2016 Emmy Voting

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote about the honor of being a member of the Public Relations Peer Group in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which allowed me to vote to nominate programs for the Annual Emmy Awards. At the time of my posting, the final actual vote for an Emmy category was held by volunteer judging panels who had time to view all of the representative series episodes or movies of the nominated entrants at the Academy campus, which would demonstrate that their vote was fairly given. Since that post a couple of years ago, a few things have changed. First, the Academy simplified its name to just the Television Academy, and then, thanks to streaming technology, the final voting on the nominated programs was opened up to all eligible Academy members. To vote for a category open to a member’s peer group, the member could sign in to the Academy website, view all of the provided representative episodes within a category, and then vote for the program in that category that the member felt deserved the Emmy. Of course, it is impossible for any member to view and vote in all of the representative programming in all categories eligible in his/her peer group during the two week voting period, so each member must decide which categories to commit to judging fairly. Last year, which was the first year for this voting procedure, the final voting period occurred during my relocation to Colorado, so I was only able to view and vote for one of the reality categories. This year, having more time available, I decided to commit to four categories: Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Outstanding Television Movie, and Outstanding Comedy Series.

The six nominees for Outstanding Reality Competition Series represents broadcast network and basic cable programming. Four of the nominees deal with creative competition where the ultimate winner is determined by judges and/or the program audience. For Dancing with the Stars, the competitors are celebrities, but the other three creative competitions, Project Runway, Top Chef, and The Voice, give talented hopefuls a chance to prove they belong with the best. Top Chef has a slight disadvantage with its viewing audience, as the viewer is unable to second guess the judges since cooking depends upon smell and taste, while dancing, singing, and fashion mainly requires sight and sound, the basic framework of television. The fifth nominee, American Ninja, is a straightforward competition of physical strength, agility, and speed, as the competitors must navigate a mainly elevated obstacle course. However, these five nominees still cannot match the global cultural lessons and perspective that the viewer receives while watching competing teams face physical and mental challenges within different countries in a race around the world during a season of The Amazing Race. It has been a favorite of mine for over a decade, and it did not disappoint this season. The Amazing Race received my vote.

Network television was only represented once in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, but that nominee, Saturday Night Live, definitely has history and longevity over its fellow nominees. Yet, this season’s cast is not as known as earlier casts which have introduced several comedic celebrities over SNL’s long past. Still, a few of this season’s cast members have begun to gain a reputation beyond the show. The other nominees come from two basic cable channels, Comedy Central and IFC. The Comedy Central nominees are Drunk History, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele. The comedy from these nominees is very brash in its humor. For me, while I respect and enjoy this wild style of humor, I do prefer more subtlety to my comedy, which is why I was a little more impressed by IFC’s Documentary Now! and Portlandia, both of which are or were executive produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL’s longtime executive producer. Documentary Now! is a touch too arcane, but I have come to appreciate the subtle humor of Portlandia, which got my vote this year.

There were only five nominees for Outstanding Television Movie, and they demonstrated the evolutionary changes that seem to be occurring with audiences. For me, a television movie was often a stand-alone fictional or historical long form film that would air during a single time period. However, PBS’s Sherlock: The Abominable Bride and BBC America’s Luther were more like a long form episode in a series, requiring the movie to provide a short recap at the start of the movie. Premium cable was represented by HBO’s two historical drama nominees, All The Way, the story of Lyndon B Johnson’s first year of presidency following the assassination of JFK as he pushed the Civil Rights Bill through Congress prior to the next election, and Confirmation, the story of the Anita Hill testimony during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. However, what truly surprised me in a strange way was the fifth nominee, A Very Murray Christmas from NetFlix. Even though it represented how original streaming video available to the viewer whenever it was requested was gaining recognition in the creative industry, this “movie” was less than an hour long and was mainly Bill Murray and other celebrities singing Christmas songs within only a slight pretext of a story. To me, this was a holiday special which had no similarity to the concept of what a movie should be defined as. It seemed to indicate that original television movies was fading from the creative focus of the industry. I focused on the two historical, non-serialized movies from HBO and selected Confirmation as my choice for this category.

