The Impact of Critical Backlash at the Emmys

A version of this article was published to Gold Derby on July 4th as “Can Mad Men Recover from Emmy Disaster?

In early April, The Hollywood Reporter reported that show runner Matthew Weiner had hired Argo campaign consultant Michele Robertson to help manage Mad Men’s 2013 Emmy campaign, after the series failed to make the history books as the drama series with the most wins in the history of the Emmys and instead entered the history books last year for having the single largest shutout ever with seventeen nominations and zero wins in 2012.  Mad Men was hoping to stage an Emmy comeback following the recent seasons of Emmy darlings Homeland and Downton Abbey being lambasted by the critics who had propped them up in the first place.

But Mad Men has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, as it has taken a critical beating of its own; veteran television critic Matt Roush described the season as “terribly disappointing and weirdly heavy-handed” in TV Guide, while the Associated Press’ Frazier Moore labelled the first couple of episodes “a disappointment—even annoying”.

Mad Men won no Emmys last year and just two the year before that (hairstyling and drama series), but it has been consistent in nominations, scoring from sixteen to nineteen nominations in its first five years.  However, this season of Mad Men is different because the first five were almost universally praised.  The series may see a sudden and massive decline in its nominations this year, like other Emmy-winning shows have experienced following a critical backlash.

In 2006, 24 finally won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.  Like Mad Men, 24 had had a fairly consistent run prior to that in terms of nominations.  The sixth season of 24 is regarded as its worst and was a steep fall from its outstanding fifth season.  Its nominations were cut in half from a series-best twelve to six and the show was even dropped from three key categories that it had actually won the year before: drama series, directing and editing.  For its last two seasons, 24 picked up just six and five nominations.

In 2007, Heroes seemed like the start of a pop culture phenomenon and on the verge of overshadowing Lost, as both were serialized genre shows on major networks with international ensemble casts.  It was nominated for eight Emmys, including best drama, directing, editing and supporting actor.  But Heroes crumbled the next year with a critically-reviled turn—demonstrated by an Entertainment Weekly cover story titled “A Series in Crisis: Fallen Heroes”—and its nominations were reduced to three for its second season.  The series was never welcomed back to the Outstanding Drama Series race; its last season two years later received just one nomination, for art direction.

Dexter had more buzz than ever in its fourth season and it picked up a series-best eight nominations, including best drama, going on to win best directing and guest actor for John Lithgow’s turn as a serial killer that also won him a Golden Globe as best supporting actor on television.  The fifth season was decidedly less confident than the fourth and the show floundered without a strong antagonist and the writers seemed unsure with how to move on in the absence of a major character that had been killed off in the Emmy-winning fourth season finale.  The show still picked five nominations, including best drama, but won none and was reduced to a single nomination—lead actor—the year after that.

Mad Men will return in many categories, but it is poised for its worst year yet with nominations.  Mad Men was nominated in all seven of the drama categories in Gold Derby’s prediction center last year.  This year, Gold Derby odds peg the series as being dropped from three categories: supporting actor, guest actor and guest actress.  Lead actor Jon Hamm and lead actress Elisabeth Moss are each ranked fourth, so are probably safe bets to return, but not the locks that they normally are; the series itself is ranked fifth.