Emmys with a Side of Bacon: 2011 Edition

The 2011 Emmys take place tonight, and we’re still kind of squinting at them, trying to figure out what’s going on. We were prepared to post in outrage when the nominations came out, but with the exception of the nearly across-the-board snubbing of Community (boo! Boo, I say!) they were…largely adequate. No, seriously, we agreed with 56% of the nominations, which is more than double our norm, so it was hard to get too outraged. Whether this is because the academy is drawing closer to our tastes–or we to theirs–or just because we’re not terribly excited by the dramatic offerings so we shrugged and accepted what we were given, this could have been worse.

Still, we’re always interested in who wins, and are often astonished. And just as often, that astonishment is not the good kind. This leads to all kinds of curiosity about what people vote for and how they come to vote that way. We also wonder how outcomes might be different if different voting systems were used. So this year, we solicited our own Bacon voters and asked them to rank the nominees, just like the real voters do. Let me note for the record that our sample is small compared to the actual voting pool, and that it was certainly non-random (although the real Academy membership is, too). There’s another key difference between our voters and the real ones we’ll get to in a minute, but I can vouch for the fact that the Bacon pool is made up of serious TV watchers and thoughtful voters (even if the winners listed below sometimes ended up different than our personal choices!). Thanks again to all who participated!

So what did we learn? Different ways of counting up votes often led to nominees swapping places, but that was usually something like swapping third and fourth places–it typically didn’t change winners. When it did make a difference, however, it made a pretty big difference, as you’ll see below. We were also interested to find that, generally speaking, people rank things they’re unfamiliar with last. “Buzz” or critical acclaim just didn’t seem to matter much, at least to our group of voters–if they hadn’t seen it, it came in last on their ballots. The one exception to this was when there was something they genuinely loathed in the category–they were happy to rank that behind something they’d never laid eyes on. We can’t prove it with these data, but we wouldn’t be surprised if that’s human nature and the real voters work this way, too. Similarly, some voters reported ranking people higher simply because they like them from other projects, not because of their work this year. Again, it wouldn’t surprise us to learn that the Emmy voters think that way, too.

One key difference that might affect things like the above, however, is that we didn’t ask our voters to actually watch the episodes the nominated shows or actors submitted. Real Emmy voters are divided into panels and sent DVDs containing the submitted episodes, which the producers or performers select as their best work. Voters sign an affidavit saying they’ve viewed the submissions before making their selections, although of course no one’s watching them do the watching. This seems to be the key–an actor from a less popular or established show might come from behind with a canny or stunning episode submission. Our voters didn’t have that luxury (maybe next year!), but at the same time we can only hope the real voters take advantage of it. We may never know for sure, but we have two data points from our little game that are interesting: Two of our voters’ least favorite candidates, Paul McCrane from Harry’s Law and Gwyneth Paltrow from Glee, have already won Emmys this year, as the guest categories were awarded at the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony. We can’t entirely separate out all the factors that might have contributed to that–Paltrow’s a movie star “slumming” on TV; McCrane had the type of David E. Kelley bombast we’re just tired of–but maybe their episodes were persuasive.

The finding that might have surprised me the most, however, was that everything’s loved by someone: Almost every nominee got at least one first place vote. Pretty much everything, no matter how little viewed by the public or how disrespected by the critics, has someone who loves it. The only exceptions? Harry’s Law‘s Kathy Bates and Paul McCrane (an actual Emmy winner, I remind you) and Two and Half Men‘s Jon Cryer. Yes, even Gwyneth got a first place vote–everything’s got someone who loves it. Perhaps even more surprising, there wasn’t a single case where two ballots were identical. Let me reiterate that: there was not a single case where two people completely agreed who or what deserved an Emmy. Not one. That’s something to put in your pipe and smoke as we think about how the voting happens and why voters make the choices they do–even in a relatively small, relatively homogenous group such as our voting pool, there was no agreement on what’s good, bad, enjoyable, annoying. Maybe we’ll never figure out the patterns at all–maybe there aren’t any.

Or maybe we’ll try having voters actually watch the submissions next year, and we definitely want to see if a different pool/different voting systems make a difference at the key nomination stage. Never say die! So plan now to be a Bacon voter next year!

Drama Series: Friday Night Lights (FNL–and pretty much everything associated with it–were the clearest winners in any category.)

Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights

Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights (Britton had the most #1 votes of any nominee in any category, making her, I guess, the Pork Queen Extreme.)

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (An interesting case–Dinklage was much loved even by people who ranked GoT very low in the series category.)

Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (Mad Men‘s only win, and nothing else came terribly close. We’re unsure whether that’s because our pool doesn’t watch it as much as real Emmy voters, if they felt it had been recognized enough in previous years, or if there was a push to reward FNL‘s last chance.)

