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'Better Call Saul,' 'Fleabag,' and David Milch — TV Critics Have Their Say
August 4, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

The Television Critics Association Awards have always been something of an outlier where the Emmys are concerned.

Even so, it was remarkable at the extent to which this year's edition, handed out Saturday night in Beverly Hills, focused on HBO and the streaming services, at the expense of the traditional broadcasters which, not so long ago, were the dominant force in television.

There was Amazon's second-year comedy Fleabag, which earned three of the top honors, Program of the Year, Outstanding Achievement in Comedy (a highfalutin way of saying best comedy series), and the equally highfalutin Individual Achievement in Comedy, which went this year not to an actor but to a writer-producer, Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge (top). (Unlike the Emmys, the TCA Awards have relatively few categories, little more than a dozen overall; the Emmys have so many categories the awards themselves have to be handed out over three separate nights. The high-profile televised Emmy ceremony, Sept. 22 this year, will feature awards in 26 categories alone).

Waller-Bridge is not just a hyphenate, as they say in the entertainment industry; she's also a multi-tasker. Fleabag may be a comedy, but she also created the highly-rated drama Killing Eve (right) and has recently been parachuted into the still-unnamed James Bond film "Bond 25," as a script doctor, to perform surgery on the screenplay for  what's rumored to be a remarkably troubled film shoot, even for a Bond film, that has already gone through several scriptwriters and at least one high-profile director (Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire's Danny Boyle).

In all, HBO, Amazon, and Netflix ran the table in Saturday's TCA Awards, with AMC and FX picking up a single award each. The traditional networks' sole appearance was venerable PBS, which earned an Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming citation — not for the first time — for PBS Kids' Arthur.

Michelle Williams landed the coveted Individual Achievement in Drama Award for FX's Fosse/Verdon, for her bravura, multi-textured performance in what was an otherwise oddly disjointed and hard-to-like miniseries. The actual miniseries award itself — Outstanding Achievement in Movie and Miniseries — went, unsurprisingly, to HBO's Chernobyl, which has to be rated one of the favorites to win the Emmy in September.

HBO also scored a coup of sorts with the TCA award for news and information programming, for Dan Reeds' searing, hard-hitting Michael Jackson exposé, Leaving Neverland.

It was a good year for the Brits — between them, Reed and Waller-Bridge might have dominated the evening were it not for the drama series awards — but longtime TV watchers, and readers of this site, will have picked up on one of the defining trends of recent years: The TCA Awards' strange, uncanny ability to stay five- to 10-years ahead of the more mainstream Emmys. In my own (relatively short) time writing about television, this started with Winnie Holzman and Ed Zwick's My So-Called Life, which never won an Emmy and yet won the Golden Globe that year for (then) unknown Claire Danes, who would go on to become a perennial Emmy contender — and winner — for Homeland.

Then there was Andre Braugher, whose brilliant turn in Homicide: Life on the Street was assiduously ignored by Emmy voters until that show's final season in 1998, but who had been singled out for attention years earlier by the TCA.

Longtime TV viewers, then, would have been interested to see Better Call Saul (above) win the TCA Award this past weekend for the critics' equivalent of best drama series. Better Call Saul is one of those long-running, respected dramas that's often nominated for an Emmy — it's up again this year — but never wins. What's telling about the AMC drama's win this past weekend is that it came at the expense of Emmy favorite Game of Thrones, nominated again this year and tapped to win. The critics felt much the same as many of Game of Thrones' long-suffering fans: The final season, despite its epic grandeur and eye-filling scenery, was somehow oddly lacking in character detail and human emotion, the very things that made Game of Thrones unique in the first place. Emotional depth and character detail are what Better Call Saul does best, and there's something oddly satisfying about seeing a quiet, relatively modestly-budgeted drama — the classic underdog, much like its central character — take the prize.

If the TCA Awards serve any real purpose, though — and the Emmys would be wise to take a harder look — it's the group's twin win of the Heritage Award, handed out each year to a series that shaped and helped redefine the genre, and the self-explanatory Lifetime Achievement Honoree.

This year, the writer-producer David Milch — who always seemed to operate in the shadow of the late Steven Bochco, where the Emmys were concerned — and, more tellingly, Milch's creation, Deadwood, earned pride of place for the TCA's most prestigious honors.

It's worth noting that Deadwood never registered much with Emmy voters, a handful of Emmys in primarily technical categories aside.

Contrast that with Deadwood's winning the Peabody Award — not easy to do, and bestowed each year on just a handful of recipients — a Golden Globe for lead actor Ian McShane, and a TCA Award in its debut year.

Profane, violent, and yet strangely moving, with real emotional resonance and dramatic heft, Deadwood was — and remains — precisely the kind of program Emmy voters have a hard time figuring out.

Much has been said and written about how Netflix, and to a lesser but still measurable extent, Amazon and Hulu have changed the game, but this year's TCA Awards say so much about HBO. And AMC, and FX, too, but HBO especially. Chernobyl and Leaving Neverland came out of the same house that gave us Deadwood, separated by 15 years, and before that The SopranosSix Feet Under, and The Wire.

For the record, this year's Emmy nominees for drama are Game of ThronesBetter Call SaulOzarkPoseBodyguardKilling EveThis Is Us, and Succession.

The Emmy nominees for comedy are FleabagVeepSchitt's Creek (yes, it's true), The Good PlaceRussian DollBarry, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

My guess — and it's just a guess, mind — is that Better Call Saul and Fleabag won't win.

That's why the TCA Awards matter. 

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Sean Dougherty
It would have been difficult for the Emmys to recognize Andre Braugher in the last season of Homicide: Life on the Street, as he had left the season before.
Aug 5, 2019   |  Reply
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