Op-Ed: Emmys Play It Too Safe With Comedies
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And now the opinion page. The big winners at last night's Emmy Awards included Showtime's drama "Homeland," the HBO movie "Game Change," and, if you follow the Emmys in recent years, a very familiar title.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 64TH ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS")
MICHAEL J. FOX: And the Emmy goes to "Modern Family."
CONAN: Michael J. Fox presenting the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series to ABC's "Modern Family," the third consecutive year that show's won that award. It also picked up three others. The results surprise few but puzzle Albert Ching. In a recent op-ed entitled "The Emmys Need To Get Over Modern Family," he wrote, the Emmys have a puzzling attitude towards comedy. He points to the dominance of "Modern Family" is proof the Emmys play it too safe and reward the same things over and over again.
If you watched the Emmys, who do you think got unfairly overlooked? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Albert Ching is a reporter with the site Newsarama. His op-ed, "The Emmys Need To Get Over Modern Family," ran in The Atlantic last week and joins us now by smartphone from Los Angeles. Nice to have you with us today.
ALBERT CHING: Hello, Neal. Nice to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: And what's wrong with "Modern Family"?
CHING: Well, you know, it's not so much what's wrong with "Modern Family." It's more what's right with so many other comedies that are on television right now that are not only getting overlooked but plain, old dominated by "Modern Family" now winning best comedy three years in a row and kind of, sort of monopolizing almost every category it was nominated in to the extent where, I think, for best supporting actor in a comedy series, four of the six picks were all from "Modern Family."
CONAN: For those unfamiliar with the program, can you capsulize it for us?
CHING: Sure. Absolutely. It's about a modern family, believe it or not, and the patriarch, played by Ed O'Neill, who people probably know from "Married with Children," and he has a much younger wife played by Sofia Vergara, and they have a child. And then he has two adult children who have families of their own: a daughter played by Julie Bowen, who won yesterday for best supporting actress in a comedy series, and her husband and their three children, and then his son played by Jesse Tyler Fergusson and his husband played by Eric Stonestreet, who won outstanding supporting actor in comedy series, a gay couple, and their adopted daughter.
CONAN: So extended family, three families in all. A show you say is presented without the concept of irony.
CHING: Yes. You know, definitely, it's a more conventional sitcom than many other shows that are on right now that are getting acclaim and a lot of buzz. And I think that has a lot to do with why it's so popular. It's definitely a show that anyone can watch. You know, other than some of the family dynamics obviously, it's a show that could've been on, you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago. It's a sitcom about a family and has very universal, relatable messages, which is admirable but not always necessarily translating to funny.
And there are a lot of other shows right now - I talk about "Louie," "Community," in my Atlantic article - that, you know, kind of challenge dynamics more, have a little bit more of an unconventional approach and also manage to be quite funny. And themes that, you know, if "Modern Family" was nominated for one or two Emmys or three, you know, I don't think anyone would blink an eye over the fact that it gets nominated for so many and win so many and not just Emmys but Writers Guild, SAG Awards, et cetera. That kind of raises the eyebrows a bit.
CONAN: You say the damning thing about the show is that it's named as the favorite by both of our presidential candidates.
CHING: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, I think it's pretty fair to say that that's the type of softball question that is designed to appeal to as wide as a base as possible, which I think says a lot about "Modern Family." It's designed to appeal to as wide as a base as possible. I suppose the Romney and Obama campaigns feel that it's the right show to link up their public image with, then I think that says that it's not necessarily the most daring or innovative voice on television right now.
CONAN: And interesting that you say they're playing it safe with comedies but not so much on the dramas.
CHING: Yeah. You know, the drama categories, I think, as a whole has been better for a long time than the comedy categories. You know, there was a notable exception that the show, "The Wire," which a lot of critics and viewers, you know, kind of view as either one of or the best television series of all time actually only got nominees for two awards in its entire existence and lost both of them. But in recent years, "Breaking Bad" has been recognized a lot. Bryan Cranston won three years in a row. He didn't win last night, but he won three years in a row. Aaron Paul won last night for the second time for best supporting actor. "Mad Men" won several years in a row. It lost last year, and last year was the big night for "Homeland." And I think if you look at any...
CONAN: Last night.
CHING: Last night, yes, excuse me. If you look at any of the nominees for best drama, I think they're all sort of ones that you would, you know, generally include in the conversation of, OK, well, these are the best drama shows on TV. You might not agree with the individual pick. But when you look at the comedy series nominees, it's much more mixed tag.
CONAN: And why is it then that they would be - "Homeland," an edgy drama, would be voted - sweep the awards for drama...
CONAN: ...and aren't these the same people who are voting for these?
