Some Reflections on the 2013 Emmy Nominations and the State of US Television in general

The nominations for the 2013 primetime Emmy awards have been announced. Some love for Game of Thrones, which makes me happy, particularly the acting nominations for Diana Rigg (who stole pretty much every scene she was in), Peter Dinklage (his Tyrion is still the highlight of the show) and Emilia Clarke (I would have preferred Maisie Williams, but Daenerys is always worth watching as well). I’m also happy to see Morena Baccarin nominated, but couldn’t they have found a better show for her? Some love for Mad Men, which I watch, but which seems nominated by reflex these days, because honestly, it’s not that good. Lots of inexplicable love for Homeland, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife and Girls, all of which I find unwatchable, and several nominations for shows I have never heard of. I mean, there is a TV show called Bates Motel? Honestly? Someone felt the need to make a prequel to Psycho? Why, for goodness’ sake?

I also wonder how the BBC adaption of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End managed to garner several nominations, since everybody I know who’s seen it flat-out hated it, including avid fans of nostalgia television a la Downton Abbey and avid fans of Benedict Cumberbatch. Of course, the problem with Parade’s End is that it’s simply the wrong choice of book to adapt. Now I must applaud the BBC for adapting something other than Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or the Bronte sisters once in a while, but Parade’s End? Honestly? Cause for contemporary audiences it’s impossible to feel any sympathy or indeed anything except violent loathing for the lead characters. You can cast Benedict Cumberbatch and hire Tom Stoppard to write the script, but that doesn’t make the book any more palatable. Some works are best left unadapted.

I’m also really not understanding the nomination criteria here. For example, the US version of House of Cards has snagged several nominations, probably because there are famous people like Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright involved. However, the US version of House of Cards was a straight to video series produced by US streaming video company Netflix. It never even aired on TV, so how can this be nominated in an award for TV programs? One of the comedies is apparently a web series as well, but I’m fuzzy on the details, since I don’t watch comedies. And Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic which apparently shocked Americans by revealing that Liberace was gay (You mean there were people who didn’t know?), is a theatrical movie and even premiered at Cannes, for heaven’s sake. Okay, so Behind the Candelabra apparently did not have a theatrical release in the US, probably because distributors did not want to shock Liberace fans by revealing that their idol was gay. But just because it didn’t have a theatrical release doesn’t make it a TV movie. No matter how good, theatrical movies, direct to streaming video shows and web series have no place in a television award.

Indeed, David Haglund makes a similar point with regards to Behind the Candelabra in this Slate article, which attempts to deconstruct the golden age of television myth. Now personally I agree that on average TV is better than the movies these days, but that’s because the current state of cinema is very bad, since Hollywood only knows two modes of production: Brainless blockbusters with lots of explosions, which are a bit too brainless for me, even if I want to like them, and Oscar bait prestige movies, which are as unwatchable as their TV cousins, the type of “quality drama” peddled by HBO and its ilk.

Now I have expressed my views on the HBO brand of “quality drama” exhaustively before. With very rare exceptions such as Game of Thrones (which is a wholly different beast from your usual HBO show) and Mad Men (which I watch for the costumes and set design and glimpse into the 1960s advertising world, not for the not very shocking travails of Don Draper), I neither like nor watch these shows. The drug and sex-fueled exploits of middle-aged male anti-heroes* don’t interest me, unless said middle-aged male anti-heroes are named Tyrion Lannister or Don Draper (and Don isn’t all that interesting compared to Peggy who should have been the star of the show). Whatever relevance American critics find in those shows eludes me. And indeed, it eludes most of my fellow Germans as well, for none of these award-winning quality dramas ever do well over here. Homeland is the latest one to flop, in spite of the TV station’s ever more insistent emphasis on the many Emmys and Golden Globes it won in the trailers they broadcast during the ad breaks of more popular shows.

Whenever one of those overhyped US quality dramas premieres on German TV, some of our critics dutifully attempt to explain why this is a must-watch show. Unfortunately, the appeal of the latest US quality drama usually eludes German critics as well, so they start parrotting the views of their American colleagues and blather about “complex plot structures” and “the golden age of television”, though it’s painfully clear that they have no idea why this program is supposed to be good. However, instead of admitting that the Emperor has no clothes, they just parrot the same old crap about the golden age of television. Though it’s telling that of late, many German newspapers and magazines have stopped reviewing foreign programs altogether and instead expound on whether Polizeiruf 110 is better than Tatort (Who cares? I haven’t watched either in twenty years).