As a major category, Outstanding Comedy Series had the most nominees of the categories to which I had committed, seven in all. In addition, each nominee had six representative episodes on the viewing platform, meaning I would need to commit two to three hours of viewing per nominee before voting. The Comedy Series category truly demonstrated the growth of original streaming video to the television environment as NetFlix and Amazon had produced three of the seven nominees: Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Transparent. Considering that HBO had produced two of the other nominees with Silicon Valley and Veep, broadcast network was only represented by two ABC shows, blackish and Modern Family. It was halfway through viewing the episodes that I found out I only needed to view one episode per nominee to vote, but I was glad I committed to viewing all of the available episodes as one episode does not always provide a true understanding of the series as a whole. For instance, in NetFlix’s Master of None, the first episode provided seemed to suggest the series would focus on two first generation American friends navigating the culture clash between the expectations of their immigrant Indian and Chinese parents and the American culture these friends grew up in. However, the other episodes only focused on the one friend, played by Aziz Ansari, trying to make it as an actor while dealing with racial stereotypes and multi-cultural romantic relationships. One episode was not enough to represent the broad range of themes and issues the series dealt with. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also dealt with many themes crossing class, race, and sexual identity issues over its many episodes. This gave great respectability to these series; however, the brashness of the main characters clashed with the themes at times. Amazon’s Transparent, a series about a man who surprises his wife and three adult children by turning transgender, has also gained recognition by dealing with a modern subject of equality and sexuality, especially with good production values and excellent acting, even as the streaming series is not bound by language and nudity oversight. However, Transparent has one major flaw in this category. It is not really a comedy, but rather an empathetic family drama filled with true angst and reflection. For HBO, Veep is well produced in satirizing the hypocrisy and manipulation of Washington politics, but the political plots are too unrealistically stretched out. Silicon Valley also played the fun and futility of nerdy characters fighting the twisted machinations of the cyber-tech industry well enough, but the concepts seemed to be a little too difficult for a basic viewing audience to understand. This brought me back to the basic network series, blackish and Modern Family. In blackish, ABC is trying to demonstrate true diversity by focusing on a modern middle-class black family; however, with episodes focusing on gun ownership, the use of the “N” word, and sharp discussion of the Black Lives Matter protests, I felt the same brashness clash I observed in the NetFlix series. Modern Family is the veteran of the nominees and it is showing its age. However, it is still able to touch on matters of diversity and present its clash of ideas with a bit more subtlety for the viewer. This is why I voted for Modern Family in this category.

Well, will my fellow Academy members who committed to these categories share my opinion? We will see in a couple of weeks when the Emmy Awards are televised. I am honored to have provided my voice and commitment to the process.

Update: As announced during the Emmy Awards that aired on ABC on Sunday, September 18, my choices in all four categories were not in the majority. The Voice received the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Key & Peele received the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride received the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, and Veep received the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. I applaud the recipients of this year’s Emmys.

Tis the Season for Christmas Movies

A couple of holiday seasons ago, shortly after I created my website, I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Gathering. I started out the post by writing that I set aside time for all of the new holiday movies that run on a few cable channels. Since then, the number of holiday movies have expanded tremendously over a number of channels, as LMN, UP, ION and AMC has joined Lifetime, Hallmark and ABC Family in presenting a new Christmas treat once a week. In fact, Hallmark really gets into the spirit as it has been running holiday movies from previous years 24 hours a day with two new movies every weekend since the beginning of November. It is almost impossible to take them all in. After bingeing a few days over the Thanksgiving weekend, I began to start categorizing the holiday films in order to determine what makes a good Christmas film and which ones were missing the cut.