CHING: Yeah. You know, it's hard to say exactly the whims of award show voters. You know, that's a mindset that I can't personally claim any insight to, nor maybe would I want to. It's definitely a kind of a befuddling situation, and it's - maybe just comedy is more subjective in general than drama. I suppose that could be part of it and just maybe more of a mixed field in terms of styles of comedy and approaches. That could be a reason, but that is a total guess.
CONAN: We're talking with Albert Ching, a reporter for Newsarama, about the Emmys last night. If you think you have one of your favorites that was unfairly overlooked, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start off with Dan. Dan's on the line with us from Salt Lake City.
DAN #1: Well, thank you. I'm a huge fan of the show.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
#1: I've - well, I personally thought last night that "Sherlock" was overlooked. I think that show has - well, just - I have two college age daughters, and they watch the series. I've always been a big fan of it. And it's so good that it took young college girls and made them huge fans of the show.
CONAN: That's the British update of Sherlock Holmes, not to be confused with "Elementary," the American update of Sherlock Holmes, which I think debuts this week.
#1: Yeah. Well, I have a hard time believing they're going to do a better job.
I just think those two - the Watson character is back to the original. He's a brave medical doctor who've seen a lot of action, and he's not a idiot. And it's such a fabulous - and the plot twists in the one they - the one that was nominated, "Scandal," I think it was called, "Belgravia," the plots or twists, you couldn't see it coming. I can guarantee you that.
CONAN: Albert Ching, are you a fan of BBC's "Sherlock"?
CHING: Yes. It's a great show, and it was refreshing to see it get a few nominations, but not entirely surprising that it didn't win.
CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call.
#1: Hey, I appreciate it. (Unintelligible)...
CONAN: Are foreign-made TV shows at a disadvantage, unlike at the Oscars where they seemed to win all the time?
CHING: Yeah. You know, it definitely seems that way. And I think it's only in recent years that they've been sort of creeping into the nominee list more and more. And, you know, part of that is just plain practicality, that more of these shows are available to be watched in America and broadcast on American networks like PBS and BCC America than they were before.
CONAN: Let's go to...
CHING: So it's probably something that will change in time.
CONAN: Another Dan is on the line with us from Seymour, Connecticut.
DAN #2: How are you guys doing?
#2: Just - it didn't go, you know, under the radar that Amy Poehler again (unintelligible) her bit with Louis-Dreyfus. But I mean, she writes, she produces, she stars in "Parks and Rec," which I think is just - it's a great commentary on American political life, and they do it tactfully. They don't do it with condemnation. And I think that she just kind of gets overlooked too often. But my other (unintelligible) tossing aside of "Community," which if you don't know much about, it's absolutely heralded by critics, but it doesn't (unintelligible) the same wide appeal. And it's got this beautiful characters, difficult characters to work with, I mean one with Asperger's. And I mean, they somehow have made Chevy Chase relatable and somewhat adorable. And - but I mean, they're incredible characters, incredible character arcs. They just kind of get swept under the rug.
CONAN: Thanks very much. I appreciate it, Dan. You had cited, Albert Ching, "Community" as one of those you thought got overlooked.
CHING: Yeah. "Community" is a brilliant show. It's managed to, you know, it actually - it sort of does touch on some of the conventional sitcom tropes in the same way that "Modern Family" does, but in a very different way, I should say. It has a very like innovative way of sort of subverting them and looking at them, but it also manages to be heartwarming at times when it needs to be, and it's also absolutely hilarious. It's very intricately written. And they do a lot of fun, experimental episodes that you may have heard about and - but then also may just do a plain, straight-up episode of people, you know, wacky misfits at a community college that's just as good, just as satisfying. So I think it's a real special show.
CONAN: Heartwarming when it needs to be. That's usually about 26 minutes after the program starts, the aww moment, to be followed by another gag.
CHING: Yeah, but in "Community" it's done it in a much more elegant manner and a much more surprising manner.
CONAN: Let's go to Keith. Keith with us - another caller from Salt Lake City.
KEITH: Yes, hi. I actually am a comedian and also a TV comedy writer, and I have to disagree with Mister Ching in this regard, even though I agree that all the shows he has mentioned are really excellent. But I do think it's harder to write a slice-of-life comedy than it is to have either a reference-heavy comedy show or a show that relies on fringe characters. I think those are automatically interesting for their novelty and therefore it's easy to generate comedy moments. And it's also, I think, there's sort of a giddy factor when people see characters doing something that they haven't seen before. I think they invest comedy excellence into that that may or may not exist.
