I Am DB

August 24, 2014

Emmy Nominations 2013-14: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 9:45 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmy Awards are upon us, and once again this year’s crop of nominees reminds us that there is an astonishing level of quality across today’s television landscape…if it can even still be referred to as television now that online entities like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are presenting original programming. Unfortunately, it tends to be what isn’t nominated that serves as the reminder, for no matter what makes the cut, there remains so much great work that is left out. As I say every year, there is simply too much good work out there for all of it to receive the celebration it deserves come Emmy season. But that doesn’t stop TV critics and avid watchers from sounding off anyway. For the past couple of years I’ve offered a slate of write-ups for work that stood out to me as nomination worthy but went unrecognized. I really need to work on those throughout the season, while the shows are fresh in my mind, but I dropped the ball this year. Still, I have thoughts on what was and wasn’t nominated, and I’ll be damned if I’m just going to keep them to myself. I’m a blogger! So here’s a down-and-dirtier version of this annual post. I’m not making predictions here; the Emmys are far too erratic and offbeat for me to apply my Oscar mojo. This is just a rundown of the nominees, accompanied by thoughts and opinions where I have them. Maybe I’ll get my act together next year. Until then….

 

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Louie
Modern Family
Orange Is The New Black
Silicon Valley
Veep

Thoughts: As entertainment award travesties go, the annual omission of Parks and Recreation is one for the books. How does this show get passed over year after year after year? With all respect to the fine Modern Family, Parks and Rec dances circles around it. It’s more ambitious in its storytelling, it develops its characters with greater depth and it continues to offer surprises each season while Modern Family and other shows just do more of the same…even if they do it well. And on top of all that, it’s hilarious and still has the best comedic ensemble on TV right now. I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, but I’d bet it too falls short of Parks and Recreation in almost every metric.

On the upside, it’s nice to see Silicon Valley land a nomination for its debut season. The show came out of the gate strong and never faltered. I have yet to get around to Orange is the New Black, but by all accounts it’s a true original and a deserving nominee…if not necessarily the right fit for this category.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Melissa McCarthy – Mike & Molly
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation
Taylor Schilling – Orange is the New Black

Thoughts: At least Amy Poehler got some love for Parks and Rec, though the fact that she hasn’t won yet is every bit as scandalous as the show itself not being nominated. Yes, we all adore Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but she’s got plenty of Emmys at this point, and while her work on Veep is excellent, the character doesn’t have the range of Poehler’s Leslie Knope. She won her first Golden Globe for the role in January. Perhaps this will finally be her year at the Emmys as well?

Also, how about getting some Mindy Kaling up in this joint?

X
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Ricky Gervais – Derek
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
William H. Macy – Shameless
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Ricky Gervais’ nomination for the Netflix series Derek is quite the surprise. The series hasn’t garnered the acclaim or noteriety of The Office or even Extras, so it’s a testament to Gervais’ appeal that he made the cut over more widely predicted people like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andy Samberg (who took the Golden Globe) and Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch. I’m also giving a shout-out to the great Chris O’Dowd, who was a real joy as the lead in Christopher Guest’s mellow HBO comedy Family Tree.

As for the win, I gotta go with Louis C.K.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Allison Janney – Mom
Kate McKinnon – Saturday Night Love
Kate Mulgrew – Orange is the New Black

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Fred Armisen – Portlandia
Andre Braugher – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Tony Hale – Veep
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Can someone explain to me how Fred Armisen is a Supporting Actor on Portlandia? He’s the co-lead and co-creator of the show. He doesn’t belong here, especially at the expense — yet again — of any member of the Parks and Recreation crew. Nick Offerman remains the show’s most egregiously overlooked cast member, but Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari and Adam Scott are plenty deserving.

Silicon Valley also boasts an impressive group of supporting players, any of whom — T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods or the late Christopher Evan Welch — would have been welcome additions here.

Returning nominees Adam Driver, Tony Hale and Ty Burrell all deserve a place once again, and Andre Braugher is a welcome addition for his deadpan precinct captain. His co-star Joe Lo Truglio would have been deserving too…though again, neither outshine the men of Parks and Rec. I really don’t get the Emmy’s aversion to that show.

I would love to see Driver take this. Reigning champ Hale is terrific, but Adam Driver is one of the most exciting actors anywhere right now. His work on Girls has been remarkable from day one, and he continues to take his character in fascinating and unexpected new directions.