Guest Actor in a Drama Series: Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife (We note he has actually already lost to the aforementioned McCrane.)

Guest Actress in a Drama Series: Joan Cusack, Shameless (Cusack is perhaps the best example of residual affection from other projects, as many of our voters reported never having heard of Shameless, let alone having watched her in it. Cusack lost to Loretta Devine of Grey’s Anatomy.)

Comedy Series: Modern Family (An easy win over a 2nd place Parks and Recreation, which people either loved or hated.)

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Ah, and here we hit trouble. Using the Emmys’ preferential ranking system, the top three choices are Steve Carell from The Office as the winner, Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory in second, and 30 Rock‘s Alec Baldwin in third. Other voting systems, however, flop that all around, with the most common outcome being Baldwin winning ahead of Carell and Parsons. Since the preferential ranking has benefited both Baldwin and Parsons in the past but never Carell, we’re content giving him the win, but it’s interesting.

Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope (A winner by a comfortable margin; it will be interesting to see the actual Emmys and whether this is an artifact of our specific pool or if everyone has such excellent taste. As she is awesome.)

Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: A tie, between Ty Burrell of Modern Family and Chris Colfer of Glee. Alternate voting systems pretty invariably had Burrell in front. (Colfer was remarkably polarizing even among our voters, whom I happen to know lean toward people who actually like him even when they were ranking him low, so it’s hard to imagine that real voters wouldn’t have the same polarization for about a hundred reasons, including his episode submission positioning him as the genuine contrast candidate.) (I should probably also note the opportunity for a new CBS mulit-camera, laugh-track sitcom called Everybody Hates Jon Cryer, because wow, most voters really, really did.)

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Ooh, fun, more trouble. The preferential voting system actually used by the Emmys gave us a pretty clear win for Glee‘s Jane Lynch. Other approaches, however, bumped her all the way down to third, behind Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen (in that order). (Glee is an interesting case–it did poorly in series, but some voters seemed to carry that over to the actors, while many were willing to “forgive” the actors the show’s sins.)

Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Will Arnett, 30 Rock (He actually lost the Emmy to Justin Timberlake’s SNL hosting gig, which finished fifth in our pool. Screeners? Star…whoring? Our voters being uninteresting in bringing sexy back?)

Guest Actress in a Comedy Series: A tie, between Raising Hope‘s Cloris Leachman and Glee‘s Dot-Marie Jones. Alternate voting systems put Jones on top. (Gwyneth Paltrow actually won. I’m sure she’ll be posting instructions on how to turn your own Emmy into a fashionable paper towel holder for your guest house kitchen on GOOP soon.)

I have a sneaking suspicion the actual winners will look quite different–that’s the pattern so far–but it will be interesting to see where and speculate as to why. Please join us in untangling it all!

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Summer Rewatch–MAD MEN, Season 1: Drinking the Cream, Eating the Butter

It makes me cranky, but I’ve been out of step for a while now–with the Emmys, the critics,  the cultural zeitgesit, and even my fellow Baconeer:

I don’t like Mad Men. At all.

I tried, I really did. I made it three episodes into the first season and quit in disgust. Since then, I’ve checked in here and there but haven’t been able to see the appeal. Some of the latter is surely that this is not the kind of show you can just drop in on–without the slow build-up across seasons, you can’t experience the payoff. But I don’t want to invest in the slow build-up, because these characters are terrible people. You wouldn’t know if from reading TV Bacon, since I clearly watch way too much TV and then spend time writing about it, but I actually do have a life, and that life is too short to spend time with terrible people.

And yet…the Emmys. The critics. The zeitgeist. Susannah swears up and down that by Season 4 viewers get the payoff of investing in these terrible people when sweeping cultural change kicks them in the teeth. Wouldn’t I like to see these terrible people kicked in the teeth? Yes. Yes, I would.  So here I am, spending some of the summer TV doldrums (what, I’m going to watch Franklin and Bash? Please.) giving Mad Men a second chance.

Turns out maybe I was wrong. Well, sort of. Some of the time. Except when I wasn’t.

Three-quarters of Mad Men (the first season, anyway) is a pretty great show. The excellent craftsmanship has always been obvious–it’s beautifully designed, brilliantly costumed, tightly written, and, for the most part, competently acted. The closing shot of the pilot, framed like a period ad, is genius. That’s contributed to my previous irritation, actually–that something so lovingly and brilliantly made could at the same time be so offputting. There’s just so much reveling in white male privilege, to the point where the show almost seems to enjoy it. (And when you consider Sal and Carol, it’s really about reveling in straight white male privilege.)  “Almost” is key, though. In this better chunk of Mad Men, the show is actually gently puncturing the privilege. There’s almost always someone higher up the food chain who undercuts the male characters’ choices, and even the most privileged characters often don’t get what they want. The first time I tried to watch, I was so uncomfortable that I missed most of the humor. But as long as the show is employing a biting (if often subtle) wit, it’s an exploration of (straight) white male privilege that’s aware of the privilege itself. That doesn’t always make Mad Men fun, but it definitely makes it chewy.

