Is 'True Detective' worthy? 'Modern Family,' again? The critics react to 2014's Emmy nods

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MELISSA MAERZ: Jeff,

When the Emmy nominations were announced this morning, I was sitting at my desk, shouting, “Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!” Game of Thrones dominated with 19 nominations! Hot pie for everyone! I’d quibble with the fact that Noah Hawley’s fantastic update of Fargo didn’t get a best drama nod, especially since it was the runner-up with 18 nominations, and The Good Wife was unjustly ignored in that category, coming off its best season ever—it might be the only network drama that I truly loved—but the rest of the list was pretty solid. Among the smartest choices made in the best drama category: refusing to forget that Breaking Bad was and will always be one of the best TV shows of all time; leaving that mess of a Homeland season off that list (somewhere, Dana Brody is furrowing her brow); recognizing that House of Cards just keeps getting better and better as Frank Underwood gets worse and worse; and picking the right underdog, PBS, to fight in the battle against cable with Downton Abbey.

Here is my only real complaint, and I know I’m in the minority here: I was really, deeply disappointed by True Detective and don’t think it deserves a best drama nod. Don’t get me wrong: I was totally captivated by the first four episodes, and Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey both deserve their acting nods. Plus, the show deserves some kind of diamond-encrusted, deer-antler trophy for that spectacular six-minute tracking shot alone. But am I the only one who thought the story completely fell apart in the second half? The unreliable narrator device—which could’ve made for real suspense and second-guessing about who these two detectives really are and what their motives might be—ultimately  lead nowhere beyond one police cover-up. The central mystery was solved in a way that felt random. Too many Easter eggs ended up being MacGuffins. And I know people are really going to throw tomatoes at me here, but that final speech about the lying there and gazing up at the stars? So corny. Leave the cosmos-pondering to Neil deGrasse Tyson, guys.

What did you think of the drama nominations?

JEFF JENSEN: Melissa!

I was up at Way Too Early O’Clock (PST) with my complete collection of Matthew Rhys hairpieces, wearing each of them while galloping around my television in my Urban Cowboy shitkickers, hoping my goofy rain dance would bring a shower of Emmy nominations for The Americans. But Nyet! One of television’s most morally complex dramas—certainly its wiggiest—was denied despite fielding a sophomore season in which it came into its own. Maybe I should have channeled all of my wishful thinking and superstitious antics for a series whose nomination I stupidly assumed to be a certainty: Like you, I am stunned and even outraged—which, yes, is a silly emotion to feel when it comes to something like awards—but outraged nonetheless!—for The Good Wife. Kudos to Emmy voters for opening their minds and wallets to the pay-TV fantasy stuff (Game of Thrones), pulp stuff (True Detective) and streaming stuff (House of Cards).

But at the expense of opening their eyes to extraordinary achievement—freely given—that was The Good Wife’s fifth season? Objection, you dishonorable Emmy sirs! To be clear: Zero nominations for any broadcast television show. So much for all that money The Big 4 spent in hopes of burnishing their brands and changing the conversation about their relevancy.

I share your Fargo fandom, and I’m glad to see it cleaned up in the miniseries categories. But with all due respect, my friend, I sharply disagree with you on all things True Detective. The narrative boldness and messy mind of rookie TV auteur Nic Pizzolatto’s fever dreamish swamp gothic sticks with me more than any show I watched this past season. Not that it would get my vote here—All for you, Breaking Bad! All for you!—but damn did that thing own me from start to finish. I understand how the spell those first four episodes cast on most of us weakened over the course of the final four episodes, but it never broke for me. I didn’t mind the horror-pulp climax— it was a show about our horror-pulp pop culture; not as profound as it wanted to be, but sharp, nonetheless. And I loved both the idea and execution of its surprisingly hopeful ending, which I took as a defiant—and earned—departure from the easy cynical worldviews promoted by many of the most celebrated dramas of the so-called “golden age of TV.” (Especially Breaking Bad.) I also don’t mind seeing True Detective nominated for Best Drama: I just can’t find the energy to care about award show gerrymandering controversies. (Some wanted to to see the bloodsport of True Detective pitted against Fargo for trophies to formalize and further the which-is-better? debate. Not me.)