X
OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox – Orange is the New Black
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Tina Fey – Saturday Night Live
Natasha Lyonne – Orange is the New Black
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live

The Guest Performer Emmys were handed out last weekend at the Creative Arts ceremony, and the prize went to Uzo Aduba. As I mentioned above, I have yet to see Orange is the New Black, but even I’m aware of her breakout character Crazy Eyes.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Steve Buscemi – Portlandia
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Gary Cole – Veep
Jimmy Fallon – Saturday Night Live
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Another Parks and Recreation omission: is it not far past the time to recognize Ben Schwartz for his hilarious recurring work as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein? This is a show that has done such a phenomenal job of building up a roster of recurring characters to fill out the town of Pawnee, and none are funnier or more well-honed than hipster doofus Jean-Ralphio. His impact on the show has been significant enough that the creators gave him an equally hilarious sister Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) and this past year introduced Henry Winkler as their father. Given how this show has been passed over by Emmy voters across the board, I can hardly expect Schwartz to be singled out. But he sure deserves it.

All that aside, the winner was Jimmy Fallon.

X
OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 305)
Louis C.K. – Louie (So Did the Fat Lady)
Liz Friedman, Jenji Kohan – Orange is the New Black (I Wasn’t Ready – Pilot)
Alec Berg – Silicon Valley (Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency)
Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Armando Iannucci – Veep (Special Relationship)

Thoughts: Cheers to the voters for nominating the season finale of Silicon Valley, which featured one of the funniest sequences I saw anywhere all year: a serious discussion amongst software engineers about how one of them could theoretically jerk off 800 men in ten minutes. This was inspired. The best part is that, as with much of the show’s shop talk, the concept had to be worked out with the help of a legitimate engineering genius — 27 year-old MIT grad Vinith Misra. While discussing his work as an advisor to the show in this interview, he mentioned that his tasks included “performing a detailed mathematical analysis in support of a penis joke.” Fantastic.

X
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

Iain B. MacDonald – Episodes (Episode 309)
Paris Barclay – Glee (100)
Louis C.K. – Louie (Elevator, Part 6)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Vegas)
Jodie Foster – Orange is the New Black (Lesbian Request Denied)

X
OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men
True Detective

Thoughts: Although I don’t watch The Good Wife, I gathered that it had a strong season. I couldn’t escape the news of a major cast member’s dramatic exit, so it’s surprising that the buzz didn’t translate into a nomination. Much as I enjoy Downton Abbey, I’m not sure if it belongs here when other acclaimed shows like Good Wife, The Americans, or Masters of Sex were shut out. The Bridge had an impressive debut run too. It would also be nice to see more genre shows join Game of Thrones. Neither The Walking Dead nor Bates Motel have Thrones’ prestige factor, but both are coming off high-quality seasons. And Hannibal is not only riveting, but one of the most visually arresting shows on the air. Also, I have to say, True Blood bounced back in a big way last year.

I’d like to think this will be the year that Game of Thrones triumphs, but it’s a tough call. It’s unanimously agreed that Breaking Bad’s final season completely nailed it, and might even have been the show’s best yet. But those episodes aired a year ago, and it may be too far out of mind to claim the prize for the second year in a row…though most fans of the show would say that only one Outstanding Drama Series win is not enough. True Detective is the big threat here. Fueled by the presence of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the show was highly anticipated and lived up to the potential. It was an instant hit — smart, engrossing and atmospheric. And it’s probably more in Emmy voters’ wheelhouse than Game of Thrones. One potential hiccup is that earlier this month, accusations surfaced that True Detective‘s creator Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized portions of the show’s dialogue. He and HBO have denied the charges, and the timing does seem suspicious. The show ended its run in March, but this story doesn’t hit until August, in the middle of the Emmy voting period? Sounds like the work of Tywin Lannister…

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Lizzy Caplan – Masters of Sex
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies – The Good Wife
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Does Michelle Dockery really belong here? She does good work as Lady Mary, but in a crowded field, I can think of a few performances that have more going on than hers. How about Vera Farmiga, nominated last year for her wonderful work on Bates Motel? The Bridge’s Diane Kruger, might have been a more interesting choice as well. I don’t watch any of the following shows, but what I hear of Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Keri Russell (The Americans), Connie Britton (Nashville), Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy) and the usually-nominated Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) suggests that all are eminently Emmy worthy.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Woody Harrelson – True Detective
Matthew McConaughey – True Detective
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

X
Thoughts:
Poor Michael Sheen. The Masters of Sex star is always the bridesmaid to his co-stars. The Queen: Helen Mirren wins the Oscar, but he’s not nominated. Frost/Nixon: Frank Langella gets the Oscar nomination, Sheen is passed over. Now Lizzy Caplan is welcomed into the Emmy race for Masters while Sheen is yet again ignored. Perhaps he can take some consolation in the fact that as always, this is a jam-packed category. There’s really nobody here who doesn’t deserve their place. Some might say Jeff Daniels, who pulled off a surprise win last year, but critics and pundits just don’t like The Newsroom. Whatever they think of the show though, Daniels is terrific. Many expected James Spader to be a shoo-in for The Blacklist, and there were hopes that Matthew Rhys would find his way in for The Americans. But there can be only six.