Holiday movies basically end well with a positive message and a good feeling. The biggest group of Christmas movies find this message through myth and fantasy magic. Many of this group works with the myth of Santa Claus, the jolly old saint who brings gifts to all of the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Kids are told the basics – Santa lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and elves making toys leading up to Christmas. However, do not let those true believers watch too many of these Santa movies as it will only confuse them. After all, is Santa really hundreds of years old or is the job passed from father to son – or even daughter? Is the North Pole really at the top of the world in a rustic village or is it in Canada or Alaska with a modern day factory ramping up production? The best idea is to choose one good Santa movie to share with the children and enjoy the various other creative incarnations amongst the positive older fantasy lovers.

The next group of fantasy holiday films are the “angel” films. In this case, an angelic figure appears to help a main character find redemption or two worthy individuals to find true love with each other. Sometimes, this guiding figure could be Santa or one of his elves, but since the focus is on helping another individual during the season, I do not count these movies in the Santa group. Santa is only a supporting role in the story. Often the magic is gentle, giving a comic tone to the movie, but there are a few that are more dramatic and sometimes darker until the redemption comes. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is probably the first and best of this dramatic type, which is why the original story has been filmed several times for movies and TV, and then re-imagined, modernized, and sometimes twisted with several versions with Scrooges of different cultures, careers and genders. A key component in A Christmas Carol is the element of time travel, which has become a common element in many other current Christmas films. Sometimes the character needing redemption is magically sent back in time and given a chance to correct a regret, and sometimes the character is placed into a possible future to prepare him or her for an upcoming defining decision, but the newest time twist is having the character relive the same day over and over, ala Groundhog Day, until he or she learns the right way to live the day and the rest of his or her life. It is only in these films where we see the appearance of snowfall as a moment of joyous redemption and not a dreaded moment of foul weather.

The next group of Christmas movies are the non-magical set, a more realistic storytelling that still embodies the redemptive and giving ideal of the holiday. As with all movies, these range from the dramatic to the comedic. The dramatic tales usually centers on a character or set of characters who must face a challenge to reconnect and redeem themselves, like my favorite, The Gathering, or on a character or family facing hardship who becomes the object of a community coming together to help them. The comedic movies generally are a nostalgic slapstick view of a family gathering or a light romantic comedy which makes Christmas into the second most romantic holiday after Valentine’s Day. A comedy with the interactive blending of multiple stories, like the modern classic Love Actually, is able to touch the Christmas spirit in many enjoyable ways.

Finally, I have a small set of films where Christmas is merely a backdrop or prop for a basic story. Many are romantic comedies like The Sure Thing, While You Were Sleeping, or even the best picture classic, The Apartment; however, even an action adventure film can find a little Christmas mojo. My prime example is Die Hard, which takes place during a Christmas party in a near empty skyscraper. In the end, a little Christmas tape saves the day.

A New Television Season – The Importance of Character

The Fall Television Season is upon us, so I once again attended the Television Academy panel of top television critics previewing the new season. This year, the panel of Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide with moderator Cynthia Littleton, Editor of Variety, was held at the Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studio Lot in Hollywood and the conversation was lively. It started off with the opening question of what was good and what was bad among the new shows which led Matt Roush to comment, “I never thought I would ever say it, but the network with the best new shows is the CW with Jane the Virgin and Flash.” However, because the CW has such a light schedule with the fewest number of premiering shows, the comment was really directed at showing just how weak this year’s batch of new shows across the broadcast and cable networks were. The discussion did ramble on a bit about the growth of fresh original shows from new cable (WGN) and digital (Netflix, Amazon) outlets during the summer which has created a more continuous year-round season, but the topic soon focused on an important feature of a good television series that the critics felt networks had lost sight of – characters and their relationship to the audience.