In my view, the current time is not a golden age of television, quite the contrary in fact. The HBO type quality drama doesn’t work for me with very few exceptions and the bread and butter programming, the cop shows and police procedurals and glitzy primetime soap operas and SFF shows (what few there still are), simply aren’t as good as their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s used to be. It’s not the golden glow of nostalgia either. Rewatching an episode of a 1980s or 1990s show, even one I didn’t particularly like, is almost always a more satisfying experience than watching a current show in the same genre. And interestingly, the rot started setting in around 2000, at exactly the point in time that is usually given as the beginning of this mythical golden age of television. Meanwhile, all of the really good TV shows of the past ten years came from Britain rather than the US. And even the UK is becoming less reliable as a source of really good TV, because ever since the success of Downton Abbey, it’s just one nostalgia laden costume drama after another, while the good shows either end or fizzle out, only to be replaced by more retro drama.

*And the protagonists of US quality drama are all male. The sex and drug-fueled exploits of more or less young women are reserved for comedies such as Sex and the City or Girls.

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15 Responses to Some Reflections on the 2013 Emmy Nominations and the State of US Television in general

  1. Mark says:

    I agree with a lot of this, disagree with some of this.

    Just wondering: which shows from the 80s or 90s did you particularly like?

    • Cora says:

      For the 1980s, I liked a lot of the crime and action shows that aired during the time. I loved The A-Team (so much cleverer than it seems on the surface) and Simon and Simon and Remington Steel and Scarecrow and Mrs. King and MacGuyver and The Fall Guy and the original V – basically what aired during the “Vorabendprogramm”. I have rewatched at least part of those shows since then and they hold up surprisingly well. The only shows I liked all right during the 1980s, but cannot watch anymore are Knight Rider and Airwolf (just too silly for my adult self) and Magnum (too rightwing and militaristic) as well as the glitzy soaps like Dallas or Dynasty (but then I never liked those during the 1980s either, I just watched them because they were fashionable). Miami Vice, which I didn’t much like in the 1980s, is a lot better in retrospect. I still cannot stand Moonlighting.

      For the 1990s, I liked a lot of the SF and conspiracy shows that were on during the time. I loved Twin Peaks, adored Northern Exposure and Due South and The X-Files and Babylon Five and the various Star Treks and Highlander and Pretender and Profiler and Xena and lots more along those lines. Interestingly, I find the various 1990s shows less rewatchable than the 1980s shows. Twin Peaks still holds up and is actually better today than it was since then, if only because it’s no longer lightyears ahead of its time, though it still falls apart towards the end. As for the others, I either find I cannot watch them anymore (The X-Files and the various Star Treks) or I haven’t dared to revisit them.

      From 2001 on, US TV got really bad for me, because a lot of shows either featured ultra violent heroes sprouting rightwing politics and fixated on the war on terror (24 or the new Battlestar Galactica are good examples, also any Law and Order ever) or bland cyphers solvings crimes via science mumbo jumbo (any CSI ever), It was quite striking that all of a sudden there was nothing good to watch anymore, when barely two years before there had been several good shows.

      Basically, I never watched Emmy winning prestige drama either now nor then. Stuff like Cagney and Lacey, L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues for the 1980s or ER, NYPD Blue or Picket Fences for the 1990s never really did it for me. I watched several of them on occasion, but those were shows my mother liked, not me (of course, my mother doesn’t like today’s prestige dramas either). And interestingly I find that the US shows I most enjoy today are those that are closest in spirit to the 1980s shows I liked, stuff like Burn Notice or Leverage or Castle or White Collar or Monk, stories about likable characters using their brains and sometimes their fists to solve problems.

  2. Pingback: Just Strangle the Damned Cat! – The Problem of Formulaic Storytelling | Cora Buhlert

  3. Daveon says:

    Disagree with some of your hates – I’m a huge fan of Homeland and The Good Wife – I tolerate Downtown Abbey because I live with a fan.

    As for House of Cards on TV. I think the critical issue here is that Netflix streaming is ubiquitous on so many devices that attach to TVs in the US that people just think of it as TV. I’ve got 4 boxes attached to my TV that do it (Tivo, x-box, DVD player and Wii) before I get to the PC I have attached too. The growth of Netflix on almost any platform and on many new TVs themselves is really changing the nature of what is and isn’t TV.

