The Emmys ignored everything you love about television

Emmy Awards

It was great to see Breaking Bad triumph, but not everyone left Monday’s ceremony so lucky.

When people look back on the 16th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, there are a lot of things they’ll probably remember. They’ll remember how Breaking Bad came out on top one last time, even against the onslaught of Hollywood movie stars, and how Sherlock surprised everybody. They’ll remember that host Seth Meyers delivered excellent ratings, despite receiving mix reactions for his actual hosting duties. They’ll remember that marijuana ended up being the night’s real winner, at least according to Fox News.

But it isn’t clear yet whether people will remember the most important story from the 2014 Emmys, which is the ceremony’s continued lack of diversity.

That is diversity among winners, to be precise. This was most evident in now five-time Emmy victor Modern Family’s defeat of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black in all the major categories, bucking widespread predictions that had OITNB taking the crown this time.

Why did this happen? One possibility goes back to the “no movie stars” theme of the evening, which saw Emmy voters (who usually love movie stars/directors/etc.) shot down in favor of more “traditional” TV fare. That not only Matthew McConaughey, but also the legendary Jodie Foster (who was nominated for directing on OITNB) walked away empty handed suggests that there may be some pushback among industry classicists, resisting the growing idea of “cinematic” television.

CNN’s Ed Bark also cites Orange Is the New Black’s strange position as 1) a “comedy,” which many Emmy voters didn’t likely find very comedic, and 2) a Netflix production. Seth Meyers joked about this, but from Bark’s perspective, Monday’s Emmys found broadcast networks rebelling against the likes of Netflix and HBO, who have become awards darlings as of late.

The Netflix shutout, following nominations in five of the six marquee categories, may be a message that Emmy voters are not yet ready to swoon over the ‘world’s leading television Internet provider,’ as it bills itself. Netflix still keeps its audience numbers secret for its streaming original series and also may have riled some voters by submitting Orange is the New Black as a comedy in what looked like a craven grab for Emmy gold… In this Emmy year at least, the broadcast network contingent has something to cheer about, too. It might well be a last stand, with an increasing number of cable networks making original and praiseworthy drama or comedy series. But for one shining night, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that’s no small feat.

The Emmys also have a reputation for being ridiculously unpredictable. This year’s big snubs make a lot more sense in a larger context, given how often Emmy voters decide to go in a direction no one expects them, too.

On the other hand, the Emmys have almost gotten to the point where it’s predictable how unpredictable they are; every time someone says, “Okay, it has to be this person’s year” or “There’s no way they’re going to reward that show again,” it’s like they’re cursing the previous year to repeat itself. After the most recent show ended, Brian Moylan at The Guardian wrote:

Everyone’s biggest problem with the Emmys is that it never changes. Modern Family, a crusty donut left out on the office counter overnight, took home the top honor for comedy and actor Ty Burrell won an award for it, too. Jim Parsons got his third Emmy for The Big Bang Theory, because getting $1m an episode isn’t reward enough… at some point during the telecast, it felt like we were drowning in the straight white males of late night talk shows. There was Meyers and Kimmel but then there was Fallon and Colbert and then Fallon again and then Colbert again and then Jay Leno. The Emmys don’t change because the establishment never changes and just as only straight white guys are allowed to host talk shows, those same people are only allowed to be professionally funny.

In fact the only person of color to receive an award on stage last night was Cary Joji Fukunaga, who won for his directing on True Detective.

To be fair, there were a few well-known people of color who were awarded Emmys for their great work on several of TV’s buzziest shows this past year. Scandal’s Joe Morton took home the “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series” trophy (though his co-star, Kerry Washington, lost to two-time winner Julianna Margulies in the “Outstanding Lead Actress” category), while Uzo Aduba won the honor of “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series” for her performance on Orange. However, both Aduba and Morton got their awards before Monday’s ceremony, at the Creative Arts Emmys on August 16th.

It’s not entirely appropriate to blame all of this on Modern Family. With two Latino cast members, two cast members playing gay (one of whom is gay in real life), and one Asian member of the ensemble, Modern Family could be doing worse in terms of diversity. But Modern Family’s repeated dominance in this category has left a sore spot for some, especially when they’ve gone up against more unique and daring television. Sarah Larson talked about this yesterday in the New Yorker, writing, “As the night went on, we heard the Modern Family song too many times—a sound that for me, in Emmys past, has become synonymous with rage—in part because the Family members expect that they’ll be onstage, winning things, and they seem a little too comfortable with noodling around while they’re there.”  