Although character is important in all storytelling, the presentation of character is more important within the format of a continuing series on television. In a movie, the audience is quickly introduced to characters that become involved in a conflict. In the course of a few hours, these characters must address this conflict to a resolution for the audience, so the audience is given character traits in shorthand so they can quickly associate good guy/bad guy personas to the characters and move into the plot flow. Once the audience leaves the theater or turns off the television, there is no consideration about coming back and hanging out with the characters they saw in the movie. However, a television series does need its audience to bond with the main characters, so they will want to come back and visit with them again. The shorthand introductions to the main characters in a series premiere are more like first impressions that hopefully will draw the audience to want to learn more about these characters as they face a series or continuing story of life challenges. An engaged audience realizes that there are nuanced undertones to the characters and feels compelled to return regularly to see what is going on with their friends, to rejoice with their triumphs and sympathize with their setbacks, whether it is with laughter or drama. It is for this very reason that television series has been known more for being a writer’s medium than a director’s medium. It is also why television series work better with ensemble casts as it is easier to enjoy time with a group of friends.

So, why do these critics feel the networks have lost sight of this in the new season? Judging by the issues they noticed and expounded upon in the new season pilots, I sense the increased competition of more original programming over more networks throughout the year has caused network executives and show runners to use more shorthand storytelling, plot twists and visual creativity to gain the audiences’ initial attention, but this is at the expense of developing the characters to the point where the audience will want to come back and share time with their new friends. In a way, network executives have forgotten that television was the original social media site.

Primetime Emmy Nominations 2014

It’s that time of year again when Television Academy members like me vote for their nominations for the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards. There have been a few changes since I wrote about the nomination process in a blog post last year. First, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it will now be called simply the Television Academy. All members have now received new membership cards with the new moniker and logo. The reasoning behind the official name change is to align itself with the basic perception of the general public, which sees the Emmy Awards as being presented by the Television Academy, and bring the organization out of the “ivory tower” that the title Academy of Television Arts and Sciences seems to present. Second, it was announced that voting will now be online. No more number bubbles to fill in on a paper ballot to be mailed off to Ernst & Young in a green envelope. The twenty-first century had arrived and academy members will be going to their computers to vote, except for those members who specifically requested to receive a paper ballot. However, I am ready to go online and put in my nominations – after I view a few more DVDs.

In last year’s blog post, I wrote about the general process of the nomination vote and my personal preferences in considering what programming should be considered for an Emmy. I feel I do not need to repeat myself, so I refer interested readers to go back to this post for those general thoughts. I am going to just write about a few highlights from this year’s programming.

In comedy, my favorite series, The Big Bang Theory, had another good year. There were still many episodes that were written more as fillers to help extend the life of the series, now that it has been given an additional three year commitment by CBS. However, the characters continued to grow as Penny and Leonard’s relationship solidified and condescending Sheldon faced a crisis in faith over his genius abilities as the current season ended. IFC’s Portlandia was the only other series I sought out during the season, but its skit based premise allows me watch it irregularly. It was when the DVDs began to arrive that I finally had a chance to check out NetFlix’s Orange is the New Black. The series is about a woman who agrees to plead guilty for a ten year old drug smuggling offense and accept a short sentence in a women’s penitentiary, but she discovers life with her fellow cellmates was not what she expected it to be. The comedy is low key as the naive main character begins to learn how to adapt to her off-kilter fellow inmates and the hands-off prison staff. I’ve watched two episodes and do not feel in a hurry to watch more. However, these first episodes may be spending more time setting up characters and premise and it will require more episodes to be viewed to get into the rhythm of the series, something that NetFlix’s batch viewing model may be dependent on. I have a few more days to consider a few more episodes.

There appears to be more series of interest to consider in the drama category. I am already enthralled by the second season of BBC America’s cult clone series, Orphan Black, as Sarah and her clone sisters continue to unravel the secrets of their existence while trying to defend themselves from the evil corporation that created them and the extremist cult out to erase their existence. For me, character, redemption and growth is important, and Tatiana Maslany is amazing in displaying these aspects in not just one role but in six – no seven – oh, who’s counting, since she is handling the multiple roles beautifully. A new series I was able to check out from the DVDs has been Showtime’s Masters of Sex, the somewhat true story of how Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson came together to conduct their seminal research on human sexuality. It was interesting to see how the characters try and is sometimes unable to tamper their own humanity while trying to dispassionately research that very humanity in their subjects. Definitely a series to consider.