If anything, I hope True Detective’s strong showing in Emmy’s brassiest category will inspire networks to continue to experiment with unconventional formats and top-tier actors, writers, and directors to bring their talents to the small screen. I don’t think you can blame True Detective for costing Masters of Sex and The Americans the nominations they deserved here—not with the presence of such Downton Abbey and House of Cards (which remains, for me, a ring-rappingly fun potboiler, but I did not enjoy season two as much as you did, Melissa).

Let’s talk about the acting nominations. What struck you about this year’s field?

MELISSA: Well, Tatiana Maslany is no doubt shaking seven fists—or 14?—at the voters right now. How she has been so routinely snubbed for Orphan Black is beyond me. Though, as our colleague Meeta Agrawal pointed out, this might end up being a good thing for Maslany, since her fans will become even more passionate and proprietary about her. (I’m just imagining a thousand young Cosplayers decked out like clones, chanting, “One of US! One of US!”)

But how fantastic that Lizzy Caplan should join the ranks of Emmy favorites Claire Danes, Michelle Dockery, Julianna Margulies, Kerry Washington, and Robin Wright! Masters of Sex was one of my favorite new shows last year, and it was largely due to Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson of Masters and Johnson fame. Physically, Caplan looks like a character in a graphic novel, as if her giant, blinking eyes and carefully sculpted hair were scribbled on with charcoal pencils by, say, Adrian Tomine. So it’s kind of thrilling that she took this sex-researcher role, which could’ve been totally cartoonish, and gave it real depth. She made Virginia hugely sympathetic as a working mother who’s trying very hard to make it in a man’s world using the only power she’s got: her sexuality. Also, I kind of want her classy-educated-lady accent, even though I can’t place it. It sounds like she was born in The National Republic of Careful Enunciation.

As for the men in the drama category, how is it possible that Jeff Daniels has been nominated yet again for The Newsroom, after his rage-triggering win last year? According to the Film Crit Hulk (ha!), HBO makes up the biggest chunk of Emmy voters, which means Daniels might have had an advantage in terms of the “base vote” last time around. (To be fair, HBO also produces some of the best shows on television, but I’d argue that The Newsroom isn’t one of them.) Of course, those same HBO voters could be swayed by Harrelson or McConaughey. The Emmys often go crazy for movie stars—look at the love for Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, and Kevin Spacey last time—and these two really brought Oscar-worthy performances to the small screen.

But they’d be crazy not to give it to Bryan Cranston. Just rewatch the scene where he calls Skyler in “Ozymandias,” unleashing his rage through the receiver while the Feds try to trace the call. Are these the words of the Man Who Knocks, a maniacal egoist who can’t resist bragging about his own capacity for evil, even when (especially when) he knows the Feds are listening? Or is he just pretending to be Heisenberg, taking full responsibility for everything so that Skyler will escape jail time? The fact that Cranston can play it both ways at the same time is proof of his genius.

JEFF: That Adrian Tomine reference? My optic nerves went wild for that one, Melissa! YOU WIN.

Emmy also wins for acknowledging Caplan—but loses big time in other ways in this category. I, too, grieve that Emmy doesn’t get BBC America, or hates Canadians, or somehow goes inexplicably blind whenever Orphan Black flickers across their screen. (I’m going with ‘hates Canadians’ here.) Another conjecture, maybe not-so-wild: Was Tatiana Maslany’s candidacy hurt by a second season that was—sorry, Clone Clubbers—simply not as strong on the whole as its sensational first season? This could be an example of a worthy actor being punished for the perceived failure of the show around her. (If I could veto nominations, I would take a red pen to Michelle Dockery’s name and scribble in Maslany.)

Similarly, but conversely: The worst thing about the nod given to Julianna Margulies—back in the race after a year’s absence—is that it feels like a token, even reductive way to honor The Good Wife. (I could say the same thing re: Caplan and the jilted Masters of Sex.) My guess is that she’ll get votes—even win—just because people will want to rectify the injustice, which strikes me as unfortunate: She deserves to win on the merit of her work alone.

