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The Emmys: Don't Be Surprised if We're Talking About 'OJ,' Not 'Game of Thrones'
September 18, 2016  | By Alex Strachan
 

It’s an entertainment industry rule-of-thumb that the slickest, most entertaining and eye-filling of the major award shows is the Tonys, because those theatre people really know how to put on a show.

It’s also widely accepted, though not often said out loud, that TV’s big awards night hardly ever makes a good TV show, no matter how hard the evening’s host — usually one of the host network’s resident late-night stars — tries to move things along.

This weekend, it’s ABC’s turn in the rotation, and that means Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel is an old hand at this — acerbic, witty and fast-on-his-feet, if not always blessed with grace and dignity. If grace and dignity are what you want, turn to PBS.

Despite the controversy over the lack of diversity in screen entertainment, it would have been too much for ABC to hand the reins over to, say, Anthony Anderson. Kimmel is the safe choice. Black-ish, ABC’s buzz comedy of the hour, together with Fresh Off the Boat, will simply have to settle for a genuine shot at the comedy-series award.

The Emmys aren’t that important to TV posterity, not in the way the Oscars are to movie history, but they do reflect the tone of the times. TV is a “hot medium,” after all, whatever that means. By its nature, TV tends to live in-the-moment. Miami Vice was electrifying in its day and changed the culture as Hill Street Blues did a decade before it, but it seems strangely tired and dated today, while movie classics like Chinatown and Casablanca seem to last forever.

A cursory glance at this year’s Emmy comedy nominees shows just how far TV has come, though. Black-ish, last year’s winner Veep, Silicon Valley (right), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Transparent, Master of None and fading past-favorite Modern Family — another ABC stalwart — defy easy categorization. No two are the same, or even similar.

The industry trade papers have played up the lack of network nominees in a shortlist that leans toward premium cable and the streaming services over the traditional broadcast networks, but the bigger, more meaningful story is how multi-camera, studio-audience sitcoms have been shut out this year. Not even The Big Bang Theory made the cut, despite the Emmy field being expanded to seven nominees this time around.

On the drama side, it’s hard to quibble with Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, House of Cards, Homeland or prohibitive favorite Game of Thrones, though some will no doubt try. The Americans, snubbed in the past but recognized this time, is overdue for Emmy attention. And Downton Abbey, for its critics this year — and they are legion — has also earned its place, for me anyway.

Again, the real marvel here is how unlike any two of these nominated series are. TV is in a healthy place from the point-of-view of creativity, despite lingering controversies over diversity, violence against women and a potential tectonic shift in TV’s business model that no one has been able to quite get a handle on.

As intriguing as this year’s contenders are — personally, I would be happy to see any of these win — next year promises to be even more hard to read.

Game of Thrones, last year’s best-drama winner and the favorite this weekend with nine Emmys already under its belt, thanks to last weekend’s Creative Arts awards, won’t be eligible next year, as an increasingly complicated production schedule means new episodes won’t debut until next summer, after the eligibility period. That means that even if Thrones wins this weekend, a three-peat is out of the question. Whatever drama wins next year, it won’t be Thrones. One of the rote criticisms levelled against the Emmys over time is that the same shows win year after year. That may no longer be the case. And that’s the sign of a really healthy industry.

The Oscars have always carried more cachet, not just because the screen in bigger but because movies have one shot at a win, and that’s it.

In recent years, though — thanks largely to HBO and, this time especially, FX — the miniseries category is where the real drama is.

It’s hard to remember now but not so long ago miniseries were judged to be so woeful and inept that the Emmy academy was believed to be considering dropping the category entirely, or jamming them together with made-for-TV movies into a single category, a little like squeezing together popcorn and Milk Duds.

Consider this year’s Emmy shortlist for outstanding limited series, as miniseries are now called: American Crime (ABC), Fargo (FX), The Night Manager (AMC) and the ambitious, sprawling reimagining of Roots (History), a remake that for once justified its place in TV history beyond simple name recognition.

That doesn’t even take into consideration FX’s absorbing, strangely addictive The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (top), a true-crime story that made the argument for docudrama — not my favorite genre — more than any recent program I can remember.

Stunt casting aside — I wasn’t fond of either Cuba Gooding Jr. (right), John Travolta or David Schwimmer in People v. OJ — there were some miraculous performances, even to those old enough to remember the live-trial TV feeds on CNN and cameo clips on The Larry Sanders Show, “live, on tape!”

Sarah Paulson was uncanny, unforgetable even, in the thankless — if showy — role of Marcia Clark. Courtney B. Vance brought Johnnie Cochrane alive, in all his contradictions. They were consummate performances, and Vance and Paulson have to be counted as the frontrunners in their respective categories. (Paulson already won this past summer’s TV Critics Association’s award for outstanding individual achievement in drama.)

For me, Sterling K. Brown really stood and delivered in the equally thankless, easy-to-overlook role of Christopher Darden. People v. OJ had moments that were truly unforgetable, and Brown and Paulson provided many of those moments.

The series itself did what I previously thought was impossible: take an overly familiar TV trial (overly familiar for some of us, anyway) and bring it to life once again, this time in an entirely new light.

I suspect Game of Thrones will once again be the major talking point come Monday morning — all those Emmys! all that bling! — but don’t be surprised if People v. OJ makes a few headlines of its own.

 
 
 
 
 
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