Every year, the Emmys are held to acknowledge the very best efforts in television over the past year. At least that is what they purport to acknowledge. While a lot of television viewership is subjective, certain shows are nominated again and again,despite having nothing at all extraordinary to recommend them. While many excellent shows genuinely deserve the praise heaped on them, others, are perhaps, less worthy of their many accolades. Sex and the City, for instance actually was a good show, despite what anyone else says, and totally deserved those Emmy awards. Others, well, they were good for what they were, but nothing particularly groundbreaking. And some shows attempted to be groundbreaking, but never truly achieved what they were going for, resulting in Emmys being awarded for unfulfilled potential.
Award shows in general have often been criticized for being little more than publicity machines powered more by industry politics than actual merit. Let’s take a look at some of the more disappointing nominations, shall we?
15 Downton Abbey
Here is a show that started strong, and then somewhere along the way lost something of its momentum. Okay, a lot of its momentum, leading certain viewers to wonder if it was ever even that great to begin with. Perhaps it was in the early seasons-- Maggie Smith was at her caustic best-- and the costumes and cinematography continue to be extraordinarily beautiful. The depiction of a well-to-do English family and the servants who ran the household at a time in history when the English aristocracy was beginning its descent from power was interesting and would have made Evelyn Waugh proud.
However, the show’s high brow beginnings then descended into a whirligig of melodrama, with Harlequin-esque romances, shocking deaths, and even more unrealistic miracle recoveries that made Downton Abbey into a laborious soap opera that’s simply too exhausting to watch anymore. Also, this concept was already adroitly executed in the excellent series, Upstairs, Downstairs from 1971. Nevertheless, it is currently nominated for several Emmys in 2016, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Homeland is another show that started out strong, and then became something of a labyrinthine mess. The first season of the show was good, though not actually great, and Homeland soon proved that it couldn’t sustain its overwrought premise. The performances and plot machinations became increasingly outlandish as the writers struggled to integrate a now-irrelevant character played by a strong actor, Damien Lewis as Nicholas Brody. The show also disastrously oversimplifies the very real problem of terrorism in the world today.
Claire Danes is a great actor, but her wobbling chin and cartoonish depiction of Bipolar Disorder are just not enough to carry the entire series, and certainly not enough to warrant the multiple awards that have been heaped upon upon the series as a whole. Danes and Homeland have been nominated for Emmys every year since the show premiered in 2012, and quite honestly, with each year they seem increasingly undeserving of them.
13 Modern Family
Modern Family is a great show for what it is, a harmless and formulaic sitcom that is remarkable only in that it is offensive to very few. One gets the feeling that Modern Family enjoys congratulating itself for its inclusivity by portraying a healthy second marriage between the family patriarch and the Colombian Sofia Vergara, as well as the marriage of two gay men who are raising a child.
The acknowledgment that such families exist and that gay people often lead the same sort of pedestrian, suburban lives as heterosexual married couples is commendable, but does not in itself make for interesting television without descending into stereotypes for cheap laughs, which Modern Family often does. It is fine television; occasionally entertaining and comfortingly predictable. But it is not great television. Especially in comparison with some truly excellent shows that did not earn an Emmy nomination, Modern Family’s consistent dominance in the comedy genre is both bewildering and distressing.
12 How To Get Away With Murder
How To Get Away With Murder is not a great show. And that’s really all there is to be said about it. It is a fine show, an often thrilling and entertaining show. But it’s not a great show. Shonda Rhimes is well-respected in the world of television for good reason. She consistently produces the kind of stay-up-all-night-and-binge TV that modern audiences gobble up like cookie dough ice cream. Her characters, particularly her female characters, are a welcome change in that they are uniformly smart, strong, and often women of color. This is all great, but it still does not make How To Get Away With Murder a great show. How To Get Away With Murder is a soap opera with a better time slot and Viola Davis. Davis elevates pretty much everything she’s in, which leads people to believe that these shows and movies are substantial and good. They are not. Viola Davis is good. There is a difference.
11 The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory is a boring sitcom deeply rooted in offensive and misogynistic stereotypes and powered by a laugh track with the occasional line of witty dialogue. The relationship between four socially inept science nerds and their hot but intellectually inferior actress/waitress neighbor is a conceit so tired and so infuriatingly trite that it has already been transcended by basically every vapid teen movie that came before it. The fact that it is consistently nominated for Emmy awards in this, the so-called Golden Age of Television, seriously calls into question the integrity of the awards all together.