One the male side of the aisle, I suppose if I wanted to be hollowly provocative or ridiculously argumentative, I could say three-time winner Bryan Cranston did not need a victory-lap nomination for a performance that we’ve been hailing and honoring as an all-timer for years. He didn’t phone in that final set of episodes; in fact, as you note, he deserves his nomination for his telephonic duet with Anna Gunn in “Ozymandias” (the best single scene any TV show gave us this past year). I’m just saying, if we’re looking to clear room for some “snubs” here—Hannibal’s Hugh Dancy or Mads Mikkelsen, or Michael Sheen of Masters of Sex, or the aforementioned Rhys of The Americans, or even James Spader’s irresistible scene chewing on The Blacklist—I could probably fake some blather that says Cranston has been sufficiently rewarded for bringing to credible life the most contrived “anti-hero” in television history.

Similarly, and more sincerely: I think one nomination—and a win, too!—was plenty for The Newsroom’s Jeff Daniels. Yet despite the dispiriting example of entrenchment on display here, I can’t quibble. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson took the spots given last year to Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey and Damian Lewis of Homeland; that’s a good, upgrade-y trade, the problem of too-much True Detective aside.

Of the actors nominated in the comedy category, who tickled you the most, for better or worse?

MELISSA: Jeff “Blame Canada!” Jensen,

Sometimes I question whether the people behind TV comedies have a sense of humor. They routinely relegate some of the best dramatic seriesusually ones that also trade in wry humorto the comedy categories, as if they didn’t think these shows were “serious” enough to compete with the real dramas. (See also: Nurse Jackie, Orange Is the New Black.) There should be a new category for this kind of show. (Tragicomedies?) And at this point, voters must’ve inked in The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family with permanent marker on the ballet, even though Modern Family hasn’t had a great season in years. If it wins this year, the Los Angeles Times pointed out, it will join Frasier as the only two comedies to win five Emmys for a series. Also, I have to say it again: nothing for Inside Amy Schumer, beyond a nod for writing? Even judging by that rape sketch alone, it was one of the most subversive comedies on TV.

But voters are learning. It’s nice to see Louie here again, especially for its most personal season. Despite his well-earned reputation as an experimentalist, C.K. proved that he’s also pretty great at writing mainstream comedy about how hard it is for a single dad to raise his kids, or telling a more traditional coming of age story about his own teenage years.

I was most excited about the inclusion of Silicon Valley hereIt would’ve been nice to see a supporting nod for the show’s Christopher Evan Welch, who passed away earlier this year. Watch the sesame seeds scene: the guy could’ve out Steve Jobs’d any eccentric tech guru on his analysis of “breadings” alone. He was a master among men. Still, I’m happy to see the show itself honored. I can’t think of another comedy that’s just as adept at hardcore programming language as it is at dick jokes. I mean, the laughs might be awesomely dumb, but what other comedy is smart enough to inspire an academic paper?

Were you a Silicon Valley fan, Jeff?

JEFF: Oh, was I!

I was delighted to see Emmy invest in the sweet and chippy little start-upalthough talk about a weak ending to an otherwise stellar season! The TechCrunch climactic showdown was a let-downlittle suspense, fewer laughsand the episode felt like a weak punt to next season. You mentioned the passing Christopher Evan Welch; I wonder to what degree his death impacted the season-one master plan. Because the last act felt a little vision-challenged.

I was even more pleased to see that Emmy had not forgotten about Louis C.K. after his long sabbatical, and more, that it was energized, not alienated, by the comedy auteur’s tinkering. I didn’t see the masterpiece others did; I saw a restless genius playing with form it in search of fresh new forms to articulate his comedy. It was entertaining r&d for (hopefully) the more focused, polished statement to come. It reminded me of those rock bands that blow up their sound, hoping to find reinvention, but it was like Wilco’s Summerteeth or The Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore than Radiohead’s OK Computer or U2’s Achtung Babyan intermediate step forward, not a fully realized leap ahead. All to say: I can’t wait to see how he internalizes and applies the lessons learned to next season. Regardless: It was thrilling to watch C.K. stretchand even more thrilling that a network bankrolled that.