And I think that this is really a battle between the alt(ph) generation and the classic comedy generation. I produce shows as well, and I use alt comedians even though I'm more of a classic comedian myself because I'm not dismissive generationally. But I think this is a bit of a power play going on between the, you know, the - the "Family Ties" raised generation and the generation that immediately proceeded it. I have to take issue with anyone who says that "Modern Family" isn't doing something really extraordinary, because I think they are.
CONAN: Albert Ching.
CHING: Well, I would say that a lot of the comedies I mentioned, if not all of them, are slice-of-life comedies, albeit it in a different fashion than "Modern Family." Certainly the show "Louie" on FX, which is brilliant, is one of the most realistic things I've seen on TV in terms of, you know, his portrayal and a lot of situations are explored. And you know, "Community" does have a lot of references, yes, but the heart of it the characters and their relationships. And if there was just references, then I don't think it would be nearly as satisfying, nor as heralded as it has been.
KEITH: Well, let me just say before I go away that "Louie" is my favorite show on TV. So I didn't mean to be dismissive of "Louie," but I do think that it's not the case that shows like "Community" are - I don't think they're taking the hard route. I think they're taking the easy, we're-different-than-the-old-people route, and that's - there are certainly validity to that, but I don't think - there's a sort of a meta-reality to "Community," you know, the post-ironic comedy movement, that doesn't seem capable of just having a moment. To me, "Community" is like the Burt Reynolds of sitcoms, you know, just constantly winking at the camera.
KEITH: And we all know what happened to Burt Reynolds. You know, he's got his place in movie history, but it's not one that's ever going to be considered timeless. I mean, there's a reason that "Seinfeld" is considered timeless, and it's not because of yada-yada-yada. It's not because of, you know, not that there's anything wrong with it. It's because slice of life is the hardest thing to do. And they did it beautifully, and it just so happened that coincidentally he was a comedian. But look at the amount of time you spend time thinking about "Louie" as comedian versus the amount of time you spent thinking about "Seinfeld" as comedian; you'll see - that's the difference in the generations.
CONAN: Keith, you overlooked "Boogie Nights." But anyway, thanks very much.
KEITH: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. We're talking with Albert Ching about last night's Emmy Awards. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email from Scott in Jamestown, New York: Jon Stewart took to the task about the Emmys being predictable in his acceptance speech, and he was cut off. Have to admire the guy that will bite the hand that just awarded him. Was he cut off or did their bleeper just run out of juice?
CHING: Yeah. I know he was bleeped at least a couple of times, I believe. I don't know exactly what - if he was cut off, or if it was the bleeps, or if he was just going on too long in general. I'm just not sure what the case was there.
CONAN: Is there a relationship between the shows that are critically acclaimed - and as you mentioned, "The Wire," hard to find a show that critics love more than that - and the Emmy Awards that it collects?
CHING: You know, I think it's often a type of show that it can be critically acclaimed and also win awards. But then on the other hand, shows that maybe delve more into some of the fringe genres, like sci-fi, you know, I mean when "Battlestar Galactica" was on TV, especially for its first couple seasons, it was as acclaimed as almost everything else on TV, same with "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." Those were huge critical successes and almost completely unrecognized by the Emmy Awards. And I think it just depends on the type of show and sort of a lot of it is kind of the mainstream appeal. I can't necessarily explain why since theoretically that wouldn't have to have much to do with an award based on qualitative merits, but that does seemed to be the case.
CONAN: Let's get one, last caller in. Tara(ph) is with us. Tara's in Peoria.
TARA: Hi. I was really disappointed to see that "Girls" on HBO didn't win - well, they only thing they did win was outstanding casting for a comedy series, whereas Lena Durham does everything for that show and didn't get any recognition.
CONAN: Interesting also that, as you pointed out in your piece, it's the - in the drama category, the networks all but got shot out. In the comedy category the networks ruled.
CHING: Yeah, it is interesting. And, you know, I think, again, it probably has to do with comedies being more easily appealing on network TV and that the ones that are on network TV are usually a little bit more straightforward. And also while cable channels, especially premium channels, definitely deal more with drama series, they don't really have quite as many, I think. I mean, I can't say that as a 100 percent perfect statistic, but I just think that there are more dramas on cable than premium cable than there are comedies. There's just more to choose from.
CONAN: I guess the exception to the rule would be "Veep," and Julia Louis-Dreyfus did win for that last night.
CHING: She did. And, you know, I think that also can point to the Emmys being the sort of safe in the comedy categories. You know, nothing against the show "Veep," but it definitely show that I don't necessarily sense a lot of enthusiasm for and, you know, it's hard to get someone more reliable in terms of television awards than Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
CONAN: Tara, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
TARA: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Albert Ching, thank you for your time today.
CHING: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Albert Ching, a reporter with the website Newsarama, joined us by smartphone from Los Angeles. You can find a link to his piece on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
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