Most of this year's Primetime Emmy Awards will be given out tonight. Not the most famous or the most discussed awards — those will happen next Sunday, and they'll be televised. Jon Hamm will look dapper, Julianna Margulies will look beautiful, and they'll be showered with well-deserved praise.
But most of the actual grungy, often unglamorous work that goes into making television is honored tonight at the Creative Arts Emmys, where the people who do makeup and hair, the people who build and light sets, and the people who shoot and edit shows are acknowledged. There are a couple of more glamorous categories that live at this ceremony, too, including awards for guest actors that could potentially go to people like Justin Timberlake and Matt Damon, as well as the award for reality-show hosting that will probably go to Survivor's Jeff Probst again. (He's won several times, now, although there's a lot of affection for So You Think You Can Dance host Cat Deeley.)
Even if you don't know what sound mixing is — and let's face it, many civilians don't know what sound mixing is, even though every good show needs it — some of these people are doing things that may well constitute a huge part of why you like the shows you like.
Janie Bryant of Mad Men is nominated for an Emmy Award for costuming for the episode, "The Beautiful Girls."
Janie Bryant of Mad Men is nominated for an Emmy Award for costuming for the episode, "The Beautiful Girls." Michael Yarish/AMC
Consider Mad Men's costume designer, Janie Bryant, who's nominated for Outstanding Costumes For A Series. Specifically, she and costume supervisor Le Dawson are nominated for the episode "Beautiful Girls," which focused on the show's female characters. It ended on a lovely shot of Joan, Peggy and Faye in the elevator, very different women questioning some of their own choices after seeing an older woman drop dead at her desk. And what they're wearing — look at Peggy's hands-off white gloves and Faye's sedate suit covering up the splashes of sunny yellow — has everything to do with all of that conflict.
The creepy realism of AMC's zombie show, The Walking Dead, is executed not only by the show's writers and actors, but also by its prosthetic makeup team, which is up against a Grey's Anatomy episode about a man with an awful skin problem, an episode of Game Of Thrones, NBC's extremely short-lived The Cape, and — oddly enough — the zombie makeup from Glee's post-Super Bowl episode. Without the makeup, there are no zombies, and without zombies, it's just The Walking Tired.
The prosthetic makeup team at The Walking Dead created very creepy zombies right from the first episode.
The prosthetic makeup team at The Walking Dead created very creepy zombies right from the first episode. Scott Garfield/AMC
Maybe you're not so highbrow. Maybe you like reality shows. When it comes to those, much of the pacing and wit (if there is some) comes from the editors who create the silent and often opinionated voice of the show, not so much by altering what happens as by pushing disparate comments or behaviors together to underline their significance. They're also largely responsible for trying to create suspense in situations that amount to foregone conclusions, which is no easy task. And, indeed, editing tends to single out respected shows with interesting production challenges about as well as any category: the higher-end shows that are nominated: this year it's Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, Top Chef, and Deadliest Catch.
Furthermore, if those are the kinds of shows you like, you'd better be grateful for the teams that actually shoot them, who figure out how to be where they need to be at the time they need to be there, sometimes in brutal and chaotic conditions. The cinematography nominees for reality shows are from Intervention, Deadliest Catch, Survivor, The Amazing Race and Top Chef.
Honestly, the more cinematic television becomes, the more it competes with film, the more important these people are. Television was, for quite a while, largely very cheap-looking. There were always exceptions, of course — there was often a higher standard for period pieces, glamor projects, and marquee events like the big broadcast miniseries that have largely gone out of fashion. But now, ordinary serialized television is up against such stiff competition that it cannot afford to be complacent about its look and feel. Genuinely gorgeous, inventive programs like not only Mad Men and The Walking Dead but also lesser-known achievements like ABC's short-lived but luscious Pushing Daisies and the unconventional handheld look of Friday Night Lights have raised the bar for the artistry that viewers notice and talk about. And it's the people in these categories who pull much of that off.
The DVR has even forced advertisers to become more inventive, because there's so much fast-forwarding going on that an ad may wind up having as much value as a viral video as it does on broadcast television. It makes some sense, then, that the Emmys also now recognize commercials, where there's genuine craft to be found, along with some wit. This year's nominees include the Old Spice "Questions" follow-up to last year's winning blockbuster, Conan O'Brien's glass-blowing spot for American Express, Subaru's heart-tugging "Baby Driver," the Nissan LEAF spot that implies that polar bears would really appreciate your investment in an electric car, a sweet McDonald's ad playing on the familiar idea of a parent driving a baby around to soothe him, and Chrysler's salute to Detroit.
Unfortunately, the awards tonight aren't telecast live or webcast, though a taped version will air next Saturday on Reelz (that's the channel you may have wondered whether you had back when they showed the Kennedys miniseries). But if you keep an eye on your Twitter feed or you check the entertainment news tomorrow morning, you should be able to find out who takes most of them home. These aren't the most highly celebrated folks in television, but they're unquestionably some of the most important.