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.

What to Look for on the Emmy Ballot

A version of this article was published to Gold Derby on June 8th as “Get Ready for Shockers on Emmy Ballot on Monday”.

Almost as much fun as finding out on July 18th who got nominated for Emmys is finding out who even got submitted for consideration, which will be possible after 6:00 Pacific time this Monday on June 10th when nominating ballots are posted to the academy website and voting commences.  What is submitted and what is not can be surprising and has sparked scandals.  Of course, they also shape predictions and may lead to what appear to be surprising snubs and inclusions to someone who only sees the final list of nominees.  Here are some things to look out for on the ballot and to consider when making predictions:

Surprising omissions: A poster in the Gold Derby forums discovered in 2008 that Katherine Heigl was missing from the ballot, despite having won the year before.  Asked to comment, Heigl infamously blasted the recent quality of her series Grey’s Anatomy and said that it did not warrant recognition.  Others have been more graceful in bowing out.  Terry O’Quinn would have been a strong contender for a second drama supporting actor win, given that he had an episode with a suicide attempt, but he stated that he wished to give others a chance in 2009.  His Lost co-star Michael Emerson prevailed in his absence.

Treatment of cancelled shows: Networks vary as to how they treat shows that failed in the ratings.  Some have successfully campaigned for nominations, like NBC did for Harry’s Law lead actress Kathy Bates last year.  Others ignore their cancelled shows, even if they had past successes with the Emmys: Pushing Daisies won three Emmys and received twelve total nominations in 2008; when it was cancelled, ABC did not even submit its lead actor Lee Pace, who had been nominated the year before.  Pace paid his own entrance fee to appear on the ballot, but was hopeless for a repeat nomination without a proper campaign.  Lately, the networks have gotten crafty with how they submit their failed series.  Last year, ABC surprised ballot-readers by submitting a number of its ill-fated shows under the “miniseries” label, which has become increasingly lax about what qualifies as such in recent years.  This savvy cheat paid off with a nomination for Ashley Judd as lead actress of the short-lived Missing.

One performer, multiple roles: There is generally a rule that a contender can only make one submission per category.  This meant that character actors who guest starred in multiple series would have to choose one to submit.  Most assumed that 2008 Emmy winner Željko Ivanek from Damages would be nominated for an extended House episode in which he played a hospital shooter, but when ballots came out in 2009, it was revealed that Ivanek had instead opted to submit his recurring role on the critically reviled Heroes and he was not nominated.  Recently, the Emmys altered their rules to allow multiple roles.  Jon Hamm was an early frontrunner to win comedy guest actor in 2010 for having hosted Saturday Night Live; not forced to choose between it and a two-minute cameo in 30 Rock, reprising an Emmy-nominated role, he submitted both.  Voters lazily nominated him only for the one that they had before and he lost.

Too many submissions: Submitting to the Emmys can be incredibly strategic.  Praised aspects of popular series, like the cinematography on Game of Thrones, can go overlooked for years if their studios do not play it smart on the ballot.  In 2009, The Office submitted about a dozen episodes for best writing—one for each of its staff—a strategy that had yielded nominations in years prior.  But support for the 2006 comedy series winner was waning and submitting a dozen episodes split their votes a dozen ways.  By submitting just one episode in the writing category instead of up to the five that it could have, Flight of the Conchords pooled all of its support, such that The Office likely got more votes in the category overall, but fewer votes for each of its episodes than that one Flight of the Conchords, which got nominated over The Office.  Some series are popular enough that they can afford to submit seven episodes and still receive multiple nominations, like Mad Men in the writing category, while others like Breaking Bad are obviously popular among the academy, but not quite enough to be splitting their votes so many ways.

Pictures: Actors have the option of submitting a picture along with their name.  Some opt for studio portraits, others for humorous in-character head shots, while others still sneak in pictures that are a decade old.  For years, Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss appeared on the ballot in a seductive pose with a naked shoulder.   When on-the-cusp contenders forget to submit a picture, Gold Derby users also like to reference that when dismissing their nomination chances.