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Categorically cunning

TV shows shrewd when submitting Emmy nominations

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Taylor Schilling stars in Orange is the New Black on Netflix;

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Taylor Schilling stars in Orange is the New Black on Netflix;

A lot of people were surprised in 2010 when Edie Falco won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Perhaps no one was more shocked than Falco, who protested "I'm not funny!" when she accepted her prize for portraying the pill-popping nurse in Showtime's grim Nurse Jackie.

That led many to wonder why the show was even submitted as a comedy in the first place. As a result, the moment helped bring into focus a polarizing aspect of the Emmy Awards: The fierce strategy behind choosing which category a show is nominated in.

Clearly, producers and networks want to enter their shows in races that will result in wins -- for a dramedy like Nurse Jackie, the comedy category is typically a less-competitive race. Sometimes show producers want to land a more prestigious nomination -- such as a nod in the notoriously cutthroat drama-series category (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones), as opposed to winding up on the less-glamorous, all-encompassing miniseries and made-for-TV list.

The issue has emerged in a big way this year, with the 2014 nominations looming Thursday. The reason? In the age of multiple television platforms, all of which feature original programming (broadcast, cable, premium cable, Internet-streaming sites) it's more difficult than ever to truly define a series and where it fits.

"The genres have been much more hybrid and complicated -- some episodes emphasize comedy, others emphasize drama. It's very confusing," said Ron Simon, a TV curator for the Paley Center for Media. "The good thing is that TV narratives have gotten more complex, but they're very difficult to define."

While the world of TV might have changed, these questions have been circulating for decades. When asked how often debates about Emmy categories come up, John Leverence, senior vice-president for awards at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, had two words: "Every. Year." Issues range from classifying ABC's Moonlighting in the 1980s to whether FX's multiple-season American Horror Story can really be called a miniseries.

As long as the show fits various criteria, though, it's up to a show's producers or network to choose the category in which they want to compete. That's why Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss is free to jump from lead actress to the supporting actress race, depending on her storylines.

The academy has a committee that reviews every nomination submission, but it tends not to intervene unless it's something truly egregious. (Like, say, if Mad Men lead Jon Hamm tried to sneak into the supporting-actor race to finally get his elusive Emmy.) Many decisions about how shows can compete for a specific category come down to tiny technicalities in the Emmy rulebook. Here's how a few examples from this year shake out:

-- Showtime's Shameless submitted as a comedy. This is the most unusual case, Leverence said, but it has some historical precedent. In 1985, Moonlighting was submitted in the comedy category and got two nominations. In 1986, the show was entered as a drama and scored big time with 16 noms. In 2009, the TV academy instituted a rule to discourage "musical chairs" category-switching: When a TV show's producers decide on a category after its first season, the show will stay in that category for good.

That is, unless the producers have a really good argument. In a highly irregular event this year, Shameless showrunner John Wells appeared before the Board of Governors with an impassioned plea to move the series into the comedy category. His reasoning: The show's writing staff has deep comedy roots and the series is written with a "comedic sensibility." Board members agreed and granted Shameless the switch, meaning the series will escape the intensely competitive drama race.

-- True Detective submitted as a drama and Fargo as a miniseries. At first glance, this is the strangest decision, as True Detective executives have said the show will have a new cast and storyline each season. Isn't that obviously a miniseries? But HBO -- with a long history of doing well with dramas -- is going for the bigger prize. Never mind shows such as FX's Fargo (with 10 episodes, as opposed to eight for True Detective) are in the miniseries category.

It's allowed under the fine print in the Emmy rules, but mostly, the shows have leeway simply because it's increasingly difficult to identify a program's nature in the first season.

"For example, Downton Abbey," Leverence said of the PBS series, which won the miniseries prize in its first season but then stepped up its game in Season 2 -- and was submitted as a drama. "We thought we had one thing, and then all of a sudden, (the show) made a U-turn and became something else."

He added, "We simply don't know what's going to be happening with True Detective."

-- Orange Is the New Black as a comedy. In its first Emmy race, the Netflix critical darling is strategically looking at how the series did at other award shows: Orange picked up a few Writers Guild of America award nominations as a comedy, but it flopped at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards as a drama. Combined with the fact Netflix has House of Cards in the drama race already, this move was a no-brainer, even if shows about a women's prison aren't exactly laugh-out-loud hilarious.

-- American Horror Story submitted as a miniseries. This took a lot of people by surprise in 2012 when the show wasn't submitted as a drama, and it struck many as a cheap ploy for nominations -- after all, the miniseries and TV-movie category is notoriously less competitive. It worked: American Horror Story racks up trophies year after year. Leverence notes the show is not breaking any rules: It fits the bill as a "hybrid" miniseries/drama (with a single story per season, but it also has multiple seasons), and producers can submit any way they like.

There are plenty more odd category choices on the Emmy ballot, including acting categories. (Really, Rob Lowe? You're the lead actor on Parks and Recreation?) The most talked-about point, however, always comes back to the blurry lines between what's a comedy and what's a drama. Could we ever get a dramedy category?

There has been talk of this, Leverence confirmed, although it doesn't appear likely. "It seems like there's a discussion of 'Well, let's have a new category,' but then someone else says, 'Well, then you dilute all the categories.' "

Simon agreed you could really go down the rabbit hole if you tried to separate all the categories: Hour-long comedy, 30-minute comedy, comedy with and without a laugh track, digital show. Then you would end up with way too many categories, and then you're just the Grammys.

Leverence pointed out even though networks and producers try to increase their odds of winning, it's still a feat to even land a nomination. There's really no point in trying to game the system, because the industry-savvy voters know what's fair.

"There's no such thing as having 'an easier time' in the competition," he said. "The most important thing is to run the race the best you can. And you can only run the best race you can if you're properly categorized... otherwise, you're not doing yourselves any good."

 

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2014 A16

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