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?

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THE UNUSUALS “One Man Band”: For Want of a Waterfall of Milk

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The UnusualsM*A*S*H-laden DNA gets even more obvious this week, as they rip off the Sheldon Keller-penned classic “For Want of a Boot”. The 4077th nuttiness goes something like this: Hawkeye badly needs a new pair of boots. The boot provider will trade the footwear for a finagled dentist appointment; the dentist will squeeze in the boot provider for a pass to Tokyo; Henry will only give the Tokyo pass if someone will get Margaret to leave him alone; Houlihan will only lay off if Hawkeye will get a cake for Frank’s birthday; Radar will only cough up a cake for a date with a nurse; the nurse will only step out for a hair dryer; and Klinger, who has a hair dryer…well, if you watched M*A*S*H, you know what Klinger was wearing those high heels to get. Guess who doesn’t get any boots.

Fast forward 35 years to The Unusuals‘ 2nd Squad, where Shraeger is getting pressure from society friends to spring a kid who made the mistake of engaging in public and drunken urination…on a cop’s shoes. The dampened cop doesn’t want to drop the charges…but he will if Shraeger can get him out of a Friday shift. His commanding officer is willing to do Shraeger a favor…as long as she can get her new partner to cough up a trophy Walsh “stole” back in the day (the dispute behind the trophy lies in how long someone must keep a gallon of milk down his gullet before it counts as having been legitimately drunk in one sitting). Walsh extracts a variety of favors before relinquishing the trophy. Unlike Hawkeye, Shraeger gets her objective–only to find she’s just sprung an iron-clad suspect in an unrelated hit and run case–and that the person pulling the strings was her father.

I’m enjoying several things about The Unusuals–Banks and Delahoy’s murder store plot managed to be both amusing and sad–but this recycling of plots done better in the original sources, such as the pilot’s borrowing of the copy machine/lie detector gag from Homicide: Life on the Streets, is worrisome. All shows–procedurals, sci fi, soaps, you name it–are recycling plots at this late date in human storytelling history, but these are such memorable plots that they draw attention backwards instead of forwards. On the other hand, the devil is in the details–ripping off a M*A*S*H storytelling device never stopped Aaron Sorkin from giving good letter in Sports Night‘s “Dear Louise” or The West Wing‘s “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. Given the ratings, I’m not sure The Unusuals will get a chance to show how well they can make those details their own.

“Why Would You Spend So Much Time Thinking About TV?”

This question has come up more than once. In fairness, it sometimes comes from people who can’t imagine spending so many words writing about anything (and heaven knows I run on sometimes), let alone TV. And the question comes as often as not from people who watch a lot of TV themselves but can’t imagine digging into the glowy stuff instead of just enjoying the high. It’s a fair question. Does popular culture–filmed and broadcast popular culture, no less–matter enough to be worth the time and effort it takes to think?

Perhaps the answer came tonight during MSNBC’s coverage of Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Talking about his experience standing in Invesco Field and hearing the speech live, NBC’s Brian Williams said,

I’m thinking of two guys. I’m thinking of Tim Russert, our brother, for obvious reason. Because of the spectacle of it, because he’d love watching this, and because Mike Murphy might have been right tonight that this is going to be in large part perhaps a generational campaign. I’m also thinking of Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, the legendary writer and creator of The West Wing on NBC, but also the screenwriter behind the film The American President. The line from this speech, ‘that’s a debate I’d like to have,’ is a one-off, direct lift from President Andrew Shepherd. This is part of the new cadence, and the new tone and the new language of American politics. It was personal that way. It was conversational. There were parallel constructions in this speech that come right out of the Sorkin playbook. And it’s kind of the pen and the style of Barack Obama.

Andrea Mitchell later said,

You guys also focused on the echo of Aaron Sorkin from that great movie with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, and this [the convention speech] was the American president laying down the challenge to the older, established, very tough, popular in New Hampshire, in fact, the senator from New Hampshire [sic] Republican opponent.

A prominent American journalist just claimed that the guy who wrote Sports Night, The West Wing, and the much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip created the new language of American politics. Another one just anointed a candidate the president based on that writer’s style and words. The TV Bacon crew’s obsession (unplugging the phone on Wednesday nights type of obsession) with The West Wing far predates TV Bacon itself, and that obsession was rooted in many ways in wishing American political life and discourse were more like what we were seeing on TV. We were seduced by the poetry and elegance of that new cadence, but also by the possibility that real ideas could be clothed in a cadence so glorious and invigorating that it was meaningful in and of itself. And MSNBC journalists essentially said tonight that the magic mirror of popular culture has tranformed into just a mirror, a real one. Maybe they’re overstating it (they’re perhaps pundits instead of journalists, which means overstating things is kind of their job). But if they’re even a little bit right, thinking about TV is worth the time and effort because the good stuff, the really, truly special stuff, creates new paradigms, new visions, new language. And those things create new worlds.

