Orange is the New Black and the Need for Emmy Reform

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There’s a feeling of constant change afoot within the walls of Lichfield Prison in Orange Is The New Black’s great second season. Everyone’s favorite wet blanket, Piper Chapman, is adjusting to her prison lifestyle while continuing to burn bridges from her civilian life, perhaps quietly emerging as the story’s dark anti-hero. The arrival of a new inmate, the almost-too-cartoon-villainy Vee (saved by an ace performance by Yvonne Parker), causes Lichfield’s political structure to bend in her clique’s favor. Her presence further manipulates the already warped, dragon-loving psyche of fan-favorite Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, and completes ol’ Red’s downfall from kitchen overlord to desperate survivor. And Poussey, the only one who wants nothing to do with change in season two, becomes a straight-up hero for standing her ground.  About the only thing that doesn’t change is Larry continuing to suck – but it’s become such a fun American tradition to talk about how much Larry sucks that I could no longer imagine the show without him.

Tonight, Orange is the New Black is up for its first of many waves of Emmys to come. I’m pulling for it to win, not necessarily because I think it’s the best comedy on television (or even that I think it’s a comedy), but because by championing the degree to which people can change, it’s the perfect show to reflect recent, encouraging changes in the television landscape itself. It’s one of many shows that aren’t just fun to watch, but equally fun to talk about watching.

Whenever I bring up Orange is the New Black with women who watch the show – an admittedly small sample size consisting of my girlfriend, her sister, a local bartender, and my buddy’s fiancé – they react with almost a sense of pride. Here at last, only 70 or so years too late, is a show that women can embrace as their own, a celebration of female individuality that doesn’t patronize anyone by having that be its expressed mission statement. It doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test – it very nearly argues for the necessity of its inverse. On top of practically satirizing the male gaze in the form of George “Pornstahce” Mendez’s oily surveillance, it proves what should have been implied years ago: that strong central female characters can carry a show just as capably, and often more-so, as their male counterparts, who anchor the dramas the Emmy awards generally (albeit in lieu of many alternative options) cater towards. In stripping away everything from their make-up to the men who dictate segments of their lives, as occasionally seen in the show’s flashbacks, Orange frees its inmates from all the perceptions and misconceptions of the outside world. All that remains is a group of “criminal” women and a pervading sense of empathy that, when the show is at its best, recalls the effortless emotional heights of Friday Night Lights.

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But like recent male-driven dramas such as Breaking Bad and Netflix’s other successful original, House of Cards, Orange is an easy conversation starter for men and women alike. As shows with increased production values and narrative ambition are dropped into our Netflix queues at near-alarming rates (but please, let’s not dub this the “binge era”), they continue to dominate the cultural conversation. Meanwhile, this summer’s crop of Hollywood blockbusters have provided alarmingly little in the way of resistance. The “event” films that were such a large part of the social landscape even five years  ago – think Inception, The Dark Knight, or Avatar – simply aren’t the talking points they once were. Guardians of the Galaxy was good fun, but much of its buzz was a product of it standing out as a semi-original idea in a summer stuffed, even by current Hollywood standards, with sequels and remakes. The Faults in Our Stars, Captain America 2, and Planet of the Apes burned brightly before fizzling as quickly as a 4th of July sparkler. And while Richard Linklater’s indie-kingpin Boyhood is almost unprecedented in its rich content, any broad talking points inevitably center around its ambitious premise.

The gay Edge concurs.

The gay Edge concurs.

But while the roles of film and television are slowly reversing in our country, the award shows that celebrate them are not adapting to the change. The Academy Awards will never be perfect (just last week, I realized I had completely forgotten about The Artist, a film that won best picture less than three years ago), but they’ve at least responded to growing trends over the last decade and a half. Even as recently as 2000, who would have seen a best picture win for a Lord of the Rings adaptation, or a best supporting actor trophy for a guy in a Batman movie? The nominations will never not be divisive, but when the lists of the nine or ten films up for best picture are announced, there’s at least a bit of a common consensus that the majority of those films were innovative, important, or fantastically entertaining entries for the medium.