    And that’s ignoring stuff like Roku boxes and ‘normal’ cable boxes that also stream Netflix.

    So I think you’ll see a lot more of this. In fact, for the 2014 Emmys, I think we’ll see Orange is the New Black which I’m also enjoying.

    And while I like Castle, I’ve got to refer to your other post on formulaic TV. I hope I don’t spoil it for you if I point out that the first non-cast member they speak to at the crime scene is always the killer?

    • Cora says:

      Homeland doesn’t work for me, because I don’t watch/read “war on terror” stories, since they’re usually full of offensive islamophobic tropes. What little I saw of Homeland seemed right along the same lines. The Good Wife didn’t appeal to me, because I don’t like legal dramas (Harry’s Law was the only one I could ever stomach) and broken marriage stories. A pity, since I really like Chris Noth and wish someone would cast him in a film/show worth his talents someday. What is more, both Homeland and The Good Wife as well as many of the other Emmy nominees are very American stories, which often leave viewers outside the US with a shrug and a “Who cares?”

      Streaming video services like Netflix are still uncommon in Germany (Netflix isn’t available at all and I don’t know anybody who uses the services that are available) and the idea of such services offering original programming is downright strange. I don’t really get this whole House of Cards phenomenon anyway. I watched the British original ages ago and liked it all right, though I prefer State of Play (again the original) in the political intrigue genre. But US remakes of British films/TV-shows, which already are in English, just puzzle me.

      I totally agree that Castle is formulaic. Ditto for Monk, where the “every throwaway line will contribute to the resolution of the mystery” trope is particularly prevalent. However – and I notice this increasingly with TV shows – I mainly watch for the characters. If I like the characters – and pretty much every character in Castle is likeable – I’ll happily put up with formulaic stories. After all, I also love The A-Team and it doesn’t get more formulaic than that. But if the characters are bland or unlikeable, the stories had better be damned good to keep me watching. The original Mission Impossible of the 1960s always had clever double-triple cross plots, which is why I love that show, though the characters were cyphers.

      • Daveon says:

        Hmmm… I’ve generally found Homeland to be more even handed and while having Islamic bad guys the set up is pretty understandable and Damien Lewis handled the topic well.

        I suspect that the steaming services will offer more and more original content as the US networks devolve into whatever dreck their advertisers support. House of Cards was big not just because it was one of the first examples but that actual quality adult political drama which require thought is quite rare here.

        US broadcast TV is almost unwatchable without a DVR so I suspect pay for streaming services with their own programs will end up as the norm in the US.

        • Cora says:

          I guess I’m just sensitive to the whole “muslim equals evil” and “convert equals definitely evil” and “torture is totally justifiable” tropes in general. Plus, from what little I have seen of Homeland, there is a definite element of slut shaming involved as well. Though I must add that I have seen very little of Homeland and that it’s nowhere near as bad as the torture fest of 24 and its ilk. And Damien Lewis, Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin are fine actors whom I have liked in other roles.

          German broadcast TV, even the private channels which do have ad breaks, is largely watchable, because the ad breaks are tolerable (2 breaks per one hour episode). There are some smallish channels which are annoying, e.g. there is one which puts three ten to fifteen minute infomercials, always the same informercials for the same inane products, into a regular 90 minute movie. But it’s nowhere near as bad as in the US where you get ads every five minutes or so. Plus, we have a license fee which every household has to pay to support the public TV and radio channels, so Germans are generally unwilling to pay additional fees for television, whether it’s pay-TV or streaming services. And those like myself who prefer to watch US/UK TV programs and movies in English are ill served by the existing streaming services anyway (since they mostly serve up dubbed fare) and either resort to not quite legal means or wait for the DVD.

      • Daveon says:

        That said, I’m not sure Homeland needed a second season and like with most US TV the drive for syndication renders a lot of story telling moot.

        • Cora says:

          Stretching out a story far beyond its natural end is a common problem with US TV and has ruined a lot of once good shows like Lost (should have ended after one or two seasons) or Prison Break (one or two seasons were enough and then they ruined the entire show with that stupid 90 minute movie). Indeed, one of the main reasons why British shows were often better used to be that they knew when to end them. Of course, of late plenty of British shows have been stretched out beyond the breaking point as well. Torchwood and Being Human thoroughly wore out their welcome and Misfits, which used to be so fresh and wonderful, dropped off past season 2.

