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Television John Doyle: There aren’t enough Emmys to reward all the excellence

Like so much in television, The Emmy Awards (Sunday, Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) have changed. Not quite beyond recognition, but getting there. For years the Emmys amounted to a hard-to-watch, insider awards show because the same-old, same-old was rewarded each year. The knock against the Emmy Awards was that only older voters actually paid attention, and then only paid attention to old favourites.

This year, the list of nominations looks shockingly close to contemporary reality.

HBO leads everyone with 126 nominations. Netflix has 34, AMC 24, FX has 38, Showtime has 18 and, out of nowhere, Amazon has 12 nominations.

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Even the host is a fresh face. Fox is going with Andy Samberg, the Saturday Night Live alum who stars in the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which isn't a big hit but won a Golden Globe. Samberg is likely to be low-key and that's fine, because this year's Emmys are emphatically about who wins in rough categories, not the host.

The Emmy dilemma is this: So many outstanding shows and performances, so hard to reward even the best of the best. Somebody has to be snubbed and that somebody might have done excellent work.

The Emmy narrative this year is about Mad Men. The landmark series, embodying an entire age of TV, has ended and must be honoured. Or not, if the Emmy voters are strangely cantankerous. The list of nominated shows in the top, prestigious best-drama category encapsulates the Emmy dilemma. They are Better Call Saul (AMC), Downton Abbey (PBS), Game of Thrones (HBO), Homeland (Showtime), House of Cards (Netflix), Mad Men (AMC) and Orange Is the New Black (Netflix).

The only possible contender against Mad Men is, in truth, Game of Thrones. Such is its following and such is the admiration for the skill involved that it will tempt some voters. But, given the depth and breadth of achievement in Mad Men, the Emmy evening must surely end with a Mad Men triumph.

The Mad Men narrative continues into many categories. For best actor in a drama, the list is this: Kyle Chandler, Bloodline; Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom; Jon Hamm, Mad Men; Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul; Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan; and Kevin Spacey, House of Cards. Jon Hamm must win. Period.

And for best actress in a drama, it's about Mad Men, too. The list is a powerful one: Claire Danes, Homeland; Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder; Taraji P. Henson, Empire; Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black; Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men; and Robin Wright, House of Cards. All deserve recognition, but here's the thing – Elisabeth Moss has been nominated multiple times for her work as Peggy Olson, and never won. The lapse is a mystery. And this year the competition is fiercer than ever. But, even as Jon Hamm owned the final episodes of Mad Men, Moss as Peggy soared, the character became truly iconic and another snub would be unthinkable.

It's in the best-comedy category that the Emmys might fall back into old ways. Nominated are Louie (FX), Modern Family (ABC), Parks and Recreation (NBC), Silicon Valley (HBO), Transparent (Amazon), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) and Veep (HBO). Both Louie and the brittle, brilliant Transparent are, obviously, in a category above all the others. But for reasons known only in L.A., Modern Family has had a grip on Emmy voters for years. It is what is known as a "perpetual favourite," having won 21 times across categories. Perhaps for Emmy voters this is one of those instances where there is simply too much good TV to consume. They feel compelled to watch stand-out, talked-about dramas airing or screening on various platforms, but for comedy they go back to old-school network TV.

Another Mad Men storyline creeps into the category of best supporting actress in a drama. Up for the award are: Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black; Christine Baranski, The Good Wife; Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones; Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey; Lena Headey, Game of Thrones; and Christina Hendricks, Mad Men.

Ask a lot of people and they would have included, from Mad Men, January Jones for her work as Betty Francis, and Kiernan Shipka, who played Sally Draper. But Christina Hendricks is it. There would be a sweetness to a win for her as it would parallel the storyline of Joan on Mad Men – the one who survived and made it in the end, by dint of determination. A possibility is that Emilia Clarke will win for Game of Thrones, as a nod toward the series that soaks up so much attention when it airs.

There was a time when the Emmy Awards meant little but bragging rights for the winners. Viewers didn't find shows because of an Emmy win. That's changed. Last year's Emmy for Fargo sent viewers to the show on FX and on-demand, just as viewers overwhelmed by a growing number of acclaimed series were sent to Breaking Bad, several seasons after it started. The Emmys matter more now.

The word "overwhelmed" is what defines TV these days. It's not just the number of shows. It's the level of excellence. Consider how many small masterpieces are nominated. The magnificent Olive Kitteridge from HBO has 13 nominations, and the most recent season of American Horror Story has 19. And then consider the triumphs that are essentially snubbed. FX's The Americans became sublimely sober, intense and taut this past year. HBO's The Leftovers was largely ignored. There aren't enough Emmy nominations and awards to acknowledge all the excellence. It's not the same-old.

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