who should have been nominated were (even though FX has an uneven track record with the Emmys), and Louis C.K. somehow got nominated for acting, writing and editing (albeit not all for the same show).
In other words, the Emmy voters are always going to do annoying things – especially in the nominating process, which leads to complacent thinking because no one has to have watched anything – but if you go into things prepared to grit your teeth, this year’s Emmy nominations had more things to be pleasantly surprised about than things to incite a fist shake at the heavens.
I was prepared for “Parks and Rec” to again only get a nomination for Amy Poehler, which last year seemed more about the Emmy voters being familiar with her name than about them being aware her show is fantastic. But it got a nod for comedy series, as voters in that category chose to ignore all the Showtime half-hour dramas that are somehow eligible (“Nurse Jackie,” “The Big C,” “Weeds,” “United States of Tara”) in favor of six network comedies in “Parks and Rec,” “The Office,” “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “30 Rock” and fellow newcomer “The Big Bang Theory.”
Emmy voters obviously like several of those shows more than I do (and nominating all four “Modern Family” men for supporting actor left no room for Nick Offerman from “Parks and Rec” as TV’s funniest character, Ron Swanson), and I’d have rather seen “Community,” “Cougar Town” (also completely snubbed) and “Louie” in there. But “Modern Family” is the reigning winner, “Glee” and “Big Bang” are also big hits, and it becomes hard for more obscure shows to sneak past the shiny and/or successful ones. That “Parks and Rec” made the category at all is a tremendous triumph. (And I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment in thinking that when voters get to see the submitted episodes, it might have a chance at winning.)
Things were even less egregious on the drama series side of things, where “Friday Night Lights” – only one of the best dramas of the last decade – finally cracked the list in its final season, along with frontrunner “Mad Men” (coming off one of its best seasons), HBO’s outstanding freshmen “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” (the latter overcoming the Emmys’ historically ambivalent relationship with fantasy/sci-fi, where FOX’s “Fringe” couldn’t) and CBS’ excellent “The Good Wife.” The left only Showtime’s going-through-the-motions “Dexter” as the lone lazy nominee, when “Justified” (among many, many others) had a far better season.
But the acting branch of the Academy recognized character actress Margo Martindale for giving one of the year’s most incredible performances on that show, along with Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins (who was never nominated for “The Shield”) and Jeremy Davies.
In terms of outrage, you have to set some kind of “Emmys being Emmys” bar, where anything below it is annoying but just business as usual, while things above it are worth getting worked up about if you care about TV.
So, for instance, Kathy Bates getting a nomination for “Harry’s Law” is Emmys-being-Emmys: she’s an Oscar winner and people in TV have inferiority complexes towards those who had success in movies, Emmy voters love the stars of David E. Kelley shows, etc. That “The Killing” got so many nominations is amusing in light of how angry we all got about the finale, but individually, none of them are outrageous. Mireille Enos and Michelle Forbes both gave very strong performances, Patty Jenkins directed the hell out of the pilot episode, and though creator Veena Sud did a lot of silly and/or obnoxious things later, her pilot script was fine. (It wasn’t one of the six best drama episode scripts of the season, but whatever.) That Matt LeBlanc was nominated for playing himself in Showtime’s grating “Episodes” isn’t a shock, either: not only was he the one redeeming part of that show, but he was a three-time nominee for “Friends,” and people who work in showbiz love series that make fun of showbiz. (And at least HBO’s flabby, smug “Entourage” wasn’t nominated for anything this year.)
In fact, one of the few nominations that outright baffled me was Johnny Galecki joining “Big Bang” co-star (and reigning winner) Jim Parsons in the comedy lead actor category. There were a few open spots, given that last year’s nominees Larry David and Tony Shalhoub weren’t eligible, and this was the year that everyone realized how little Matthew Morrison’s Mr. Schue adds to “Glee.” And into those spots went C.K. (who’s essentially a one-man show on FX’s dazzling “Louie”), LeBlanc, and the guy who began “Big Bang Theory” as an obvious co-lead with Parsons and has been gradually pushed to the side as the writers have struggled to find funny things to do with his character. If Emmy voters were aware “Community” existed, this would have been a fine year to nominate Joel McHale, to name one of several other worthy contenders.
