Late to the party — tardy musings about the Emmys

Allison Janney is not Helen Hunt.

For starters, she’s simply a more talented actor. Her performances on “The West Wing” and “Juno” and (from what I hear, having never seen the show) “Masters of Sex” demonstrate far more range than I’ve ever seen in anything from Ms. Hunt. Even in small roles in movies like “The Hours” and “The Way Way Back” (neither film a particular favorite of mine) she displays a nuanced ease at inhabiting very different roles.

But man, I was mad as hell when she won an Emmy at the televised ceremony this past Monday night.

Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve heard she’s wonderful on “Masters of Sex,” where she plays the beleaguered wife of a deeply closeted man. Her win as Best Guest Actress for that show doesn’t bother me a bit. But her win for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for the drek-fest that is the TV show “Mom”? That merely proves that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has yet to recover from Helen Hunt Syndrome.

For those of you who remember the heady days of the 1990s, when a plucky young lawyer named Ally McBeal showed a delighted America that it took neither any sense of professionalism nor even basic sanity to be a successful attorney, when undiscovered ingenue Tori Spelling broke onto the scene with a combination of luck, talent, and hilariously obvious nepotism… well, you might remember a little show called “Mad About You.” It starred Ms. Hunt and Paul Reiser as a young married couple in New York City.

Like so many successful television programs, it started off well. (Or at least I thought so.) The actors made for a believable couple, with an endearing combination of quirks, foibles and charm. Ms. Hunt won an Emmy for her role.

And then she won another one. And another one. And one after that.

Of course, by statuette number two or three, the show had grown stale and maudlin. And Ms. Hunt’s performance, while relentlessly fine, wasn’t such a stunning achievement in Thalia‘s art to even remotely justify all that hardware. It was actually kind of embarrassing to see her keep winning.

Which brings us to Allison Janney and the problem with the Emmys. Ms. Janney won enough of the awards to collapse an Ikea bookshelf for her role as C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing.” Which I’m pretty much OK with, because she was easily the best thing about that show, and the writers were smart enough to keep giving her stuff to do to showcase her talent. But once the Emmy voters decide they love someone, they never bother to pay attention to anyone else.

And thus Ms. Janney wins a second Emmy in the same year for starring in a comedy show so forced the laugh track sounds like it’s being held at gunpoint. The two times I saw it I was impressed at its sheer awfulness, sufficient to swamp the talents of both Ms. Janney and her co-star Anna Faris. It’s just… really bad.

But because the Emmys [hearts] Allison Janney, up to the stage she goes to collect her trophy, winning over nominees far more deserving than she. (I was rooting for Kate Mulgrew, whose performance on “Orange is the New Black” is a standout among a truly stellar cast.) And I was stuck at home yelling at my TV.

That’s also why “The Amazing Race” has won Best Reality Show every year since the dawn of forever. And why the not-bad-but-past-its-prime “Modern Family” won Best Comedy yet again. And why Jim Parsons won again for “The Big Bang Theory,” which I’m sorry to say is for a performance that seems very mannered to me, and certainly not expansive enough to earn win after win after win.

Yes, I realize I’m getting all bent out of shape over the results of an acting awards show, slightly less relevant to the functioning of the universe than which hot new trend in nail polish is sweeping the nation. I dig that nobody really cares about the Emmys. (Debra Messing has one, for heaven’s sake, and I now find reruns of “Will & Grace” so unwatchably bad it makes me wonder how I ever liked it in the first place.) But come on! At this point, the show is becoming a parody of itself. There must be some kick-ass after parties to keep those perennial also-rans showing up year after year.

I love Allison Janney. I’m thrilled she’s having such success as a performer. I wish her nothing but the best. But she should fork that Emmy over to someone who didn’t win it just because of inertia. Acting awards may not mean much, but this trend is making it clear that these don’t mean anything at all.