There are so many better comedic shows than The Big Bang Theory. This show is offensive to nerds, women, nerdy women, and television viewers everywhere and does not deserve any of the accolades it has garnered in the past years. While Jim Parsons is a gifted comedic performer, his winning four Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series is beyond the pale. The Big Bang Theory is watchable but forgettable, so why it is always remembered by the Emmys is a complete mystery.
UnREAL began as a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of a fictional reality TV show based on the morally troubling and creepily compelling The Bachelor. The show was created by ex-Bachelor producer Sarah Shapiro, and provided a lot of tantalizing tidbits of information about just how the drama of the series is generated. It was even more remarkable for airing on Lifetime, a network famous for its love of damsel-in-distress narratives.
Unfortunately, Season 2 did not live up to the promise of Season 1 in any way. Time went so far as to say that “Unreal isn’t aging poorly; it just wasn’t built to last.” Much of the criticism was aimed at the way the show seemed to pick up and drop promising plotlines and characters with a breakneck pace, completely losing its footing and any message it hoped to convey. And yet, even with a critically dismal second season, the show has snagged several Emmy nominations for its first season. We'd like to say UnREAL won't be nominated next year, but sometimes it seems that Emmys are given away like “Good Effort” gag trophies.
It’s still hard to tell how much of herself Lena Dunham put into the character of Hannah Horvath, who even at her most vulnerable still manages to be completely insufferable. Hannah’s famous line from the first season, that she wanted to be the voice of her generation, or at least, “a voice of a generation,” by all suggested evidence seems to be pretty much what Lena Dunham was thinking when she created Girls.
The show desperately wants to be a realer, more gritty version of the glittering and aspirational Sex and the City that preceded it, but manages only to make its four main characters less and less sympathetic with each passing season. It should appeal to Brooklyn-dwelling Millennials but manages only to alienate them. As refreshing as it was to see more than 2 percent body fat on screen, Dunham’s nudity could not save the show from becoming the self-absorbed collection of embarrassing moments and disappointed hopes that it is today. Why people continue to insist that it is good is baffling.
Everyone wants Saturday Night Live to be good. Perhaps this is the reason that it keeps getting nominated for Emmy awards year after year after year. Saturday Night Live was indeed good once, and it may be that this legacy is what keeps it going, long after it has ceased to be reliably watched or even reliably funny. Certain stand-out performances definitely deserve a nod, such as those from Melissa McCarthy and Tina Fey, who are without a doubt two of the best comedians of the 21st century. But these individual performances are not enough to elevate the entire series, which is basically only funny when someone breaks character, which they always try desperately not to do.
Saturday Night Live is like meatloaf. It’s familiar, comfortable, has some small nutritional value, but is not exactly a great culinary masterpiece. Saturday Night Live was great when it began, but it is sadly no longer the cultural weathervane it once was.
7 Two and a Half Men
Much like The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men is a terrible show that does not deserve to be recognized or honored in any substantial way. Its two leads, Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen, forever gave the appearance of having simply wandered on set and agreeing to speak aloud the unoriginal, often offensive, and never funny dialogue the producers of the show handed them. Cryer seems like a nice enough man and it’s hard to dislike him, if only out of respect for his beloved character, Duckie, but it doesn’t excuse the overall badness of Two and a Half Men.
This show is triumphantly mediocre and it did not get any better when Sheen was replaced with Ashton Kutcher. In fact, after Sheen’s departure, ratings for the show plummeted. Why, then, was it nominated for an Emmy 47 times in its 12 years of existence? It’s really hard to say.
Everyone says that Empire, the melodramatic soap opera about a family competing to take over their hip-hop mogul patriarch’s record label is really good. But is it, actually? Is it possible that Empire, which has clear roots in shows like Dynasty and Dallas is actually, as the The Wall Street Journal writes, “derivative to the point of parody”? Could it, perhaps, be growing just a little too stale and predictable? This was suggested by a different review in Variety, which said “there’s a sense that the storytelling has fallen into a bit of a rut as the writers tackle how to keep introducing new threats to alter the fundamental power dynamics…” Perhaps this dramatic series and constant stream of one-liners from multi-nominee Taraji P. Henson as Cookie just aren’t as compelling and fascinating as the critics keep insisting they are. Or perhaps this simply comes down to a question of taste.