Overall, though, the good far outweighed the bad this year. There will always be bad when you have this many shows, often being voted on by people who have neither the time nor interest in watching a lot of TV until they get the submission episodes for the nominees, and who have their own biases just as much as I do. But I look at “Parks and Rec,” at “Friday Night Lights” and Margo Martindale and Louis C.K. – and I have pie-in-the-sky fantasies about some of the less-famous nominees walking up to the stage – and I’m mostly content with how these nominations turned out, especially given how angry some past lists have made me.
Some other Emmy thoughts:
• Usually the Emmys are a bit like the Mafia, in that when you’re in, you’re in for the life of your show – especially if you’re a past winner. But Kyra Sedgwick went from winner last year to non-nominee this year, and former winner Toni Collette was left off the ballot for the final “United States of Tara” season in favor of the stars of some of Showtime’s other series. And though he hasn’t won yet for “How I Met Your Mother,” Neil Patrick Harris has been repeatedly nominated for that role (and won last year for guest starring on “Glee”), but was pushed out by all the “Modern Family” guys.
• Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men” wisely moved herself up into the drama lead actress category this year after she had her most prominent season yet, and was rewarded with another nomination. Meanwhile, her co-star January Jones stayed in the lead category even though she was marginalized, and got ignored (as did Rob Lowe from “Parks and Rec,” who always submits himself as a lead, even though he never is). With Moss and Jon Hamm having the year’s best submission episode in “The Suitcase,” with Christina Hendricks and John Slattery being worthy supporting nominees, and with all the “Breaking Bad” actors ineligible this year, there’s a chance “Mad Men” could sweep all the acting awards in addition to its inevitable wins for drama series and drama writing. On the other hand, no actor on the show has yet won, so we could see “The Good Wife” dominate or something.
• One good thing about Galecki’s weird nomination is that it may lead to a bit of vote-splitting with Parsons, and anything that makes the field easier for Steve Carell to get a long-deserved win in his last year on “The Office” is a good thing. (Though I still suspect Alec Baldwin will win for the “30 Rock” 100th episode, which was both longer than Carell’s farewell episode and had him playing multiple characters. With Emmy voters, more is almost always better.)
• The other nominees for drama direction will just be getting dressed up for the chance to lose to Martin Scorsese for the “Boardwalk Empire” pilot. Still, it’s a bit surprising that his fellow movie director Frank Darabont wasn’t nominated for “The Walking Dead” pilot. (In terms of AMC series that had strong pilots and then creative problems later, “The Walking Dead” premiere was much better than “The Killing” premiere.)
• Like “Community,” Cougar Town” and HBO’s “Treme,” FX’s canceled “Terriers” had no realistic shot at nominations (no one watched, it was on a network with a mixed Emmy track record, in a genre that’s not awards-baiting), but I have to mention it one more time, nonetheless.
• TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” which currently sits precariously on the edge between renewal and cancellation, probably could have used more nominations than Andre Braugher repeating as drama supporting actor. But better than nothing.
• A year later than they should have, Emmy voters nominated ESPN’s outstanding “30 for 30” documentary series for Outstanding Nonfiction Series.
(UPDATE: Adding a few more thoughts as they occur to me.)
• Again, FX has mixed Emmy success, and before the “Louie” noms, virtually no history of comedy nominations, so I shouldn’t be surprised that “Archer” wasn’t nominated for animated series. Still, it should’ve been. (As should H. Jon Benjamin’s other show, FOX’s “Bob’s Burgers.”)
• The whole “submit where you want” philosophy can be amusing but also weird. Martindale and Davies were roughly equivalent in terms of presence, billing, etc. on “Justified,” but Martindale is up for supporting actress, while Davies is up for guest actor. Meanwhile, the movies/miniseries categories are filled up with nominations for British shows that are actually ongoing series (“Downton Abbey,” “Luther,” “Sherlock”). Silliness.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com