The awards show's fixation on the sitcom demonstrates that it still doesn't get comedy.
When the Emmy nominations were announced back in July, for the first time ever, none of the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series were from the four major broadcast networks. Cable channels have had a strong presence at the Emmys since at least the rise of The Sopranos, but the network shutout seemed to signal that the Emmys had abandoned their loyalty to traditional fare in favor of more diverse programming.
But the very organization—which gives out its awards Sunday night—allowed its comedy categories to continue to be dominated by old-school outlets. ABC's Modern Family was nominated 14 times, down from 17 a year ago but still formidable. The show's ubiquity is best illustrated in this year's "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series" contest, in which, for the second year in a row, four of the six nominees are from the series. The sitcom has essentially been playing a large-scale game of keep away with every other television comedy, hoarding scads of Emmys, multiple WGA Awards, and a Golden Globe after just three seasons. (To be fair, the show's lost all 13 Teen Choice Awards it's been up for, but watch your back, Vampire Diaries.)
Given those achievements, one would expect Modern Family to be the pinnacle of contemporary comedy, something that unites America through the power of laughter and defines an era the way Seinfeld and Cheers and M*A*S*H did in decades past. Yet those three shows, despite having been filmed many years ago, may ultimately be more modern than Modern Family, one of the most conventional series currently running despite its edgy-in-2003 mockumentary style.
Debuting in 2009, Modern Family presents the story of three interrelated families: one an older man, his much younger wife and their son; one a fairly standard nuclear family of five; and a gay couple and their adopted child. The underlying message that a family can be anything is certainly a positive one, but it's often expressed in a heavy-handed manner that feels like the sitcoms of yore rather than a product of today.
Modern Family seems to exist in a parallel universe where concepts like "irony" and "subtlety" don't exist; where of course gay characters are going to attend a Lady Gaga concert because, hello!; where saying something normal in a funny voice might be worth more than saying something funny in a normal voice; and where, hey, wouldn't it be something to have one nerdy daughter and one who loves the mall? In a cynical television world—have you seen TLC lately?—the show's earnestness could be viewed as refreshing, sure, and there's clearly a demographic who finds it highly appealing. But exactly what makes it superior to say, Louie, a once-in-a-lifetime work of art, is something that only award show voters may truly understand.
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While season two of Louie contained a story about the moral dilemma inherent in a friend planning to commit suicide, season three of Modern Family took the gang to Disneyland, where they (spoiler alert) learned a lesson about the true value of family.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against Modern Family is that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (on behalf of the Obamas as a whole) claim it as among their favorite shows. It would be worrisome enough if it was just coming from one of them—the entire point of a presidential candidate answering a question like that is to choose something as pleasantly inoffensive as possible—but the fact that both of them picked it, well, that's a Venn diagram of blandness from which nothing compelling can escape.
Modern Family is not a bad TV show. That would be a ridiculous claim in a world that has been terrorized by oppressively bad sitcoms (Work It, about two guys who dress up as women to get better jobs,was a real thing that was on TV this year, not 30 years ago). Yet the extent of its Emmy success is a curiosity, especially given the show's increasingly tepid critical reaction over the past season. Louie was nominated for three Emmys this year, but left out of the running for Outstanding Comedy Series. Community, which balances laughs and warmth in a far less treacly manner than Modern Family, got one writing nomination, the first Emmy notice in the show's three-year history. Nick Offerman's iconic portrayal of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation? No room for him with all those Modern Family dudes getting Outstanding Supporting Actor nods.
The Emmys have a puzzling attitude towards comedy in general. Modern Family is going for its third consecutive Outstanding Comedy award, and its fellow nominees include still-funny vets 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Girls, as legitimate of a pick as any. A third HBO series, Veep, is also on there even though it hasn't made much of an impact, perhaps coasting on its premium cable prestige. Then there's The Big Bang Theory, a populist choice like Modern Family, but without anything near the same level of critical reverence. (However, in the category of "show most constantly on in reruns," it would definitely give How I Met Your Mother some serious competition.) The acting categories tend to be a similarly mixed bag—Melissa McCarthy's talent is undeniable, but does anyone watch Mike & Molly and really think "award-worthy"?
There have been times where the Emmys have gotten it right, comedy-wise. Arrested Development's series victory in 2004 over establishment favorites like Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace was the equivalent of the Miracle on Ice to TV nerds. Yet the long history of not stepping outside the mainstream, rewarding the same things over and over and passing over legitimate contenders while nominating shows that only vaguely qualify as comedies (the uproarious Nurse Jackie!) is enough to make you think, hey, maybe award shows don't really matter very much (gasp!).
What makes this more befuddling is that, for the last couple of years, the drama Emmys have been pretty credible, now that the bizarre streak of refusing to acknowledge The Wire is behind them. Mad Men has been richly rewarded, though, with four straight victories, it's veering into Frasier territory. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have both won for their work on Breaking Bad, with the former up for his fourth victory in a row on Sunday. And there have been a few surprisingly hip choices like Peter Dinklage's victory in 2011 for Game of Thrones, and Michael Emerson two years earlier for Lost.
Comedy might still have a chance at the Emmys: At their smaller Creative Arts ceremony, held last week, Childrens Hospital, an Adult Swim show where Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain plays a recurring character named Rabbi McJewjew, won the award for "Outstanding Special Class - Short-format Live-Action Entertainment Program." Hope is not lost.