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24 thoughts on “Late to the party — tardy musings about the Emmys

  1. We watched most of the show and the problem I keep finding over and over is that while they seem more willing to at least acknowledge shows that are more edgy and doing innovative things, the awards for actors and actresses are becoming fairly predictable. I’m sure all the males are thrilled Breaking Bad is over so it frees up some space in the male categories but on the female front, how the heck does Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany not even merit a nomination. She is convincingly playing four characters every single week. And while I love Game of Thrones, Lena Headey isn’t exactly killing it with her character.

    I just wish there was more of an edginess to the awards. There’s a lot of good TV out there. I don’t think what we’re seeing is really acknowledging that.

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  2. I dig that nobody really cares about the Emmys.

    I do.

    As for the ceremony, mostly it was boring. Steven Colbert fell flat, as did Weird Al, and I generally like both.

    The In Memoriam segment was nice. I wouldn’t have chosen Robin Williams to go last, but since his death was recent, I can see why it happened. Genie, you’re free.

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  3. I remember liking Mad About You (even if writing a Paul Reiser dialog generator would take only about ten lines of code [1]), but the last one I watched was when Jamie finds out she’s pregnant, which was the end of season 4 of 7.

    1. That’s what I’m saying.

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  4. This is actually quite interesting. Looking at the winners for lead actress in the 90’s you would’ve thought Murphy Brown and Mad About You were the only shows on the air! In fact, no other category seems so attached to a single star. Reminds me quite a bit of getting grant money in academia: once you show them you can get it, they just want you to keep coming back for more. I feel like one way to solve this would be to pair each major category with a corresponding “Best New …” that only applies to shows premiering in the previous year. This would be a great way to give struggling new shows a boost, and maybe hold off some of the inertia (though it wouldn’t have really helped in this case since Mom premiered in 2013).

    As for Janney, has she been good in anything as a lead? It surprises me when some actors can’t or won’t succeed as leads – acting is acting – and yet I can’t think of a single memorable role she’s been in that hasn’t been essentially supporting. Even in her voice-acting role as Disney Star Tours spokesdroid, Janney apparently plays second fiddle to new pilot Ace.

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    • As for Janney, has she been good in anything as a lead?

      Well The West Wing considered her a lead from season 3 onwards, and she won 2 Emmy awards during that time.

      Murphy Brown

      People forget how popular this show was. I think the reason is that it is REALLY dated now. Part of the problem of being topical is that no one cares about jokes about Dan Quayle and George Stephanopoulos now.

      The show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for seasons 2 and 4. Neither has been released on DVD.

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      • Maybe that’s why the entire cast has fallen off the face of the Earth.

        I thought that Charles Kimbrough was good as Jim Dial, but maybe thats because I was familiar with Jim Jensen, the WCBS2 news anchor he was based on.

        Jim Jensen, an alcoholic, was most known for asking Bree Walker on-air if her parents would have aborted her if they knew she would be born with a physical handicap. Walker probably would have punched him in the face if, you know, she could have…

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  5. Two great underrated Allison Janney roles:

    1) Howard Stern’s Washington, DC, boss in Private Parts.

    2) The mom of the family next door in American Beauty.

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  6. Thanks for the post!

    I wonder, though, if, given Mom’s overall quality (which I don’t think I’m as a negative on as you are), Janney should get some credit for degree of difficulty, like they have in the olympics.

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  7. So, um, how much of this is simple cliquishness?
    It seems odd that Parks and Recreation hasn’t won, for um, anything.
    Haven’t seen Big Bang Theory (feud!), may watch it once it’s off the air.

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    • P&R is one of those shows that is much more popular with critics than it is general.

      It is a crime that Nick Offerman has never been nominated for an Emmy.

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      • Well it also doesn’t help that Modern Family has taken 16 out of 36 nominations since its creation.

        I don’t know if it is because of false modesty, but the men on Modern Family refuse to nominate themselves for Lead Actor and all submit themselves for Supporting Actor. Since there are 4 of them, this crowds out actors from other shows.

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  8. I thought Louie was terrible this past season.

    The whole elevator lady sequence (SIX episodes) was torture.

    However, one episode that was excellent was called “So Did the Fat Lady”. I’m glad that CK won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Writing for it.

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