As the TV Landscape Shifts, Emmy Voters Stick With What They Know

Forget the show itself--the winners list ended up being a near carbon-copy of 2013's. As the TV landscape changes, are voters clinging harder to the shows they love?

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This year’s Emmys were so drearily familiar, it would have counted as a shocking shake-up if they’d handed out the comedy and drama series awards to The Big Bang Theory and Downton Abbey. Almost no new winners took the stage during the efficiently-hosted, unambitious ceremony (Seth Meyers was at neither his cutting best nor smarmy worst) and by the time Modern Family creator Steve Levitan tried to give his fifth consecutive victory speech some gravitas, the cloying orchestra music playing him off seemed especially welcome.

Modern Family is not a terrible show, although it should by no means have equaled the Emmy record for consecutive Comedy Series wins. Breaking Bad, the Drama Series winner, was a tremendous show that made serious waves in the zeitgeist as it wrapped up its phenomenal run, and is exactly the kind of work the Emmys should be awarding, but after its cast swept the acting categories (all making return trips to the winner’s circle) it was hard to greet its victory with more than an appreciative grumble.

Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP

It was hardly surprising but somewhat ironic that Meyers was NBC’s pick to host this year. As the still-new host of Late Night, he represents an ongoing transitional moment in the late-night TV landscape, which may or may not still matter to television depending on what thinkpiece you’re reading. He repeatedly kidded Netflix and other streaming networks for horning in on premium cable, which has been Bigfooting the Emmys year after year, but as is usual with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, there was an unwillingness to adopt an “out with the old, in with the new” approach.

Take Orange is the New Black, one of the buzziest new shows of the year, which seemed to have some forward momentum going into the ceremony with a Guest Acting win for Uzo Aduba last weekend. It had built genuine word-of-mouth, the kind of publicity even Netflix couldn’t generate just through aggressive advertising, over the summer of 2013. Its loss to Modern Family echoed the buzzy first season of Desperate Housewives and the incredible second season of Arrested Development losing to Everybody Loves Raymond’s ninth in 2005—the more-dramatic hour-long comedy that plays with its format losing to much more dependable, uninspiring stuff (and I say this as someone who never loved Desperate Housewives).

Even if Orange was too dramatic for its iffy comedy categorization to triumph, it’s baffling that the critically worshipped third season of Veep (which won a third Emmy—another reliable one—for its star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or the daring long-form storytelling of this season of Louie couldn’t get a look-in. Or even the biggest sitcom on TV, The Big Bang Theory, which has been plugging away with similar reliability for many years but always gets its own pat on the head in the form of a trophy for Jim Parsons (who won for the fourth time in five years).

Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP

Over in Drama, Breaking Bad’s victory lap was only surprising in its complete totality—Anna Gunn was a favorite, to be sure, and Aaron Paul is clearly beloved, but that Cranston won a fourth trophy over the blinding star power of reigning Oscar champ Matthew McConaughey, who was both a genuine sensation on True Detective and an object of slavish attention throughout the ceremony, was a terrific indication that Emmy voters tend to stick with what they know. It is harder to quibble with Bad’s wins, because the tapes submitted by all three actors were unquestionably fine submissions.

But boggle at this: in the last four years, Breaking Bad has won nine Emmys while its partner in AMC prestige Mad Men has won zero (and has still never captured an acting win). Even the show we all roll our eyes at for being over-awarded is in Breaking Bad’s shadow. It’s long been an Emmys pattern—pick a hit, and stick with it, even after its best days have receded (The West Wing), if they were ever there (James Spader and William Shatner in Boston Legal). Genuine four-quadrant hits like Lost and 24 have snagged Series trophies in years where they made a water-cooler splash, but in this vibrant but more-diffuse era, it may be harder to pick out what hype is real and what’s just being ginned up by excited critics.

Luckily for the Emmys, no one treats the show itself with the kind of reverence devoted to the Oscars (which puts on a bad show half the time but always gets rightfully slaughtered for it the next morning). Meyers leaned on what he does best—a set-up, joke, set-up, joke monologue—and he did the same slightly nervy, practiced-seeming work he’s been doing on Late Night (the man is still better behind a desk, or a podium, as he was for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner). I can find no real fault in his work—it was better than Jimmy Kimmel or Jane Lynch in the last few years, but his finest moments came when he ceded the screen to his buddies, particularly Billy Eichner and Andy Samberg.

Some moments clanged horribly and were rightly, and quickly, excoriated by the Twitterati watching at home. The gag of putting Sofia Vergara on a revolving pedestal as the Emmy President droned on about whatever was the oldest pitch in the book—“it’s the boring part, so we put a pretty broad on the screen to distract everyone!” and rang horribly false—although we must depressingly acknowledge that this kind of reductive nonsense happens all the time, or did you forget about Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs”?

But awards ceremonies are remembered more for their winners than anything else, and a year that, when recited, sounds almost exactly like the one before, it not going to wedge itself in anyone’s mind. Whether the Academy has to attempt an umpteenth shake-up of its voting procedures or simply weather the hard truth that its members will probably pick the safest options time and again, it’ll be hard to anticipate any real surprises next year. Does it really seem so crazy to predict Modern Family, Jim Parsons and Julia Louis-Dreyfus heading the Comedy winners next year? Would anyone have called you crazy for making that call in 2013?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.