5 Everybody Loves Raymond
Lucille Ball perfected the sitcom formula in the 1950’s with I Love Lucy. She brought us the happily married couple, the elements of slapstick, the one-liners, the off-beat friendship, and even the three-camera set-up that became a mainstay of sitcoms for years after. Everybody Loves Raymond, which was nominated for an Emmy an incredible 69 times, did absolutely nothing to improve upon this ready-made formula. This is a show about a collection of half-baked character archetypes throwing lightly barbed witticisms at one another, pausing for laugh track, then lovingly resolving whatever fake issue they were dealing with that day within 30 minutes. Nothing is original-- not the meddling mother-in-law, the sardonic husband, or the favorite son. It is a perfectly serviceable television show, something one could half-watch while waiting for the pizza delivery, or flip to while Chopped is show commercials. But the Emmys is supposed to be about “outstanding” shows and “outstanding” performances. And there is nothing outstanding about Everybody Loves Raymond.
ER is the show that launched the career of George Clooney, so for that the world should be grateful. However it is also the show that paved the way for Grey’s Anatomy, which we are less grateful for (though ER itself was influenced by St. Elsewhere). By and large, the show has garnered heaps of praise, particularly the early few seasons in the '90s, which changed the game as far as workplace dramas went. It was a show that always felt more like a movie than television-- a rarity in 1994, when it premiered. Much has also been said about the show’s sense of realism, which seems far-fetched.
In the world of ER, emergency room doctors all moonlight as Gap models, and spend their work days constantly rushing off to respond to increasingly unrealistic disaster scenes and national tragedies. Perhaps because the cast rotated so often, ER never had quite the staying power of, for instance, Law and Order, and over 15 seasons it definitely lost some of the momentum of its first few years. But ER was not the kind of show that could be sustained, as was seen by the wilder and more extreme storylines the show featured in its later seasons. Apparently the Emmys were entertained, however, because ER is the most nominated drama in the award show's history.
This show basically defined a generation in the '90s and remains almost as beloved today as when it was on the air. But it was the television equivalent of the Spice Girls. It was good for what it was, but it was created in a giant sitcom machine with canned dialogue and canned laughter, and asked us to believe that a woman who worked part time in a coffee shop could afford that kind of square footage in New York. Oh, and that Courtney Cox was once fat.
Yes, Friends did spark an entire lexicon of its own and prompted women to ask themselves whether they were more of a Rachel, a Monica, or a Phoebe. But this is more evidence of competent workmanship than that it merited a whopping 62 Emmy nominations. Friends is good fun, but it never had any of the wit or originality of some of its contemporaries like Seinfeld or even Will & Grace. Friends would retreat to gushy sentimentality and cliché whenever it was expedient because Friends was good at doing what it did, and that was broad appeal.
Lost is yet another one of those shows that started out extremely strong, and then, well, got lost. But Lost is deserving of special acknowledgement simply due to how far afield this show was willing to go when it did get lost. In the Lost writers’ room, literally anything goes. (This, by the way, is not a mark of good plot-writing.) The show was continually written into bizarre corners, requiring more and more bizarre plot mechanisms to get the plot moving again. None of these mechanisms ever made sense, and people continued to watch simply to see what insane thing was going to happen next and the Emmys continued to nominate the show regardless.
The unexpected is, as a general rule, a good thing when it comes to storylines. But the unexpected also has to make a certain degree of sense, and Lost stopped making sense very soon. A plot twist should feel shocking, but it should also feel, to a certain degree, inevitable. Lost felt very much like an impish creature pulling us all along down one path, then suddenly screaming “PSYCH!” and smacking us across the face. Unpleasant, to say the least.
Look, Frasier was a good show. The Cheers spinoff about the pretentious and erudite Dr. Frasier Crane introduced us to a whole new host of delightful characters, including Frasier’s equally pretentious and erudite brother Niles, and their father’s oddball English caretaker, Daphne. The jokes and storylines were clever, unexpected, and always funny. It just wasn’t quite as amazing as everyone seemed to believe.
Frasier was highly entertaining and perhaps just a little more intelligent than many of the other sitcoms of the 90’s, Cheers included, but it wasn’t by any means groundbreaking or on the level of the television of today. Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, all shows that take their basic premise from sitcoms and have elevated them into something newer, more high brow and yet accessible, and truly hilarious. Frasier did this in its own way, but, quite simply, was not at the caliber of production that warrants the kind of accolades it received-- 37 Emmy awards in its 11 season run.