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.