The Big Bang Theory is perhaps best poised to replace Modern Family should the latter finally falter. But I am rooting for Orange Is The New Blackmy favorite Netflix bingeto skip ahead in the line of succession and claim the crown here.

Snubs in this category included Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which found its voice right about the time the Golden Globes shocked many by awarding it Best Comedy, and Girls, though Lena Dunham did get a nomination for her lead performance. What did you think of the comedy acting nods, Melissa?

MELISSA: Like you, Jeff, I’m a huge fan of Orange is the New Black, and I’m thrilled to see so much love for it here on a list that honors Taylor Schilling (Best Actress), Kate Mulgrew (Best Supporting Actress), and guest actresses Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba, and Laverne Cox. (Huzzah for Cox, who s the first transgender person ever nominated for an Emmy!) But the way those nominations broke down into bigger and smaller categories makes me a little uneasy.

Orange creator Jenji Kohan once described Piperthe preppy, middle-class white girl played by Schillingas the show’s “Trojan horse.” “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals,” Kohan told Terri Gross on Fresh Air. “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.” So even though Schilling was the lead actress, it feels somehow unfair that she gets top billing while the actresses who play Crazy Eyes and Sophiawhom some might argue were the heart of the first seasonget relegated to “guest actress” status. I mean, I know there are rules about how much screen time you have to put in before you get a “supporting actress” nod. (You can read more about those rules here.) But it feels like Schilling isn’t just the Trojan horse at the prisonshe’s become a Trojan horse in the real world of Emmy voting, too.

Actually, some of the best performances came from the “guest actor” category: Louis C.K. and Tina Fey (among others) for their hilarious Saturday Night Live hosting spots, the fabulously stone-faced Gary Cole for Veep, the criminally underrated Joan Cusack on Shameless, Steve Buscemi as the put-upon “celery guy” on Portlandia. The main categories mostly went to the usual suspects: Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But I was glad to see Portlandia get something beyond a token Best Costumes nomination. Good for you, Fred Armisen.

Who were your favorites?

JEFF: You beat me to rejoicing over the love shown to Portlandia, which also picked up a writing nod, too. It bugs me that Emmy can find IFC on the dialalso see: Kristen Wiig, who scored an miniseries acting nomination today for the miniseries spoof The Spoils of Babylonbut can’t seem to locate BBC America anywhere. (GrumblegrumbleTatianaMaslanygrumble.)

My affection for Parks & Recreation is undying, even if this past season didn’t match the mark set by the year before, so I will be rooting again for Amy Poehler to finally take home a trophy for play pluck incarnate, the indefatigably idealistic Leslie Knope. But I won’t fault Emmy for wanting to give the ingenious Julia Louis-Dreyfus her third consecutive Emmy for Veep, especially after a season that stretched her character, putting her on the campaign trail and even allowing her to feel something of a soul.

Still, I don’t feel much enthusiasm for the Outstanding Comedy Actress race in general. Too much of the same.* To your “trojan horse” point about OITNBTaylor Schilling is coming off a season in which Piper felt more part of an ensemble, not leading it. (BTW: I share your concerned befuddlement regarding how OITNB’s many actings nodsall welcome!were scattered across three categories. Way to game the system there! I’m guessing Vee ran the Emmy campaign, yes?) A more vibrant, varied and just as deserving lead actress field would have included The Mindy Project’s Mindy Kaling, or Anna Faris or Allison Janney of Mom, or even Malin Akerman for the now-canceled Trophy Wife.

The Outstanding Comedy Actor category is slightly more interesting. I thought I was the only person in America who actually watched Rickey Gervais’ surprisingly sweet and humane Netflix-imported British gem Derek. But apparently Emmy voters do, too! (If only Emmy had watched Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies or Christopher Guest’s Family Treeboth one-and-dones, regrettablythen I would have been really impressed.) And a savvy move by Showtime’s long-running drunkard dramedy Shameless to submit in comedy this year netted William H. Macy the recognition that he was never going to get from the too-competitive drama actor. The anointments of Gervais and Macyand the return of Louis C.K.suggest to me that TV comedy is crying out for the electric jolts of new-and-different we get from our dramas.

