It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Emmy Awards are no barometer of the best in television. Notoriously slow to react to changes and famously devoted to the same shows and actors, year after year, the Emmys usually give new and emphatic meaning to the word "stagnant."
The 2015 Emmy Award nominations, announced Thursday, are, at first glance, shockingly up-to-date. Transparent, a series that streamed only on Amazon Prime in the United States, got multiple nominations. Even Canadian Tatiana Maslany, long ignored, got a nomination for Orphan Black.
And yet, if you were to use the Emmy nominations as a gauge, you'd be obliged to take the view that that serious-minded TV is best ignored. It's not up to scratch. As so often the Emmy Award voters are seduced by spectacle, not substance.
Game of Thrones netted 24 nominations. Possibly, on that basis, it will sweep the Emmys when the winners are announced in September. That would be farcical. Game of Thrones has great merit in the skill of its production and the sprawl of the narrative. But it is silliness itself in the context of the best of serious TV.
Rectify, which is available on Netflix in Canada, is a series of greater ambition and artistic audacity, on a much smaller scale. When honoured by a Peabody Award, it was summarized thus: A powerful, subtle, dramatic series about a death-row inmate freed after nearly two decades thanks to new DNA evidence, it ponders whether what's been lost can ever be repaid, not just to him but to everyone he and his alleged crimes touched.
The spectacle in Rectify is the penetrating examination of issues of guilt. It asks what is, in the U.S. context, a disturbing question – what if there is no chance of being reborn and experiencing rebirth? While formidably good and memorable entertainment, Rectify isn't Emmy-worthy.
Much the same applies to the larger-purpose bleakness that is HBO's The Leftovers. (It returns for a second season in September, but you can find it on-demand on this or any other weekend.)
Set after a rapture-like calamity sweeps away part of the world's population, The Leftovers is fiercely committed to depicting grief. The crazed reaction to the calamity, as seen on the series, would make you weep for Western civilization, in both sympathy and despair. Again, not Emmy-worthy.
It could be said that like the Academy Awards, the Emmys suffer from the influence of older voters who fail to keep up. This year, there were rumours many old Emmy voters had trouble figuring out how to stream some nominated shows. But it boils down to this – spectacle and fad will always trump mature drama and seriousness.
Over all, HBO leads the nomination pack with 126 nominations. Netflix has 34, AMC has 24, FX has 38, Showtime has 18 and, amazingly, Amazon has 12 nominations.
In terms of single series or movies getting multiple nominations, coming after Game of Thrones, it's FX's American Horror Story with 19 nominations, HBO's lovely Olive Kitteridge has 13, the HBO movie Bessie (about blues singer Bessie Smith) has 12 and AMC's Mad Men, Amazon's Transparent and Netflix's House of Cards have 11 each
In the prestige Outstanding Drama Series category, it's Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, Mad Men and Orange Is the New Black.
Putting Downton in the category is ludicrous. It's as cheesy as all get-out and nominated because it's English cheese. House of Cards doesn't belong, either. Nice to see Better Call Saul get recognition. It was a slow-burner that became truly great in late episodes and broke away from what spawned it, Breaking Bad. Still, a stunning snub was given to FX's The Americans, a series of great nuance and psychological depth, which was essentially shut out.
Given that this will be the last year to honour Mad Men, the series is very likely to win. And that's fine – a fitting endorsement of its stunning, sustained quality through its entire history, right up to the unforgettable finale.
In the category that at last honours Maslany, Lead Actress in a Drama, the other nominees are Claire Danes for Homeland, Viola Davis for How to Get Away with Murder, Taraji P. Henson for Fox's Empire, Elisabeth Moss for Mad Men and Robin Wright for House of Cards.
Fascinating category. While some might see Maslany as utterly deserving for playing multiple roles on multiple seasons of Orphan Black, this could well be a battle between Moss, for her work as Peggy on Mad Men, and Henson for being the incredible, indelible Cookie on the hip-hop drama Empire. It would be a shocker if Henson wins it, but a much-applauded shocker.
The full list of Emmy nominations is very long. There are many legitimate nominations. But never use the Emmy Awards as an indication of artistic status in the best of contemporary television. Stick with critics' recommendation for that.