The problem, of course, is that almost every show ever has in one way or another been an exploration of straight white male privilege, and who needs to see that again? The inferior quarter of the season is devoted to tenderly caressing the brows of the point-of-view characters who have everything but are still empty inside. They’re a weird amalgam of Marx and Rand, alienated from their labors by the fact that they make nothing and sell nothing but desire, yet somehow burdened by their gallons of expensive alcohol and fine suits and large suburban homes. They drink all the cream and eat all the butter (literally, in artery-clogged Roger’s case), and yet they’re giant open wounds of want. To which I can only reply: You may go directly to Hell. You may not pass Go, you may not collect $200.

Wah! I have a high-paying job and a beautiful wife and children and a huge house and dinner on the range, but that other woman won’t make out with me! Wah! Shut up and eat your bacon and egg sandwich already. The idea that these men who are crushing everyone around them under the weight of their privilege should be pitied because while they’ve been everywhere they haven’t been to them is just excruciating, and when it’s not undercut by knowing humor it’s next to impossible to watch. As I sat gritting my teeth through that grueling third episode, “The Marriage of Figaro,” it all started coming back to me–I quit the first time around for a reason. Luckily, the summer rewind structure allowed me to zip right along, because the next episode, “New Amsterdam,” is one of the best of the season at using sly wit to puncture the oppressive privilege saturating the story. But with such short seasons, a quarter of the episodes being weighed down with asking us to dredge up such distasteful sympathies feels like a lot.

Interestingly, the tribulations of these swingingest of Dicks are linked to a wail that typically comes from mean girls: they’re unhappy because they’re not real. They can succeed at the advertising game because being empty allows them to make empty things, but nothing can satisfy the big empty inside because they aren’t being true to their real desires. But unlike the female and minority characters, the structure of the male characters’ privilege is such that their emptiness is entirely of their own making. Since they chose it, why is this lack of authenticity so crippling? Why is sleeping with a downtown artist more real than sleeping with a suburban housewife? Drink some cream and get over yourselves, gentlemen. And why is this lack of authenticity constructed as a bad thing for everyone? Dick Whitman had a terrible life–why shouldn’t Don Draper enjoy the life he created instead? Why am I being asked to sympathize with people who are black holes of want even when they have everything and seem entirely unconcerned with the fact that others have little?

And yet…that’s only one quarter of the episodes. The majority of the season really does peel back and expose the privilege, and it is so much funnier than I remembered to boot. The distasteful stuff is just so distasteful. Still, I embarked on this experiment assured that if I invested the time, I’d get the payoff, even if that payoff takes four seasons to come. I’m interested in seeing more of the parts of Mad Men I’m liking, and I’m interested in seeing the 1960s roll right over the parts I don’t. I’ll never–never–understand Peggy and Pete, but are lawnmowers and floor wax enough to get all this dairy out of my system?

To be continued…

You Just Keep Me Hanging On: Repeat Emmy Winners among Lead Acting Nominees

All hopped up on the excitement of Emmy ballots coming out on Monday, we posed the question yesterday of whether Emmy voters’ love affairs with certain shows might be blocking other deserving winners. 30 Rock and Mad Men are great, but does rewarding them over and over “cheat” other great shows out of the prize? It’s a tricky question–maybe these shows (or their submissions) really are the best, or really do best match voters’ tastes. While voting panels change from year to year, it’s not like there are sweeping changes to the overall Academy membership across short periods of time.

Still, the numbers suggest that there’s a pretty good case to be made that logjams among series winners are creating a few victors and a block of losers. We wondered, however, whether the pattern of repeat winners would be the same for performers. There are obviously many more actors to choose from than series, and since actors submit a single episode to be judged, an especially striking performance or storyline might propel a seeming underdog to victory. At the same time, everyone can think of anecdotal evidence suggesting that some lauded actors just aren’t able to break through. Hugh Laurie and Steve Carell, for example, have both done seven seasons of their signature roles, they’ve both been nominated for performance Emmys five times for those roles…and they’ve both won exactly zero times. Could repeat wins for other actors be the explanation? Today we look at 20 years of actors in lead categories.