MELISSA: Before we go on, can I just say: Yes, yes, yes to Hello Ladies, the most brilliantly creepy rom-com ever. Stop what you’re doing and go binge-watch it right now.

Okay, one last thing: Isn’t it weird that the miniseries slot, which seems like such a minor category, is often the most controversial? No one can agree on what a miniseries is. This year, True Detective was entered as a drama. But it has a different cast and a new story each seasonnot unlike American Horror Story, which is classified as a miniseries. (Also: I don’t care if Treme was a short season. In what brave new world does it count as a miniseries? Someone’s been drinking too much Cajun moonshine.) If True Detective had been classified as a miniseries, it might have left room for worthy picks like Masters of Sex or Hannibal on the best drama slate. The good news? Cult favorites like Luther and The White Queen actually might have a better shot at winning this year, since the Academy made a wise decision to separate the categories of “movie” and “miniseries” again. That means a quirky little series like Fargo stand a chance against the Julia Roberts-megawatt-star power of The Normal Heart.

Fargo will be on my list of the year’s best shows, period, whether it’s a miniseries or not. (I wrote about why here.) It was a great fanboy homage to the Coen brothers—one that, at times, felt more Coen-y than the brothers themselves—but it was also Noah Hawley’s own unique vision of Heartland noir. Also, I think the series genuinely, earnestly played to a Midwestern sensibility, by wrestling with the same questions of faith and community that many Minnesotans hold dear, instead of just poking fun at all the ah, jeezes and you betchas. Though, I’ll admit, it still makes me laugh whenever Billy Bob Thornton points his finger-gun at someone and says, “Aces!”

The biggest shock on the miniseries slate? That Bonnie and Clyde made this list. I’ve said it before: When did the story of the most dangerous couple in history become such an inoffensive, middlebrow romance? The violence was too pretty. The sex scenes were too silly. And the historical fact-checking might have been more accurate on any given episode of Drunk History. And speaking of finger-guns, it’s like someone pointed one at the Emmys voters and pew-pew-pew’d them to death.

Jeff, what are you rooting for on the miniseries front?

JEFF: I share your You betcha! passion for Fargo, don’tcha know. And I remain impressed by its manic pop verve, subversive, reckless provocations, and spirited creativity possessed by American Horror Storyit was pick for the best show of 2013but Coven didn’t bewitch me like  previous formulations of its bold brew.

What I don’t share is the perspective that True Detective should have submitted and competed in this category, not the drama category. I think these new-breed anthology dramas represent a new kind of format that defies the categories Emmy has to offer. And your description/conceptualizationdifferent characters + different actors each season = miniseriesdoesn’t ring completely right with me. It misses the fact that these anthology shows are not singular events a la Roots but ongoing franchises produced by the same creative team.

More, it assumes all future forms the show might take. What if True Detective and Fargo decide to bring back old characters? What if they decide that all their stories take place in the same world? What iflike American Horror Storyeach season of Fargo and True Detective is basically a different riff on the same set of themes and archetypes, sharing the same aesthetic and promoting the same worldview? I’m not trying to convince you True Detectiveor Fargo, or American Horror Storybelongs in the drama category. I’m just saying: It feels too murky, too complicated a situation at present to have a strong opinion about it.

The worst thing about this category this year is that we are denied the bloodsport of True Detective squaring off against Fargo catalyze another round of which-was-better? essay bluster. I don’t count that as a big loss to the culture … but watching those two outstanding achievements go head to head for trophies on Emmy night would have been great drama indeed.

*Correction: This post originally stated that Melissa McCarthy got her first Emmy nomination today; McCarthy has been nominated twice previously in the Lead Actress in a Comedy category, winning in 2011, and twice for Guest Actress in a Comedy for her work on Saturday Night Live.

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