Reality has now been split from two categories to three: reality competition, reality structured and reality unstructured. Reality competition is easy to understand; individuals or teams in competition within a structured  realistic environment. My favorite is still The Amazing Race. Nothing like the entire globe as the competition’s environment. The difference between reality structured and reality unstructured is basically the subject matter and how it is filmed. In a way, reality structured is a planned investigation or experiment within a realistic situation or environment. Mythbusters on the Science Channel represents a fun version of a reality structured series, while TNT’s Cold Justice, which has two professional investigators trying to solve cold cases, shows a more serious version of this reality genre. The reality unstructured category represents a docu-series where a film crew follows an individual, group or family within their everyday life or work. This is the one type of programming I have yet to find any love for. Sorry, Duck Dynasty.

Well, I have a few more days to check out a few more DVDs. If I have time, I think I’ll check out FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective. It has been an interesting year in television.

The Novelization of Television

Last week, I found time to attend an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences event which had television critics Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide on a panel moderated by Variety editor Cynthia Littleton, giving the audience a critic’s preview of the Fall TV Season. Even though the discussion did eventually get around to what new shows they liked, what new shows they felt would crash and burn and what new shows will become cult darlings, the initial question and somewhat underlying theme of the evening was about the changes within the business of television, which was changing the storytelling of television and its relationship with the audience. In essence, changing technology was providing the audience with the means to easily see what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch, creating a desire to see complicated storytelling within a closed format leading to a resolution. I see this evolution as the novelization of television.

When television began broadcasting to the public, the public had to adjust their viewing time to the networks’ schedules. Viewers were enticed to return to watch new episodes as an endless series of short tales with favorite characters until the characters or stories became too familiar. Except in a few instances, the series would be cancelled without a final resolution or sendoff to the characters. It was the business of television. Ninety minute movies, stretched out to two hours by added commercial breaks, was the longest form of individual storytelling available within the broadcast schedule. Then, networks discovered that viewers were willing to see more complicated storytelling within a limited number of episodes over a shorter period of time. This was a golden age for miniseries, led by Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. However, the economics of schedule television could not support an over-abundance of miniseries and the format faded. However, cable television, VHS tape recorders and the digital revolution of DVDs, DVRs and smartphones were all evolutionary steps that would move audiences away from scheduled television, which brings us to what Robert Bianco, Tim Goodman, Brian Lowry, Mary McNamara and Matt Roush were observing now.

Per the critics, the defining series for the current evolution of how today’s audiences consume television was Netflix’s House of Cards which released all 13 episodes to its subscribers at the same time. This allowed the Netflix audience to become like the reader who stays up all night to finish a good book. The audience was able to binge view the entire series and walk away satisfied at reaching the somewhat season-ending resolution. However, one of the critics related that he was hearing from friends who were DVR’ing full seasons of other current cable series, which have been running a single complex storyline within a shorter span of ten to twelve episodes, and then binge-viewing them in one day to get that same feeling of reading an exciting book in one sitting. For viewers of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, each episode was like a chapter in the overall tale that needed to be viewed as a whole.

In addition, the critics noted that producers were gaining more control in creatively demanding a final season within a short span of years in order to give a complex premise a final satisfying resolution to loyal viewers. (Some credit was given to ABC’s Lost for this, although one critic claimed it was a desperation stand by the producers against the network for a series that had passed its prime.) Even for viewers willing to view the chapters weekly, the ability to follow a set of inter-connected characters through a period of conflict to its end and then move on to another satisfying story within a reasonable few months was much more preferable to being dragged along a nearly endless flow of cliff-hangers.