Lead Actor in a Drama: 25% repeat winners, 60% multiple winners

Dennis Franz, who was terrific on NYPD Blue, won four times; during those years George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Jimmy Smits, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and David Duchovny were nominated multiple times and never attained the prize. (You thought Jimmy Smits won one of those years, didn’t you? Me too. Like Laurie and Carell, he was nominated five times without a win.) James Gandolfini’s three wins kept Orbach, Peter Krause, and–hold me closer, tiny dancers–Martin Sheen off the podium, while James Spader’s and Bryan Cranston’s three wins apiece have pretty effectively blocked Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Gabriel Byrne, Denis Leary, and Jon Hamm.

Lead Actress in a Drama: 15% repeats, 65% multiple winners

To be fair, the annual nominations of the usual suspects in this category probably reveals a dearth of quality roles for women. But from year to year, this tends to be the same small number of women trading off the trophy. With a historic lack of good leading roles for women, is rewarding the same good stuff over and over a problem? As much as I like Angela Lansbury, for example, I can’t get that worked up over Kathy Baker’s three victories keeping Murder, She Wrote out of the winner’s circle. Still, The Edie Falco and Allison Janney Hootenanny Variety Hour (I would totally watch that) that soaked up five Emmys effectively blocked Jennifer Garner and Frances Conroy from winning for notable performances, and a second win for Glenn Close for a lesser season of Damages could have gone to someone like Holly Hunter.

Lead Actor in a Comedy: 20% repeats, a staggering 70% multiple winners

The six-year Kelsey Grammar/John Lithgow stranglehold shut out John Goodman, Gary Shandling, and even Michael J. Fox’s Spin City performance until he was forced to leave his show. (It also shut out Paul Reiser while Helen Hunt won four Emmys in a row for the same show and Jerry Seinfeld while his show was the biggest phenomenon on TV, but, like Sue Sylvester, I don’t care so much about that.) While Tony Shaloub’s Monk was certainly a great performance, his three wins came at the expense of  Matt LeBlanc, Bernie Mac, and Steve Carell, who I note again has never won for playing Michael Scott. (Alec Baldwin’s repeat win in 2009 helped with that little blockade.)

Lead Actress in a Comedy: 25% repeats, 50% multiple winners

While the 50% multiples number is a lot, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in almost a decade. The Candice Bergen/Helen Hunt (four in a row)/Patricia Heaton era, during which five women won in 12 years, meant no awards for Betty White, Delta Burke, Marion Ross, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen DeGeneres, Calista Flockhart, and Jane Kaczmarek. Since Heaton’s repeat win in 2001, however, nine different women have taken home the Emmy in this category. A sign of a sea change?

All of this is only mentioning the repeat nominees who were blocked–second, third, and fourth wins also beat out solo nominations for the likes of Ian McShane, Dylan McDermott, Matthew Fox, Kyle Chandler, Amber Tamblyn, Minnie Driver, Zach Braff, Jason Bateman, Bonnie Hunt, Marcia Cross, and Connie Britton (although we’re still hoping Chandler and Britton will become two-time nominees this year). And of course, repeats mean leaving out a laundry list of never-nominated actors too long to list here. As was true of serial series nominations and wins, there is little representation for genre stories (where is Mary McDonnell’s Emmy? Where is Nathan Fillion’s? Where is Kristen Bell’s? Where is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s?)–would requiring a winner to sit out, even a year, open up the field for unexpected nominees and maybe even winners? Would instituting such a rule have solved your favorite example of a great performance that missed out on a nomination or win?

Saturday: Ensemble shows probably make up the bulk of TV–quality and otherwise–today, and we tend to find the supporting categories the toughest to winnow down as we try to pick nominees. With so many actors to choose from, is the winners carousel even more problematic in supporting categories?

Repeat Offenders: Consequences of Emmy Love Affairs

Ah, spring–when a TV watcher’s heart turns to Emmy consideration. Ballots come out on Monday, and since there’s nothing the Baconeers love so much as a good list (you may have noticed), said ballots whet our appetite. As much as we are sometimes frustrated with the Emmys–and oh, how frustrated we get–last year’s had some surprisingly great moments. Remember the murderous comfort food cookoff judge from the greatest Pushing Daisies episode ever? Eric Stonestreet has an Emmy now. How neat is that?  While we might gripe about who was excluded from nominations–wherefore art thou, Community and Friday Night Lights?–Modern Family and Mad Men were deserving winners. Huh. Maybe that adorable Jimmy Fallon-Glee opening just put everything in a more flattering light.

Bryan Cranston gives me pause, though. I love Cranston–I thought he was robbed of an Emmy for his Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and his performance on Breaking Bad is a genuine tour de force. It’s certainly hard, then, to argue that he shouldn’t have won. At the same time, this was Cranston’s third win in a row, while nominees like Hugh Laurie–who, believe it or not, has never won for House–continue to languish unrewarded. While I’m not ready to ask Cranston to remove himself from contention this year (Breaking Bad‘s broadcast schedule takes care of that), it got me to wondering about how often the Emmys get “stuck” on one winner, and what repercussions that might have beyond the winner.