To make matters worse, the most recognizably non-white actor from Modern Family, Sofia Vergara, was featured in a bit wherein Television Academy chairman Bruce Rosenblum put her up on a rotating platform to distract from a boring speech he was giving, like she was a fancy car. The moment instantly elicited cries of sexism and objectification, although Vergara herself has since shot down this notion.

Regardless of Vergara’s part in and feelings about the bit, the whole thing definitely left a sour taste in some viewers mouths, especially in relation to the Emmys overall relationship to women, not to mention womens’ current relationship to TV. Larson continues:

Toward the end of the sixty-sixth annual Emmy Awards… Julianna Margulies won for lead actress in a drama series and said, ‘What a wonderful time for women on television!’ And she’s right—it’s the golden age of television, as we’re well aware, a time of complex, well-written roles for women as inmates, teachers, detectives, lawyers, veeps, and Targaryens. But when Margulies said this, a big laugh went up on Twitter, and in living rooms all over the country—because, yet again, we’d been watching an Emmys show whose jokes were not so golden age. Minutes before, we’d witnessed Sofia Vergara, in a long white dress, spinning on a pedestal…

…More weirdness came when the wonderful Stephen Colbert won for, as Gwen Stefani put it, ‘The Colbort Report,’ and when Jimmy Fallon and Colbort did a bit pretending that Fallon was claiming the award because she said it wrong. Colbert whispered in Fallon’s ear, and then, when that was over, thanked his excellent team of writers, a bunch of guys ‘and one woman—sorry for that, for some reason.’ I can’t believe that he meant to be dismissive, but he sounded it. And then we got to see Sofia Vergara, spinning interminably on that revolving platform.

Larson contends that the LGBT community didn’t fare much better either. Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, also expected to clean up, lost most of the awards it was nominated for, though it did come away with the biggest prize it was up for, the “Outstanding Television Movie” award. This wasn’t quite enough for Larson though, who claims, “In the category of supporting actor in a miniseries or movie, dominated by actors from HBO’s long-time-coming adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart—Come on, Normal Heart!, I thought—all five heads in the multi-cam shot seemed surprised when Martin Freeman, of Sherlock, won. And Freeman’s head wasn’t even moving—he wasn’t there. Nor was Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who later beat out The Normal Heart’s Mark Ruffalo. Nothing against Sherlock, but it didn’t feel right.”

Sherlock is a very good show. And Modern Family isn’t bad either. The trouble is, compared to OITNB and The Normal Heart, neither reads as exceptionally vital.

Choosing Modern Family over OITNB is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, since it’s almost as if Emmy voters are saying they’re in favor of progress, as long as there isn’t too much progress at once. In 2009, Modern Family signified an undoubted achievement for diversity on television. But in 2014—when 19 states allow gay marriage, when people are swarming the streets of Ferguson in protest, when rape on college campuses has gotten so bad that the White House is involved—that achievement seems rather minor. Modern Family is somewhat progressive, but unlike Orange, it isn’t groundbreaking.

Modern Family is a comedy, it doesn’t need to go into the serious stuff the way Orange Is the New Black does,” some will say in response to this. And that’s true. But shouldn’t OITNB get points for being funny and heartbreaking, while delving into the “serious stuff” at the same time? Shouldn’t we reward shows that can reflect the zeitgeist, without ever ceasing to entertain?

Moylan goes to wind up his piece for The Guardian by declaring, “What is so maddening about all this is that we know that TV is changing and we love it. For us hardcore fans who rip through Orange Is the New Black—a show created by and written by women, starring almost entirely all women, many of whom are of color, gay and transgender—we know there is an alternative.”

Knowing there is an alternative isn’t enough though. What we really need is to see that alternative where all the rest of America can see it. Not to take anything away from Morton and Aduba’s wins, but by pushing their triumphs out of the telecast, the Emmys are essentially making them guests at the table in more than just category. These actors weren’t completely invisible on Monday night, as they both presented at the ceremony, but that doesn’t mean to stop hoping for a day when one can see as many performers like Aduba and Morton on the telecast as there are white faces.

The Emmys are doing better with diversity than they have in the past, without a doubt. However, if Monday night demonstrated one thing, it’s that they are still too inclined to play it safe. Giving out a few awards to non-straight/white talents, like they’re executing their own brand of affirmative action, isn’t enough. The best thing about television is its potential to be watched by all, but if that potential is to be fully fulfilled, then all must be represented, too.

Photo via sean s/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.