          Which doesn’t mean that Germany doesn’t stretch out shows way beyond their welcome. Indeed, there are several shows, usually crime and family dramas, that have been running for twenty to thirty years through dozens of cast changes. And while working class cop Schimanski was a breath of fresh air back in 1980, I’m not sure why he still has to chase down bad guys in 2013, when the lead actor just celebrated his 75th birthday and everybody else who used to be in the show is long dead. And Alarm für Cobra 11, the buddy cop show with some of the best stunts in the business, has been going for nigh on twenty years now and the Turkish German lead character Semir Gerkan had to bury no less than five or six different partners now. The problem with German TV is that once they hit upon a formula that works, they’ll keep the damned show running until the audience has died off. There still are shows running today which I watched in elementary school.

      • Mark says:

        “What is more, both Homeland and The Good Wife as well as many of the other Emmy nominees are very American stories, which often leave viewers outside the US with a shrug and a “Who cares?””

        I would like to second that, at least for Homeland. I have no idea if it’s islamophobic, but it’s definitely very American and I didn’t care at all. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad show, though. It’s simply less universal. This was less of a problem with The Good Wife for me. My problem with The Good Wife was that while I found the basic set up and characters interesting, the individual cases in each episode were instantly forgettable.

        • Daveon says:

          (Tongue very firmly in cheek)

          If we genre fans are going to have problems with shows being American then viewing is going to get rather light moving forward 🙂

          – runs and hides

          More seriously, I liked Homeland and while I live here, I’m not American – it might be something more genre specific. As with another excellent show ‘The Americans’, it’s a very spy focused show which seems to bounce off a lot of people.

          Fair enough on The Good Wife cases. I watch it mostly for Alan Cumming’s brilliantly sinister campaign manager.

          • Cora says:

            Interestingly, the problem of a show being “too American” is less prominent with genre shows, even if they give us a bunch of white Americans with token African and Asian Americans conquering space and fighting aliens. Because with very few exceptions such as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which was basically Bush era US politics dressed up in a very thin SF disguise, genre shows don’t manage to get quite so hung up on current US politics and obsessions such as the prominent drug themes or psychotherapy themes as the prestige shows. Which – as I said to Mark – doesn’t make those shows bad. It’s just that most other countries keep their prestigious “dealing with what our society considers important” shows to themselves, while the US due to the prominence of its entertainment industry, tries to export them all over the world.

        • Cora says:

          I agree that a show is not necessarily bad for being “too American”. There are plenty of German shows that would never have worked in the US such as the surprisingly enjoyable Danny Lowinski or many of the Tatort or Polizeiruf 110 installments, but which are good nonetheless.

          However, a lot of the prestige shows which win Emmys and Golden Globes seem to have a very limited American appeal to me. That’s probably why they work so well in the US, because they tackle subjects deemed important, why the rest of the world is left to shrug and wonder why they should care about drug dealers in New Mexico or 1960s advertising executives in New York, while they will happily watch Horatio Caine solve yet another implausible crime in a picture perfect Miami.

      • Daveon says:

        As another aside, because I find these things fascinating. I like The Good Wife but couldn’t watch more than half an episode of Harry’s Law which hit me as just_another_bloody_David_E_Kelly_production.

        • Cora says:

          I’m not a fan of Kelley either, since his shows are always very samey (lawyers, issues, humour that may or may not work) but was talked into watching Harry’s Law by a friend and enjoyed to my own surprise. Once again I liked the characters, gruff elderly woman lawyer, ambulance chaser lawyer with hidden depths, young bumbling white lawyer, ditzy secretary and black problem kid done good, and the cases were a lot more critical than I would have expected from David E. Kelley. Plus, Harry’s Law had two interracial couples. I didn’t like the second season as much, because they toned down many of the inner city aspects (and got rid of the black kid and ditzy secretary) in favour of more standard law show plots. Interestingly, the only other lawyer shows I ever liked, two German shows named Liebling Kreuzberg and Danny Lowinski, are similar to Harry’s Law in featuring unconventional lawyers working in problematic inner city areas and dealing with social issues in a humourous way.

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