Critics' jobs often fall under the category of saying when someone got something wrong. The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, announced Thursday morning, pretty much got things right – at least as right as possible in the swiftly changing world of television.
Not long ago, the outstanding comedy series category was dominated by sitcoms, which were once filled with rooms of joke writers who worked on the premise of a gag a minute and a zinger before the commercial break. Two of this year's nominees – CBS's “The Big Bang Theory” and ABC's “Modern Family” – are more or less holdovers from that tradition, which were traditionally nominated by network shows. The big news this year, but hardly unexpected, was the inclusion of “Orange is the New Black,” which picked up 12 nominations.
Putting “Orange” in the category is a bit like advertising “Waiting for Godot” as a comedy. The absurdist play by Samuel Beckett has a number of dark jokes – but a laugh a minute, no. “Orange,” which takes place in a women's prison, has its absurdly funny moments but also often serves up some fairly ghastly stuff and tough social commentary. This is not “Hogan's Heroes,” which turned a Nazi prisoner of war camp into a slapstick show, never really acknowledging thousands were dying in World War II and death chambers in concentration camps were being built.
Yet “Orange” illustrates how our definitions of comedy and drama have changed. I suspect in the future, shows like this will become more difficult to categorize.
The hour-long “Orange” doesn't even broadcast in the traditional way. It is streamed on Netflix, where viewers can download all of a season's episodes at once and then binge-watch them. Obviously, the Television Academy has opened its eyes to the new realities by including the series, created by Jenji Kohan, as one of the top comedies.
More and more, the Emmys have begun to embrace what people are really watching (Netflix received 31 nominations). The crazy-quilt television world is nearly impossible to sort out these days anyway. Network watchers gave way to cable watchers, which, even 15 years ago, Emmy folks had trouble dealing with. Now, people watch shows on their phones and portable devices. Appointment television is long gone. Other than a sporting event, I can't think of the last time I sat down and watched something at its designated timeslot.
So it was nice to see a lot of what would have once been considered unconventional fare, like IFC's “Portlandia” and “The Spoils of Babylon” or Netfix's “Derek” being nominated. Yes, congrats to “Orange's'” Taylor Schilling and “Masters of Sex's” Lizzy Caplan for their first nominations. I love that Sarah Paulson, who was so evil in the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” was nominated for best actress in a miniseries or movie for her role in “American Horror Story: Coven” on FX, a show I wasn't particularly fond of but was fascinated with her performance.
Critics and TV watchers will likely spend the day toting up supposed winners and losers in the Emmy race. The truth is that a nomination or win rarely keeps a show on no matter how good it is if no one is watching. HBO's “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones” are obviously quality television and deserve to be on any lists, but there remains far too many categories, some I don't pretend to understand. I mean, what award show also has nominations for other award shows?The Primetime Emmys will air Monday, Aug. 25 on NBC, hosted by Seth Meyers