We looked back at the last 20 years, examining in particular three things: first, the percentage of repeat winners (winning in consecutive years for the same role or show), such as the Cranston example above. Second, we looked at the percentage of multiple winners (winning in non-consecutive years for the same role/show)–two lauded performances trading off wins across several years might block notable others from winning just as much as one repeat victor might. Third, we looked at who the other nominees were during years with repeat or multiple winners. Who is potentially being blocked from an Emmy when the Academy becomes obsessed with a single winner? If, for example, Frasier‘s multiple wins came at the expense of The Nanny, maybe that’s not a problem–maybe it’s justice.

Drama Series: 40% repeat winners; a whopping 75% multiple winners

While Mad Men has won the last three trophies, the most notable repeat winner in this category in the past 20 years was The West Wing. The show usually cited as a close second-place–or robbed, depending on your perspective–was The Sopranos…which won the Best Drama Emmy twice, so maybe things turned out just fine. In the past 13 years, however, only 6 series have won (The Practice, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, and Mad Men). Notable nominees during that time who never won? Six Feet Under, Deadwood, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, Damages, Breaking Bad, and Dexter. While I like some of those shows very much, and while I would have preferred to see some of them win in their nominated year(s) (hi, Deadwood), the repeat winners do look pretty strong.

Maybe the problem is in the nomination process: notable shows that couldn’t break the repeat stranglehold because they were never nominated include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights, among others. If repeat winners had to skip a year or took themselves out of contention, would genre spoilers sneak into contention?

Comedy Series: 30% repeats and 60% multiple winners

Two non-consecutive wins each for Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond (Except Me), but four consecutive wins for 30 Rock and five for Frasier (Modern Family‘s win certainly raises the question of whether Christopher Lloyd has the submission process dialed in). Frankly, I personally have more trouble with some poorly chosen one-time winners than these repeaters (Ally McBeal? Really?), but notable nominees who lost to repeaters include Scrubs and The Larry Sanders Show. On the other hand, I can’t feel that bad about Two and a Half Men.

Still, perhaps the problem is–again–in the nominating process, since Frasier and 30 Rock tended to beat the same competition over and over: Pushing Daisies, Gilmore Girls, and, perhaps most notably, The Simpsons were boxed out entirely during these repeat winner years.

Are repeat winners a problem, or just rewards for a job well done? Should the Academy attempt to spread the wealth more? What series do you think were most unfairly denied the gold by repeat winners?

Friday: But you were talking about Bryan Cranston and Hugh Laurie. Does the tendency toward repeat winners hurt individual actors more than series?

M Is for the Murders That She Ordered: TV’s Best and Worst Moms

Susannah is off being feted for Mother’s Day; I, on the other hand, am cheerfully/crabbily boycotting. This, then, seems the perfect Bacon nod to Mother’s Day: celebrating those TV moms who did it right and side-eyeing those who could have used a refresher. Or a visit from Social Services.

Let’s look at some heroes first:

10. Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), Cougar Town: Heaven knows she’s a tad on the clingy side–we expect a whole episode to be built around Trav finding a NannyCam implanted in roommate Kevin. But when push comes to shove it turns out Jules knows when to back off (even if she doesn’t want to) and when to step in. What makes her a compelling candidate for the good list, however, is all the mothering she does of the Cul-de-Sac Crew that makes up her little constructed family. No one in the neighborhood is going without wine, advice, or hugs while Jules is on the job. (Well–maybe Tom.)


9. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Downton Abbey: We love our PBS costume dramas, with Downton Abbey the latest obsession. Isobel Crawley’s progressive ways make her not only an encouraging, inspiring mother to reluctant heir Matthew, but, in the ways she’s searching out to let him be lord of the manor while keeping a toe in the career she’s so intensely proud of, the mother to a new age. Plus, she’s got the cojones to toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith’s fearsome Dowager Countess of Grantham without even flinching.

8. Virgina Chance (Martha Plimpton), Raising Hope: Virgina might seem an odd choice, given that she gave birth at 16 and then raised a son for whom a Wal-Mart level job was a huge step up, but the pilot demonstrated that Virginia’s someone you want on your side. Between walloping the serial killer who would become the mother of her grandchild on the melon with a household appliance and tenderly singing said granddaughter to sleep, Virginia’s got all the mothering bases covered in her own way.

7. Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), Doctor Who: Jackie’s another tough initial sell–it certainly takes the Doctor a while to warm up to her. As her layers are peeled back, however, we find a fiercely protective Jackie who fought on after being widowed to raise a girl so brave and resourceful she can hold her own with a Time Lord. On top of that, Jackie’s observant enough to worry about how Rose’s journeys are changing her. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind,” she tells someone perceived as a threat to her daughter and the Doctor, “because it’s hard, and that’s what you become: hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I will never let her down, and I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you, back off.” We’ll take Jackie’s tough love any day of the week.

6. Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), The Simpsons: She’s brought down tyrants through the hearth arts (scotching Mr. Burns’ gubernatorial campaign with one well-placed entree). She’s shielded Lisa from the Simpsons Gene. For the love of Pete, she’s homeschooled Bart Simpson. Marge has given up a lot to put her kids first, but she might be rewarded one day by being the mother of a president. And Bart Simpson.

5. Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong), My So-Called Life: The anchor of a show that was too good for this world, Patty could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and nurture Angela through all the heartaches great and small that come from just trying to grow up in this world. And in her spare time, she could do the same for Rayanne and Rickie. We wish Angela had been our friend in high school, mostly so we could hang out at her house and have Patty mother us.


4. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), Friday Night Lights: If mothers are judged solely on how their kids turn out…well, they shouldn’t be. But if they were, Tami’d better hope Gracie Belle turns out well, because Julie Taylor is working our last nerve. But the Julie saga is actually a perfect example of why Tami’s a great mom–by turns sympathetic and demanding, she gives her kids all the support they need to succeed and then insists that they work hard to be all they can be. Then she does that for an entire town of kids. Add to that her example as a wife and professional (well, most of the time), and she’s top-notch.

3. Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), The Cosby Show: Claire’s the head badass in charge, and everyone in her house knows is. She’s head disciplinarian, head cattle prodder, head listening ear…she might be the #2 dance leader in the house, but you get the idea. To be fair, the dream life the Huxtable kids live has a lot to do with their socioeconomic status, but Claire is an equal partner in providing that, too. And she does it all with class, sass, and, yes, being a badass. If I could choose one of the moms to be instead of one of the moms to have, it might be Claire.

2. Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Tortured, torturing. Shooting, being shot. Taking on the military-industrial complex to save her son, who will lead the glorious revolution against our robot overlords. Sarah’s not just mothering John Connor, people–she’s giving up her hopes and dreams, and maybe her own life, to save us all.

1. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Gilmore Girls: She may every once in a while be a little overindulgent, but Lorelai’s determination to give her daughter the childhood she herself never had sets off a cascade that starts with a teen mom raising her daughter in a potting shed and ends with Stars Hollow’s Most Beloved Girl Ever graduating from Yale. Along the way, we see one of the warmest, most supportive mother-daughter relationships ever shown on TV. We might want to be both Lorelai and the daughter she raised.

And to those moms you might not want to emulate:

10. (Tie) Lucille Bluth and Lindsay Bluth Funke (Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi), Arrested Development: One makes her youngest son so codependent that when trying to escape her he mistakes the warning “Loose seal!” for her name and loses a hand. She then uses his prosthetic replacement in…happy times and leaves it in the dishwasher for him to find. The other merrily ignores her daughter until she wants to date said daughter’s high school boyfriend. The apple doesn’t fall far from the funny, funny tree.


9. Mom (Tress MacNeille), Futurama: On the surface, a sweet, bustled woman who just wants you to be happy because she loves you so much. Underneath the corset, a corporate overlord who just wants to suck the life (and all of your money) out of the entire galaxy. Don’t disappoint Mom–she might slap you. Or send her army of killer robots to express her displeasure.

8. Lianne Mars (Connie Bohrer), Veronica Mars: Imagine a mother who gives up every vestige of her old life, including being able to see or care for her teenage daughter, in order to protect that daughter from nefarious folk. A candidate for the best moms list, right? Sure, until she returns, drains her daughter’s college savings going to fake rehab, and then steals a very hard-earned paycheck on her way out the door a second time. Veronica became a better person with Lianne out of the picture anyway.

7. Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch), 30 Rock: Highly critical. Ridiculously demanding. Acid-tongued. Unaffectionate (“Tell him his mother loves him. But not in a queer way”). The anti-matchmaker. And almost sure to bring all of these delightful qualities to the next generation (“I see you brought the bag…that my bastard grandchild will come in”). Like some of our moms on the best list, Colleen did the best with what she had, but now that she has more she’s happy to use it to keep twisting the knife.

6. Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), Grey’s Anatomy: It seems like we should have felt sorry for Ellis Grey, given that her career as one of the foremost cardiothoracic surgeons in the world was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s. And maybe we would have, if she hadn’t treated her husband with contempt, cheated on him and then pushed him out of their daughter’s life. Or expressed nothing but disappointment in Meredith, while spitting on her dreams at every opportunity. Oh, and then there was the time Ellis slashed her wrists in front of her daughter, just to manipulate a lover. Meredith drives us up a tree, but she comes by her crazy honestly.


5. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), Weeds: We’d like to watch this show more regularly, but we can’t get over the intense discomfort we feel when Nancy puts her children in grave danger not only because she’s running a weed business, but because she’s just so bad at it. We can understand being scared about losing her lifestyle along with her husband, but in what world did exposing her children to criminals and druggies become a better choice than downsizing and getting a crappy desk job?

4. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), Justified: Well, she’s all about family, you have to give her that. A rural version of the Godfather, Mags is willing to use anyone to further her Kentucky kingdom, and that includes selling out her sons, pitting her sons against one another, manipulating her sons, putting her sons in danger, asking her sons to commit heinous crimes…and if they don’t obey to her satisfaction? She smashes their fingers with a ball peen hammer. Sure, she feels deeply sad when things go badly for said sons, but you’ve also gotta suspect she’s got one of those poisoned mason jars set aside for everyone in the family, just in case the need should arise.

3. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), Damages: Patty would like you to know that she loves her son very much, albeit in her own heartless, extremely demanding way. That’s why she lies to him about his paternity, disowns him, has all of his belongings removed from her home, attempts to bribe his pregnant girlfriend, and has said girlfriend arrested for statutory rape. At least she was pretty understanding when, in return, he tried to run over his mom with her own car.

2. Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), Mad Men: Look, I can understand how soul-killing it might have been to try to live the traditional roles that were imposed on women in the 50s and 60s. It’s not all the smoking and drinking and dieting she does while pregnant, or even the frequently administered spankings that make her such a bad mother, because, hey, it was a different time and who didn’t let their kids play with dry cleaning bags back then? It’s the fact that she allows her bitterness about her strangled life to manifest as resentment of her children. Most of the other moms on this list at least manage to pretend to show some affection towards their kids every once in a while. Not Betty. When she’s not ignoring hers completely or telling them to go away and watch TV, she’s shutting them in closets, telling them to go bang their heads against a wall, or force-feeding them sweet potatoes in front of her new in-laws. But perhaps the worst thing she’s ever done was petulantly fire Carla, the maid who was the closest thing to a loving caregiver those poor kids ever had.



1. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), The Sopranos: She’ll probably end up on every bad mom list you’ll see, and she’ll even probably come in at #1 on most. That’s what happens when you compare your children to dogs, fake a stroke to manipulate the entire family, ruin your daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own family, make it clear you think your son will tire of his wife…yeah, Livia’s a peach. Until another TV mom tries to persuade family members to kill her own son, Livia’s likely to be the undisputed queen of the damned. Where’s the Hallmark card that says, “I’m Glad We Got Over Your Putting a Hit Out on Me–Happy Mother’s Day?” In Livia’s cold, dead hands, that’s where.

Entrez-vous? MAD MEN, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, and the New Viewer

I tried to watch the new episode of Mad Men this week, I really did. Everything I hear says that the show is hitting new highs, and heaven knows I hate missing out on the zeitgeist. As I squirmed on the couch, however, I had to wonder if I’m just not meant to get it. I think some important stuff was supposed to be going down between Don and Peggy, but all I could see is what a jerk Don Draper is being. Loyal fans tell me these were momentous times, which leads me to wonder if the Sterling Cooper world just isn’t for me.

I think I cracked the actual code, however, while watching–of all things–the season premiere of The Venture Brothers (and, yes, I’m altogether too aware that this may be the first ever comparison between Mad Men and The Venture Brothers). The Monarch’s ode to his Butter-Glider (“no more hiding what is woooonderful”) made me laugh until I was wheezing:

Really, who can’t enjoy a little Butter-Glider humor? And yet, most of the episode was built on so many references, homages, and in-jokes  that the plot felt like a Jenga tower. Some of those references, as is often the case in The Venture Brothers, were to other pop culture phenomena (here several asides to Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace, David Byrne, Ghostbusters, House…even the episode title is a reference to an Oscar nominee), but many were references to little details in previous episodes. If a viewer hasn’t committed to memory–let alone seen–previous episodes like “The Family That Slays Together Stays Together,” “Return to Malice,” and “Pinstripes and Poltergeists”  (setting up 21’s twisted relationship with a dead 24), or second season premiere “Powerless in the Face of Death” (for King Gorilla’s backstory, the fact that there have been many Hank and Dean clones, and the montage of those clones’ deaths), that Jenga tower is almost certain to come tumbling down. “Powerless in the Face of Death” is more than four years old. It’s terrific, and people should commit it to memory, but that’s a lot of dedication to ask of a TV viewer. It isn’t just that the plot will make little sense without understanding what has come before–it’s that these gem-like little Easter eggs are the humor and emotional payoff of the entire endeavor. I found it delightful, but then I can recite the previous clones’ deaths. The show’s made for me, but it’s probably a lot less than inviting for a new viewer.