The Emmys, however, operate on a nomination level akin to the same NFL offensive linemen making the Pro Bowl year after year – once you break in the first time, you’re there forever unless something really goes wrong. This is known more commonly as the Tony Shalhoub Effect, in which you can be nominated a bonkers eight years in a row for playing an obsessive-compulsive detective, a number seemingly only halted when you die or your show is canceled. There are outliers – Michael Chiklis won for The Shield in its first season and was inexplicably not nominated again – but we are on the verge of a five-peat for Modern Family, an amusing show that came around at the height of the faux-documentary sitcom and, by all accounts, creatively waned since its first season. I haven’t seen this last season of Modern Family, just as I haven’t seen every show nominated this year – no one has, unless they have the time to watch television as a profession, and even then it’s near-impossible. But if Modern Family wins this year, it will have as many wins as Frasier. It will have one more win than Cheers. It will have two more wins than 30 Rock, and four more wins than both Seinfeld and Arrested Development. We don’t need to be so far removed to know that, when we look back on this list, we’ll look at the five-year run of Modern Family with a collective “huh?” It doesn’t have the lasting impact of any of those aforementioned shows today, and its fondness will only diminish over time, thanks to this Netflix-sponsored era that enabled us to move on from Breaking Bad in about three weeks. Just because a show was invited to the party once should no longer give it a Zoolander-level of entitlement to automatically walk up to the podium when there’s five or six Hansels sitting in the crowd.

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The acting categories have similar problems. While it’s a complete sin that Jon Hamm hasn’t won for his work on Mad Men yet, it’s absolutely no sin when Jon Hamm loses to the likes of Bryan Cranston or Kyle Chandler, tour de forces anchoring monumental shows of their own. But when Jeff Daniels wins, bringing with it the suspicion that Emmy voters may be overtly eager to win the approval of Hollywood’s stars as they transition to the more lucrative small screen, it establishes a dangerous precedent, suggesting a trajectory veering more towards the “look-at-us” Golden Globes than the “listen-to-us” Academy Awards. If Kevin Spacey takes home the Emmy tonight for a surly, repetitive performance that doesn’t scratch the surface of  Cranston or Matthew McConaughey’s immense emotional work over the past year, it will reek of an industry desperate to invite more top-tier talent into its growing family, rather than award the remarkable one it already has.

Blurring the issue further is the arrival of shows like True Detective – an one-off collection of episodes that uses nothing but its title to avoid a mini-series label, while transitioning to its next season of development with established brand-name recognition. It’s fantastic marketing, allowing it to attract A-list Hollywood talent by promising major exposure for minimal commitment. It also lets HBO hustle one of its prized new shows into an Emmy category it simply doesn’t belong in. Make no mistake, True Detective was gripping television, a seemingly existential piece of schadenfreude that meticulously revealed itself as a haunting, deeply-felt character study.  And if either Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson takes home the best lead actor trophy over Hamm or Cranston, it will be deserved in a manner that’s a far, far cry from Daniels over Hamm or, to go back a bit, James Spader over James Gandolfini.

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But FX chairman CEO John Landgraf was right when he said earlier this year that it was “unfair” for True Detective to submit itself in the best drama series category. In essence, he argues that shows like True Detective can collect a heap of trophies by presenting a self-contained story over that of a normal drama, which tells a small portion of a grander story every year. He’s completely, inarguably correct about this. While Mad Men dealt with the aftermath of Don’s banishment from his company while subsequently setting up its final season, and Game of Thrones’ Westeros recouped and planned for its next move after the events of season three’s Red Wedding, True Detective was able to spread a beginning, middle, and ending over eight dramatically tight episodes. The same goes for the actors and their characters. In any given season, we only see a single stage of Walter White’s villainous transformation. McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, meanwhile, was able to display the full depths of his character, over a span of several in-show years, eliminating the inherent handicap that most actors have in this category. Again, McConaughey is deserving of the award he’ll probably take home tonight, despite his obvious advantage. But it’s baffling why there’s not a system already in place to keep these anthology shows in the mini-series category, especially since American Horror Story seemed to set the precedent for it two years ago, and now similar shows, such as Fargo and Sherlock, are following suit.

It’s another matter of star power winning out, which is why if the Emmys are ever going to be taken as serious as the Academy Awards, the voting must be taken out of the hands of those who benefit from it. We need voters who are watching these shows to be in charge of Emmy voting. In sports, league Most Valuable Player awards are handed out by a national panel of sports columnists who, by and large, watch all of the games. The television industry is increasingly flooded by critics and bloggers with the same credentials those journalists have. It’s time to hand the vote over to the people who were there to witness the television’s transformation first-hand over the last decade, so that they can add legitimacy to its flagship awards show and help solidify the medium’s respectability moving forward.

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And now, my totally crap-shoot Emmy predictions:

Best Drama Series: True Detective
Best Comedy Series: Orange Is The New Black
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama: Robin Wright, House of Cards
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama: Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama: Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad (as Breaking Bad is shut out of everything else, the oft-reviled Skylar will justly get the last laugh.)
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama: Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy: Julia Louis-Dryfus, Veep
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy: Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy: Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy: Adam Driver, Girls (my out-of-left-field, why-not pick for the year. I look forward to going 0-10 overall.)

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