The Science of Emmy Snubs

Plus four egregious ones that really grind our gears

It’s getting easier and easier for the Emmy Awards to snub actors. And it’s becoming less and less of a big deal.

Back when we had a monoculture and you could count all the networks worth watching one the fingers of one hand, an Emmy snub meant something. All TV shows worth watching started in the fall, ended at the beginning of the summer, and everyone watched and discussed each episode the next morning at work. If they didn’t nominate Candace Bergen for Murphy Brown one year, we all noticed. Nowadays it’s easy to deliver an Emmy level performance on a television show that the Emmys don’t recognize. There’s simply too much content on television right now.

That’s why I imagine they didn’t nominate Physical for anything. Physical is a brilliant TV series that takes an insightful yet hilarious look at the way the exercise craze (and exercise bulimia) served as a signpost that demonstrates everything that was wrong (and awesome) about the 1980s. Rose Bryne’s performance–criminally overlooked by the Academy for a best actress nomination–as a beautiful woman who hates herself and looks to exercise to both redeem her for her gluttonous ways and empower her financially, has completely redefined the way we see eating disorders on television. She has an amazing supporting cast and yet the Apple TV show got absolutely zero nominations. Her leotards should have received a nomination of their own! Perhaps it was a victim of timing?

There used to be a time when critics would shower a critically acclaimed movie star who deigned to do television with praise and award nominations. Thus the snubbing of Renee Zellweger in The Thing About Pam and Anne Hathaway in WeCrashed was a shocking injustice.

Zellweger gives a delicious performance as an evil woman who seems so nice and so involved in her small town community that no one notices that she’s murdered her best friend and mother despite having left obvious clues of her crimes lying around. Maybe that’s why the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences ignored her. She seems to be having too much fun. It doesn’t seem like work. Or maybe it was the fat suit that made everything problematic.

Anne Hathaway also seems to be having a lot of fun portraying a truly despicable woman who takes the power she has leveraged being married to the CEO of WeWork (and having Gwyneth Paltrow as a cousin) and uses it to fire employees for “having bad energy” and launch cringeworthy theater projects. Her unfailing sense of “higher purpose” and her complete ignorance of basic business principles makes hating her one of the most more enjoyable entertainment experiences of the year.

It particularly saddened me that very few people noticed how good she was. Hathaway, once a beloved “it girl” experienced a great deal of backlash within the last few years for being too serious and “actressy.” This particular performance is a welcome departure for Hathaway, having so much ease and humor and cunningly winking at her own reputation. I hope to see her take on more roles like this in the future.

The most egregious Emmy snub this year was that of Sarah Goldberg’s performance in Barry, a dark comedy about an Afghan veteran turned hit man who discovers acting when he enrolls in a very mediocre acting class. If you’ve taken a class in acting, stand-up comedy, or vocal performance, you’ve encountered someone like Sally (Goldberg). She is the “star” of the class. Yet despite having some talent and working very hard at her craft, she is obviously never going to be a real star. She’s not young or attractive enough to be a leading lady and she doesn’t have enough personality or humor to be a character actress. Quite simply, she lacks that ineffable star quality. But she’s a very earnest young woman who keeps trying to have a career in show business despite encountering obstacles like sexual harassment, toxic rivals, and industry indifference.

Goldberg plays the role very carefully and bravely. She neither goes for cheap laughs at Sally’s expense, nor does she play her as a lost lamb in Hollywood deserving our pity. Sally’s humorlessness, dishonesty, and self-importance makes it very challenging to hate her or to feel compassion for her. She is Barry’s love interest…. but she’s neither his savior nor femme fatale who ruins him. She’s simply a woman who is so focused on herself, she doesn’t realize she’s dating someone who kills for a living. And she was– rightly–recognized for this brilliant performance with an Emmy award nomination.

The third season–for which the Emmys snubbed her–Sally makes it. Her hard work has paid off. She has produced and starred in a streaming series that looks to be one of those projects that has lots of signifiers of “quality” (depictions of abusive relationships! women behind the scenes! Spunky tween actresses!) but doesn’t seem to be very good. There are moments of genuine joy, surprise, and pride, such as when her show debuts, gets excellent reviews and she is briefly the toast of the town. But there are also signs she has become one of those industry monsters who kept her down earlier. She starts to cheerfully flex her newfound powers, making her assistant (one of her former acting classmates) cut her carrots up into little squares and treats her boyfriend Barry like one of her staff.

Ultimately, she experiences great humiliation when, because of some shady reasoning having to do with “the algorithm” the streaming platform buries her show amongst all the other competing content. (After all, as in real life, there’s simply too much content on television right now!) She then gets “cancelled” when she is caught on iPhone video calling her former assistant the “c word”. Having broken up with Barry for being toxic and violent, she now needs him more than ever as she plots revenge against the show business figures who cast her aside. Her transformation is complete.

Should there be some sort of standardization to reflect the changing landscape of television? It appears that there needs to be a way to level the playing field so that every show has a theoretical shot at an award it deserves. Bobby Finger of the Who?Weekly podcast was recently lamenting that Variety reviews of television shows used to contain a notation at the bottom of the article that indicated how many episodes of each show the reviewer had been able to see. They no longer have this policy. He reasoned that while it’s virtually impossible for a reviewer to see every single episode of a show they are reviewing–and that’s understandable–it should be clear to the reader which episodes the site is reviewing.

Sometimes a show takes a few episodes to become compelling or entertaining. Conversely some shows start with a handful of strong episodes and then lose their thread later in the season. Members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences generate the Emmy Awards. Are these people able to see every show that’s eligible for nomination? Are they able to see every episode? Or should the networks themselves select a limited number of their own shows to enter into competition…like the way countries send their best athletes to the Olympics? If the critics aren’t able to watch everything, and the networks themselves able to nominate everything, does an Emmy nomination matter at all? Or maybe they never mattered to begin with. But that’s not something we want to contemplate,

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