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This is not the column where I tell you that the Primetime Emmys no longer reflect a changing TV landscape in which terms like “television,” “streaming” and “movies” have become so blurred that the only solution is an overhaul of a multitude of categories. It’s true, but there have to be limits.
You must have the serenity to accept that certain categorizations rely on subjectivity and thus you aren’t going to be able to do anything with how a panel decides to classify “drama” or “comedy.” That won’t stop me from saying ad nauseam that Succession is a comedy, that The Flight Attendant started off as a comedy but was clearly a drama by the end of its first season or that if you use actual discretion, something like Shameless should have been reclassified on a season-by-season basis.
There also has to be a modicum of acceptance that some categorizations are based on dishonesty. HBO submitted Lovecraft Country as a drama and canceled it one week after nomination voting ended, and it snagged an unexpected 18 noms, two more than Big Little Lies when it was a limited series and 13 more than Big Little Lies when it was a drama. I’m expecting HBO will wait to order more Mare of Easttown until after votes are tabulated in the limited series category, ditto with Disney+ and WandaVision.
Probably this isn’t the place to advocate for gender-free acting noms in general. Just expand the fields to 12 noms, remove gender designations and act like it’s 2021, folks. It’s less politically correct than practical. There was no reason why any other comedy actor needed to lose to Jason Sudeikis, so give America the Jason Sudeikis vs. Jean Smart showdown we deserve.
No, I’m keeping this simple. The TV Academy needs to do something about the variety fields, and they needed to have done it years ago. First and foremost and always, the problem is Saturday Night Live — a variety sketch show for series consideration and a comedy for its stars. But only as supporting? What sense does that make? Kate McKinnon playing 30 parts just isn’t the same as Juno Temple stealing a scene or two each episode of Ted Lasso. It’s bad enough that Emmy voters can’t figure out basic classification like, if Hannah Einbinder’s Ava is very clearly the structural protagonist of Hacks, why is she supporting and not co-lead?
If you give voters a bad system but an easy solution, they’re going to take the easy solution — which is five or six SNL actors a year in the comedy supporting fields and at least as many SNL hosts in the guest actor categories. There are actual high-quality actors eligible, and you’d never know because voters default to SNL hosts and big names like Don Cheadle and Claire Foy, rather than researching which superlative character actor had a standout episode of an acclaimed drama. The TV Academy tried to fix the guest category after Ellen Burstyn received her notorious nom for her 14 seconds in Mrs. Harris. They have not fixed the problem.
Nobody even tried to anticipate the issues that arose over Disney+’s Hamilton, which inexplicably was treated as a variety special (prerecorded) for overall noms but had its actors corralled into the limited/anthology/movie categories. Affection for the musical supernova pushed people like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonathan Groff (presumably nominated for outstanding supporting saliva) to noms in one of the most competitive years ever in the category, taking space that could have gone to Ethan Hawke for The Good Lord Bird or Bill Camp for The Queen’s Gambit.
I’m actually fairly understanding of the desire to recognize Hamilton, which I don’t reductively treat as “just a filmed version of a stage play.” No, they filmed it in an innovative way, using multiple cameras and performances and tricks of access to give an experience you’d never get in the theater. But if it was a variety special, the performances shouldn’t have been lumped into the wrong category. What’s funniest to me is that Hamilton nominees Renée Elise Goldsberry, Anthony Ramos and Daveed Diggs were all deserving of noms this year, but for Girls5eva, In Treatment and The Good Lord Bird.
This isn’t even hard: The Hamilton actors and the SNL performers needed to have been in a catch-all variety/sketch performance category. They’d be joined there by the spectacular stars of A Black Lady Sketch Show and probably any late night host who felt like they belong — an Amber Ruffin more than a John Oliver. Some years there might not be a Hamilton, but PBS regularly has a dozen Great Performances showcases made for this category.
And no, Bowen Yang competing against Leslie Odom Jr. for male variety performance isn’t really an exact match either, but it’s closer and cleaner than the current system. After you make the variety performance, then we figure out how to refine it. But that’s looking to the future, which is already when I’m going to propose fixes to an original song category too broken to respect Girls5eva‘s “New York Lonely Boy.”
This story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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