The Emmy nominations are in, and the topline news is as unsurprising as could be: Mad Men still huge! Modern Family still huge! Downton Abbey prestigious! Not exactly a bolt from the blue.
But on to what's really important: as usual, my Emmy predictions were horrible. So, in fairness, were a lot of other people's. But hey, the best we can do is look at our mistakes, so here are the biggest things I got wrong.
Underestimating Downton Abbey
The second season of Downton Abbey was much less well-received than the first season, both critically and in the community I'll call "gabbers" — the people you hear talking casually about it. The first season, people were almost uniformly rapturous; this season, it had a lot of doubters, and even people who loved it — like me — couldn't help noticing some blind alleys in the plot and a few too many contrivances, even for what's essentially a soap.
Moreover, last year, Downton competed as a miniseries/movie, a category in which only a handful of networks seriously compete. This year, it was bumped up to competition as a drama series, and that puts it up against all the prestige projects that TV-philes love the most — Breaking Bad, Mad Men, stuff like that. It seemed like the competition should be stiffer and the show felt less accomplished, so perhaps its moment had passed. It hasn't. Not only was the show recognized for Outstanding Drama Series, but it earned nominations for Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery (the Earl of Grantham and Lady Mary) in the lead categories and for Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess), Joanne Froggatt (Anna), Brendan Coyle (Bates) and Jim Carter (Carson) in supporting categories.
Despite the fact that broadcast television has lost much of its grip on the Emmys to cable, there have been shows like House, The Good Wife, Lost and Grey's Anatomy that have continued, depending on the year, to grab nominations. Many of us expected that The Good Wife would hang in there in the Drama Series category to represent commercial broadcast television. As recently as five years ago (2007), four out of the five Outstanding Drama Series nominees — Boston Legal, Grey's Anatomy, Heroes, and House — were commercial broadcast shows. (They all lost to The Sopranos.)
This year, there are none. It's all cable — Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Homeland, and Mad Men — and PBS's Downton Abbey.
In fact, of the 30 nominations in the five major drama categories (series, supporting actor and actress, lead actor and actress), a total of four — four! — come from commercial broadcast shows, and they're all for performances by actresses: Julianna Margulies, Archie Punjabi and Christine Baranski, all from CBS's The Good Wife, and Kathy Bates from NBC's now canceled Harry's Law. All commercial broadcast actors, as well as all ABC and Fox dramas, were locked out of those major categories, as was every NBC drama that will still be on this fall.
Broadcast television is certainly not dead — the comedy categories are substantially more balanced, with nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series going to The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and 30 Rock as well as cable's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls and Veep. And it still shows strongly in reality and to a lesser extent variety categories. But boy, on the drama side, it is being crowded out by cable, and now by PBS. People still include broadcast when they think about quality comedy, but right now, it's showing no ability to keep up with what's happening in drama elsewhere when it comes to prestige.
— While Downton made it in as a drama series, FX's polarizing American Horror Story was considered as a miniseries/movie, where it cleaned up with 17 nominations, including ones for Connie Britton, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, and Denis O'Hare. That would not have happened if it had competed as a drama series, you can believe. Sherlock also stayed in miniseries/movie categories, where it received 13 nominations.
— Comedies are always quirky, in that they can be nominated for most of the most important things that go into making them, and yet not nominated for Comedy Series overall. That happened this year to both Louie (nominated for writing, directing, and the performance of Louis C.K.) and to Parks And Recreation (nominated for writing, writing again, and the performance of Amy Poehler). Community, too, got a writing nomination (predictably, for the crazy episode "Remedial Chaos Theory"), but nothing else. That means four out of the five writing nominations — other than the pilot of Lena Dunham's Girls — went to comedies that did not go on to be Comedy Series nominees.
— Even though Emmy nominations can be boring, there are always some that are a pleasant surprise — Merritt Wever has a lot of fans of her work on Nurse Jackie, and Mayim Bialik has become an increasingly vital part of the Big Bang Theory chemistry, and they were both nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy, as is Desperate Housewives' Kathryn Joosten, who passed away recently. And over in drama, Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad broke into the Emmys at last.
— It may seem like the nominations are stagnant, and in many ways, they are. But this was actually a reasonably good year for new (or new-ish) shows. Of the 12 Outstanding Comedy and Outstanding Drama Series nominees, two comedies (Girls and Veep) and two dramas (Downton and Homeland) are competing in those categories for the first time. New Girl had a good showing with nominations for Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield (who plays the perplexing Schmidt).
— Oh, and what about Smash? Well, other than nominations for music and choreography, it managed only one nomination, and it wasn't for obvious awards-bait Anjelica Huston. It was for Guest Actress Uma Thurman, who will compete with Joan Cusack (Shameless), Julia Ormond (Mad Men), Loretta Devine (Grey's Anatomy), Martha Plimpton (The Good Wife) and Jean Smart (Harry's Law).
In the end, the bottom line on the Emmy nominations is that while there are always disappointing omissions, part of the problem is that there's just a lot more stuff that's actually good than can be nominated. You can quibble here and there (or rage, in the case of the people who love the snubbed Justified and/or hate American Horror Story), but some of this is about abundance. Particularly in some of the supporting categories, there are a lot more than six good actors across all the shows on networks and cable. People lose out.
That's why it actually is an honor just being nominated.