TV

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Essay: Creatures of habit, Emmy voters owe new shows and stars a better chance

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - There was something embarrassing about the rash of repeat treating on Monday's Emmycast. It might have left viewers wondering if they had stumbled on a rerun of last year's show, or the one before that. Or maybe an awards show equivalent of "Groundhog Day."

Count 'em up: Bryan Cranston's fourth best-drama Emmy for "Breaking Bad," his co-star Aaron Paul's third supporting-actor trophy, and the second best-drama salute for the show. There was a fourth statuette for Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory"), the third in a row for Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Veep"), the fifth straight for "Modern Family."

Nothing against these winners, especially the honours-showered "Breaking Bad," the finest drama series in recent television history. But repeat recognition can become wretched excess. Monday's Emmycast might have left viewers wondering whether anything new on TV happened last season.

The prime-time Emmys, bestowed for 66 years, are meant to celebrate excellence in television. But in Emmy's eyes, excellence too often takes the form of stamina, not the burst of inspiration that may have launched a series and its characters many seasons earlier and since settled into routine. Too often, Emmy celebrates not excellence, but an excellently maintained status quo.

Here's one instance of voluntary restraint: In 1996, Candice Bergen withdrew from consideration as a nominee for her starring role in the sitcom "Murphy Brown." By then, she had raked in five Emmys and wanted to give others a chance. Enough was enough, she reasoned.

Perhaps the Television Academy should have taken a cue from her example.

Or maybe it should go even further and impose a total ban on re-Emmying, allowing any program and the individuals attached a maximum of one Emmy apiece through the full run of the show. One and done, with no more nominations. After that, only a clear and demonstrable change in a series, or in a character or other aspect of the series, would allow nomination for an encore award.

As radical as this change would be, other awards come with much tougher rules: Any book, record, film or Broadway show gets its one crack at a Pulitzer, Grammy, Oscar or Tony the year it's released. There's no reconsidering the project a year later, just because it's still around.

Sure, TV is different. Unlike other art forms, TV consists mostly of open-ended series that unfold episodically and aim to span more than a single season. That's the nature of the medium. Except this has somehow bred a system where each series can score a new round of awards with every lap of the same race.

Granted, this plan would be about as popular among those in charge, and be as readily adopted, as term limits for members of Congress. In Hollywood as in Washington, the people who would most directly benefit from such reform would be not the satisfied incumbents, but outsiders.

On Monday night, Matthew McConaughey, of all people, was exposed as an outsider. As Tim Molloy notes in The Wrap, even this Oscar winner and Hollywood golden boy couldn't break into the Emmy winners circle.

"The main criteria for winning an Emmy this year," Molloy writes, "seemed to be having one already."

But it wasn't just this year. It's the situation year after year with Emmy voters, helpless creatures of habit.

While acknowledging that Cranston's work in last season's "Breaking Bad" was splendid, can anyone make a convincing argument that his ongoing portrayal of meth kingpin Walter White in a fifth season outshined McConaughey's achievement in creating from scratch the dual personas of Detective Rust Cohle on the freshman HBO series "True Detective"?

With so much great TV that deserves consideration, the Emmys should make a big change from treating the same stars and shows like shiny objects to adore year after year just because they haven't faded.

Or the Academy could change the rules another way, and anoint "Breaking Bad" for more awards again next year, never mind it's off the air. Just out of habit.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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