I suspect the same is true for Mad Men–that if a viewer is as immersed in the Sterling Cooper world from the very beginning, the organizing structure that is all of Don and Peggy’s little interactions over the years holds up the Jenga tower. And even more important than supporting the plot line, having those previous tidbits as the emotional underpinning allows for a cathartic payoff. But a new–or inconsistent–viewer doesn’t get the payoff, and I have to wonder if those viewers just give up. This isn’t exactly revolutionary–it’s not rocket science that one reason procedurals do so well, especially in reruns, is because people can drop in knowing nothing and leave happily 44 minutes later with the bad guy in jail. But it is interesting that these two examples, and perhaps most other examples of TV shows that reward hard work and paying attention, are on cable. Arrested Development scratched out four glorious years on FOX but never had a quarter of the audience of American Idol. ABC couldn’t sustain Pushing Daisies. How long can a show last if its very structure keeps new viewers from joining the party? To what extent do profit streams that take into account DVD rentals and sales and online access to content make such shows, with which viewers can catch up, more financially viable? Does the fact that we’re talking about payoff to small details set these shows apart from soap operas, which have ongoing storylines that demand commitment, or are we just being snobs? Is the only hope for complicated, Jenga tower programming networks that can be satisfied with a couple million viewers, while broadcast television is destined for little more than singing and dancing competitions?

Squee! It’s…

Squee! It’s Audrey Wasilewski tonight on Bones! In addition to having seen Wasilewski on fare as wide-ranging as Big Love, Mad Men, Eli Stone, Pushing Daisies (make a wish!), Gilmore Girls, Wonderfalls, Friends, and The Bernie Mac Show (wow), you’ve almost certainly heard her, as she’s an accomplished voice actor who’s done work on animation and video games alike. Come on–she was even Rosie O’Donnell in Queer Duck. Not to mention that she was Janice Trumbull, the White House staffer unlucky enough to love Star Trek in Josh Lyman’s general vicinity in That West Wing Episode Where Aaron Sorkin Really Ticked Us Off (you don’t even want to know about the Title IX ep. Seriously). Catch the adorable Audrey Wasilewski on FOX tonight at 8 Eastern/Pacific, 7 Central and Mountain.

30 ROCK, MAD MEN, CLOSER Top SAG Noms

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This year’s Screen Actors Guild nominations, announced this morning, seem to look an awful lot like last year’s SAG nominations. There were only a few surprises, among them well-deserved nods for Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. Also, oddly, this is the first year that House has been nominated for an ensemble award by SAG.

The 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be simulcast live on TNT and TBS on Sunday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET/PT. Recipients of the stunt ensemble honors will be announced from the SAG Awards red carpet during a live pre-show webcasts.

A complete list of primetime television nominees is behind the cut…

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LIFE Makes AFI’s Top Ten of 2008

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NBC’s Life received its first ever awards attention Sunday when the American Film Institute announced its top 10 TV programs of the year. The other television honorees (which include series, telepics and minis) are Breaking Bad, In Treatment, John Adams, Lost, Mad Men, The Office, Recount, The Shield, and The Wire.

Conspicuously missing from the list is award-darling 30 Rock, as well as other frequent nominees Entourage, Weeds, Damages, Dexter, and House. AFI awards are selected by a 13-person jury composed of “scholars, film artists, critics and AFI trustees.” Creative teams for the selections will be honored at a luncheon on Jan. 9 in Beverly Hills.

Golden Globe Television Nominees Offer Few Surprises

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The 66th annual Golden Globe nominations were announced this morning by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Although the televised ceremony (AKA the drinky Oscars) is generally a rip-roaring good time due to the mingling of film and television stars and the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by attendees, the awards themselves are invariably somewhat dubious, given as they are by a small group of irrelevant journalists known for being easily swayed by studio marketing campaigns. Still, they’re awards, so we’re gonna talk about ’em.

For the most part the nominees this year are exactly who think they are: 30 Rock, The Office, Mad Men, Dexter, House, etc. Once again we are bored to tears by been-there-done-that nominations for Tony Shaloub, Mariska Hargitay and anyone connected with Entourage. There is some pleasure to be gained by the nods for Cranford, January Jones and Neil Patrick Harris. On the other hand, multiple nominations for Californication and True Blood just go to show that absolutely anything can get nominated for an award if it airs on premium cable, and the total exclusion of Pushing Daisies suggests the HFPA doesn’t even watch TV.

A complete list of television nominees is under the cut…

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