Why Emmy voters can’t make you happy

We all know what it’s like to fall in love with a TV show. There’s the lost weekend of binge watching. The characters you begin to like more than your actual friends, or in the case of Coach Taylor and Tammy on Friday Night Lights, your parents. On Twitter, you discover that other people feel the same way. Then comes the cold grey dawn of the Emmy nominations and — your show, your actors, get nothing. Somehow, it feels personal. How could they get it so wrong? you howl.

I’ll admit, right after the Justified series finale aired in April, I thought about going on Twitter and pleading with Emmy voters to recognize the show over, say, Downton Abbey, which turned into soapy trash with a posh accent about three seasons ago (yes, I still watch). Justified, the hillbilly noir based on an Elmore Leonard short story, stuck the landing on a final season that looked frankly at class, race, and whether we can ever overcome our past, and still managed to be as sharp and funny as ever. Of course it didn’t get nominated. Downton, like a ten-day-old slice of cake we can’t bring ourselves to throw away, staggered back onto the Outstanding Drama list, along with House of Cards, which I would say has had the fastest decline of any prestige TV show if season two of True Detective hadn’t just aired.

Why does this happen? Well, there are many exhaustively documented reasons, having to do with the Emmys arcane rules, total bias against genre, sentimentality, and the open secret that most people working in TV are too busy to actually watch TV, so they rely on marketing and brand names. (Oh, and that no one seems to have heard of FX, home of The Americans and Justified.)

But after pouring over the nominees from the past ten years (Where are you, The Wire??? — Yep, still not over that), one of the biggest reasons appears to be a very human one. Emmy voters cannot tell when good shows have lost their way. They just keep rewarding them over and over again.

I get this. I’ve hung onto shows well past their sell-by dates. Sometimes it pays off, because a good show can actually course correct (just look at The Good Wife or Homeland). Most of the time they don’t. They just keep muddling on like Modern Family, taking up ballot space where newer, smarter, better shows should be.

And that’s because voting for a show that used to be good is a lot easier than getting up the curve on every show in a category. As a friend who writes for several TV shows says, “When I finally got to vote for the Emmys this year, I intended to vote only in categories where I really knew the nominated shows or people — all of them, and well — but I disappointed myself.”

Of course, unless you have ten years on a desert island with an Apple TV, there is no way to watch every eligible show. And when Emmy voters are faced with abstaining or making an uninformed vote, as my friend puts it, “you can guarantee that almost all of us are voting for friends, colleagues, shows we used to like but haven’t seen in years, shows we’ve heard are good, and shows that just seem like they might be good.”

That gives previous winners and nominees a huge name recognition advantage. And, if something is lucky enough to break into the cultural awareness as ‘prestige TV’ — like House of Cards did in its excellent first season — it can coast on that for years.

Critics notice when a good show sours; it takes the rest of us, including people who work in TV, a lot longer. After all, a once-beloved show is like an old flame — we care about the characters even after we break up. As a former development exec turned writer I know says, “unlike movies, people have a chance to fall in love with [TV] characters — it’s why shows live so long, even when they curdle. We just loved everyone on Lost and kept tuning in to see what Sawyer was up to even when the show stopped being good.”

Momentum matters, incumbency matters. We all say that we want what’s new and innovative, but we tend to reward what’s familiar. That’s why something like Hannibal, a brilliant serial killer/cop show that’s also impossible to categorize, whose finale was so icily beautiful it still haunts weeks later, has never been nominated (it’ll have a final shot next year). To Hannibal, Emmy voters say: Let’s not taste its strange flesh. Downton is more our watery cup of tea.