Another upside to the so-called “Golden Age of Television” we’re living in now is that what used to be a stale salute to homogenization — the annual Emmy Awards show — is in fact something worthy of note.
With the vigorous expansion of adult-friendly programming, almost all of it on cable channels, TV has shed most of the Eisenhower-era concepts of mass entertainment as reaffirmations of conventional values. Treacly sentiment and anachronistic cornball swagger are being squeezed by nuanced and less straight-forward heroics.
Today, television is regularly delivering programming appealing to viewers sophisticated enough to seek out and savor moral complexity, along, of course, with doses of gratuitous sex and violence. In other words, you can watch Sunday’s awards show and not feel like you’re trapped at your uncle’s Kiwanis luncheon.
The Emmys, coincidental with the start (more or less) of the new television season, also offer an opportunity to assess a couple of the main categories and reflect on the season gone by.
Conventional wisdom says that AMC’s “Mad Men,” which bowed out this past spring will win as the year’s Best Drama, beating HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Why? Because voters tend to get kind of sentimental about good series that take their final curtain, and because “Mad Men” it had the sort of cultural gravity that “Game of Thrones” (which has been nominated and lost every year it has been on the air) doesn’t.
“Mad Men’s” standing as one of TV’s bona fide classic dramas is not in dispute. Creator Matthew Weiner took a workplace ensemble concept that all too often is allowed to degenerate into thoroughly predictable camp and soapy melodrama and sustained a perceptive study of American mores, as they both shifted and repeated themselves in new forms.
But while “Game of Thrones” may have less to say about “making the sale, American-style,” it is and deserves to be formally lionized for bringing full-scale cinematic spectacle and literate writing/characterization to the no-longer-so-small home screen. I suspect that if Robert Bolt, the man behind the typewriter for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Man for All Seasons,” were still alive he’d regard “Game of Thrones” with much admiration.
The past year’s two disappointments, though they’re still nominated, are PBS’s “Downton Abbey” and Netflix’ “House of Cards.” The former is a taste I’ve never fully acquired. While I have no complaint with the performances, the plotting of the series has meandered too much to provoke anything more than a kind of respectful allegiance. That may be another way of saying it’s all a little too British for me.
“House of Cards,” though, seriously derailed in its third season. Inexplicably, the deliciously villainous Frank Underwood, the man who not only would but did resort to murder to gain the White House, was given acres of script to reinvent himself as … a statesman. Not only that, but how does Kevin Spacey’s utterly criminal POTUS, a 21st century evocation of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” consent to unloading vaults of psychologically revealing thought processes to a “biographer” other than as a hoary, expositional narrative device? “House of Cards” needs to re-find its obsidian soul.
“Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff was reliably entertaining. But its entire premiere season felt like a setup for the real show to kick in. Several of the elements that made “Breaking Bad” so entertaining are visible, the chronic venality of everyday citizens for one. But Bob Odenkirk’s Saul (aka “Jimmy”) isn’t cursed with Walter White’s sense of mortality or lust for the social dominance he believes is his due.
I have to take a pass on the other two series, “Homeland” and “Orange is the New Black” on the grounds that the now long-gone Brody’s perpetually mopey teenage daughter drove me away from that series in the third season, and I haven’t seen enough of “Orange is the New Black” (which is entered in this year’s Emmy-stakes as a drama instead of a comedy) to offer even suspect appraisal.
Jon Hamm, as the self-destructive and improbably resilient ad man Don Draper, seems on course to win as Best Actor, although to my mind Peter Dinklage (nominated as a Supporting Actor) on “Game of Thrones” holds your attention while on screen every bit as much as Hamm ever did.
Hamm’s castmate Elisabeth Moss, as Peggy, became “Mad Men’s” emotional anchor over its final seasons. Amid all the dissolution, selfinduced chaos, preening and subservience to commerce, Peggy shed her youthful blinders and grew into a human being most of us would be happy to know. None of that necessarily adds up to a great dramatic performance, but Moss created a character struggling to balance life’s accumulated set of grievances and misplaced affections while forging a path largely free of regret. Peggy, representing the Sixties evolution of women in the workplace, was a reliably fascinating character. I expect her to beat out women with more mainstream appeal, like Taraji P. Henson from Fox’s “Empire” (a show that would be a whole lot more interesting if transplanted to cable) and Viola Davis of ABC’s “How to Get away with Murder.”
Like a pee wee soccer league, the Emmys hand out so many awards in so many categories everyone has a good chance of going home a winner. But purely from the view of a consumer who used to surf past the show wondering, “Is this really the best stuff they’ve got?” and accept that the answer was, “As a matter of fact it is,” the 2015 Emmys demonstrate the continued maturation of a once-hidebound industry.