Finally, technology in the form of computer tablets and smartphones has freed the television viewer from the home. The audience can binge view the story while riding the bus, enjoying a coffee in the local café or getting that suntan at the beach, right next to the person reading an exciting novel. Soon, the viewer like the reader will have total control – when, where and how – over scheduling the enjoyment of a good complex story with fascinating characters. For now, the critics are trying to decide how to review shows going forth – one episode at a time or a full season in whole like a book. The evolution continues.

Primetime Emmy Nominations

It’s that time of year again. Time for me to consider what shows to mark on my Primetime Emmy nomination ballot. As a member of the Public Relations Peer Group within the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, I am not eligible to nominate for the individual Emmy categories, but I can nominate for the program and special class Emmy categories. Still, It is pretty neat to have a voice in determining the finalists for best drama or comedy television series of the season.

It is impossible for one person to view every minute of original programming throughout the year. It is just as impossible to view all the DVDs or online screenings that studios and production companies make available to Academy members in hope of being considered for a nomination ballot. As an Academy member, I have a deeper understanding of the process, skill, hard work and luck involved in getting a series, movie or special to air or distribution, which encourages me to view these creative works openly. However, I still must use my preferences, experiences and friend recommendations to choose what shows I want to view and enjoy, selecting my nominations from this group. There are plenty of Academy members with different preferences and experiences to give the full slate of works an honest viewing.

In the comedy category, the FX series, Louie, starring Louis C.K., has been touted in glowing terms in press and by some Facebook friends, so I will take time to view the DVD FX sent me. However, I am not a big fan of gritty or crude material just for the sake of being crude. Ultimately, the message or theme is the last word. Humor by its nature can be cruel. In fact, comedy has been defined as tragedy with a happy ending. For me, I prefer lighter fare where condescension tinged with ignorance is skewered and insecure characters actually find a road to redemption and community through their comic antics. Something like The Big Bang Theory. With its syndication over TBS and the local Fox affiliate over the past two years, I was able to binge view the previous seasons, turning it into a current favorite. In the past season, as the characters have grown, I did feel that a few episodes this season were more filler episodes to stretch out the life of the series, but there were good seminal moments. I find it interesting that perhaps the most insecure character is Penny, the beautiful girl among the geeks who is actually scared that she is not as smart as the friends she has around her. Another series I have come to enjoy is the skit-infused Portlandia on IFC. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take on many characters in vignettes that gently poke fun at the casual culture of Portland, Oregon. Deep thoughts in a shallow pool.

In the drama category, I am not a fan of non-redemptive, ultra-twisted series, based on foundations of sex and violence. These are valid themes to explore in the challenges of life, but for me, they are hard to take over the extended period of a series. This is why I have avoided fan-favorites like HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead. The key for me is the underlying sense of redemption that inspires growth in the main character, allowing me to empathize and root for this character. To me, an empathetic anti-hero is a character living a survivalist, immoral lifestyle that is unexpectedly thrust in a heroic position to lead against or uncover a greater conspiracy of evil, which requires the character to grow in a redemptive manner. BBC America’s Orphan Black, a series about a woman who discovers that she is a clone to the woman whose identity she took over, is a perfect example of this and definitely on my consideration list.

As for reality programming, this is divided into two categories – reality and reality competition. The standard reality category mostly contains docu-series like Real Housewives, Deadliest Catch and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. I generally do not have any interest in this type of programming. A reality series that focuses on a person or a small group of people tends to be almost unrealistically larger than life in order to keep it from getting stale. However, I am more impressed with a reality series which educates while it entertains. A good example of this is Discovery’s Mythbusters. As for the reality competition category, there is one show that consistently expands our global perspective in the challenge, The Amazing Race. It is definitely one of my favorites.

I have a couple more weeks to consider my choices for my ballot before mailing it in, so I’ll check out a few more shows for consideration. Maybe I’ll have time to view the NetFlix series, House of Cards.