The Real Keith Number

Perhaps, like me, you have long loved Keith Olbermann from afar. If you’re really like me, you still have his last Big Show (the Sunday night edition of SportsCenter, with Dan Patrick) on videotape, if only because they were the model for Aaron Sorkin’s underappreciated Sports Night. (Or perhaps to preserve gems such as “Dick Trickle…did not finish.”) If you’re really, really like me, you love Keith anew every year when he gripes about Dale Murphy not being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

If you’re really, really, really like me, you’re really, really, really loving Keith these days for being one of the few newsfolk out there who acknowledged that bad calls by pundits prior to, say, the New Hampshire primaries likely had less to do with “racist” voters (paging Chris Matthews) or cell phones and more to do with the pundits’ own inability to do math. Hence the recent introduction of what might be my favorite part of Countdown‘s broadcast, the Keith Number, or polling data that include noting the percent of respondents that are undecided plus the margin of error (not to be confused with the Keith Numberdon’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?). If the Keith Number had been in play before New Hampshire, the pundits might not have been able to make the right call, but they couldn’t have pretended to be so shocked by it, either. It would be nice to think that attention to detail like the Keith Number might lead to a bump in Keith’s numbers (from tvbythenumbers.com).

The real Keith Number today, however, is eight, or the number of fourth quarter comebacks Eli Manning had engineered late in the regular season when Mr. Olbermann called Manning a player to watch a few weeks before the Super Bowl–and dang. Perhaps the Keith Number is not to be messed with.

Diary of a Completist

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Wandering through the living room and observing me grumbling at the TiVo while making sure a Season Pass was set for tomorrow’s season premiere of Torchwood (“Grumblegrumble why doesn’t someone just stab Owen in the face grumblegrumble if you’re such a super sekrit organization, why do you race around in a giant flashing SUV with your name stamped into the hood grumblegrumble”), my brother brought the entire proceedings to a halt with a single insightful moment: “If the show drives you that crazy, why are you watching it?”

Fair question.

Maybe I’m girding my loins to watch Torchwood (with that crew, you kind of need to go into things with your loins protected) because events in its parent show persuade me the main character will be fun again. Maybe its because writer (and recently named Law and Order: Piccadilly Circus showrunner) Chris Chibnall admitted that they miscalibrated how much they let the characters’ mistakes pile up, suggesting they won’t make the same miscalculation twice. Maybe it’s because James Marsters of Angel and Buffy fame is not only showing up to kiss Captain Jack–he’s showing up after having raided Adam Ant’s wardrobe. That is admittedly pretty persuasive.

The most accurate reason, however, is probably that I’m a completist. Once I’ve been sucked–suckered?–into a TV world, I have to know everything about it. I’ll read comic books or tie-in novels. I’ll scour the Interwebs for anything and everything written about that show, regardless of whether it’s a serious academic treatise on Buffy Summers as transgressive feminist icon or Melllvar’s fan-written screenplay. I’ll badger Netflix for DVDs of deservedly obscure entries in the writers’ or actors’ filmographies.

And thus: Torchwood. Forty-some-odd years of Doctor Who paraphenalia to sort through apparently isn’t enough–now I have to add Torchwood goings-on to the list, just in case they reference Doctor Who in some fashion. And sure enough–there’s a hand in a jar. More importantly, there’s Martha! They’ve marbled in just enough Whonalia to make me worry I’ll miss something important about the show I love if I skip the show I…tolerate. It works. And it’s unlikely to stop–it’s why I’m trying to get around work firewalls to check out Joss Whedon’s Sugar Shock. It’s why I had to persevere in listening to The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams on NPR, even though it took almost four hours thanks to thoughtless people who kept interrupting me and asking me to do, you know, work at work. It’s why I merrily hummed my way through old LPs (vinyl, people!) of Gilbert and Sullivan for a week after the West Wing gang welcomed Ainsley to the fold.

It’s an illness, but I suspect I’m not the only one suffering from it. So we need to form a support group, hope Torchwood really is better this season, or squat on facestabbersagainstowen.com. Votes?