Jon Hamm remains Emmy-less for Mad Men, which probably should be rectified at some point, but it’s unlikely to be this year. While Bryan Cranston could take it one final time for Breaking Bad, this award seems destined for McConaughey, who was spellbinding on True Detective. His first foray into series television further bolstered the hot streak that he’s been on in the movies. He’ll need some more shelf space to add all the True Detective awards he’s bound to win over the next six months to the swarm he already collected for Dallas Buyers Club. His next two projects are with Christopher Nolan and Gus Van Sant. Dude is crushing it.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Joanne Froggatt – Downton Abbey
Lena Headey – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: I’m always pleased by any recognition for the Game of Thrones cast, so I’m happy to see Lena Headey score her first nomination. I still say Maisie Williams is the cast’s most deserving female, but I’ll take what they give me.

I didn’t expect the Emmys to suddenly find room for The Walking Dead in a main category, but Melissa McBride certainly deserved a place here this year. McBride’s Carol has had the best character arc on the show, coming a long way from the meek, abused wife she was at the start to the badass warrior momma she is now, one of the toughest of the survivors, who makes difficult life or death decisions and then follows through, all for the greater good. Her evolution and do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude were crystallized in this season’s episode “The Grove,” which saw Carol execute her most heartbreaking decision yet. I had some issues with the how the story played out — I think the writing failed to explore the situation as fully as it needed to (and easily could have) before the ultimate solution was reached — but I have no issues with McBride’s performance. It was a textbook example of the kind of showcase episode that should earn an actor a nomination.

I also want to make a stand for Caitlin FitzGerald, from Masters of Sex. As the warm, supportive wife to Michael Sheen’s intense title character, FitzGerald had the challenge of taking a 1950’s housewife whose lot in life seems to be supporting her man, and turning her into a character who was, in her way, just as strong and compelling as Lizzy Caplan’s less conventional woman of the era. FitzGerald quickly evolved into my favorite character on the show, as I found myself looking forward to her scenes more than anyone else’s.

Lastly, while I can’t comment on Baranski, Gunn or Hendricks, I can say the category should have found room for The Newsroom’s Olivia Munn. Probably the least experienced of the show’s primary cast members when it debuted, she was strong from the start and does great work week in and week out. If she had been giving the same performance on The West Wing, she’d have been nominated.

X
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Josh Charles – The Good Wife
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad
Jon Voight – Ray Donovan

Thoughts: Could sentiment be with Josh Charles, given his character’s high-profile departure from The Good Wife? Or will voters look to Aaron Paul one last time for Breaking Bad? No surprise, I’m rooting for Dinklage to win for a second time. His arc this season provided great material, both showy and subtle, and he was as stellar as ever. Unfortunately, he is once again the show’s sole representative. Several of his castmates could just as easily join him here, but all were overlooked. One particular absence stings because the character won’t be returning, and has been one of the standouts each year. I’m avoiding his name for spoilers sake, but those of you watching probably know who I mean. Frankly, if this entire category were comprised of Thrones actors,  it would be entirely justified.

Voters might also have considered Jeffrey Wright’s work on Boardwalk Empire. He was an excellent addition to the show, and a more interesting character than Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy-winning villain from the previous season.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Kate Burton – Scandal
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Allison Janney – Masters of Sex
Kate Mara – House of Cards
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Kate Mara? Really? Nothing against her or her performance, but her arc on House of Cards was pretty brief this year. Does she really deserve this slot? Diana Rigg is so good on Game of Thrones, but she was in much less of the season this year than last. If she didn’t win then, it’s unlikely that she would now.

And she didn’t. The award went to Alison Janney, and that’s hard to argue with. Janney was heartbreaking as a wife and mother experiencing her sexual awakening as she learns that her husband — fellow nominee Beau Bridges — is not the man she thought he was.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dylan Baker – The Good Wife
Beau Bridges – Masters of Sex
Reg E. Cathey – House of Cards
Paul Giamatti – Downton Abbey
Robert Morse – Mad Men
Joe Morton – Scandal

Thoughts: Pedro Pascal came into the crowded Game of Thrones cast and immediately carved himself a place of honor with a compelling portrayal of a revenge-minded prince. He seemed a shoo-in for recognition here. I mean, it was fun to see the great Paul Giamatti pop up on Downton Abbey, but I’d trade his one-episode appearance for Pascal’s pivotal season-long role in a heartbeat. It’s disappointing to see him passed over.

I’ve only seen half of these nominees — Giamatti, Bridges and Cathey. I’d have gone with Bridges’ wrenching turn as a married man grappling with his homosexuality. The scenes of his professional relationship — he plays Michael Sheen’s longtime friend and boss — are terrific, but the character’s personal struggles deepen the role and allow Bridges to do some beautiful work. Alas, the winner was Joe Morton (Miles Dyson, for all you Terminator 2 fans). Though I don’t watch Scandal, I’ve always liked Morton, so it’s nice to see a working actor like him get some recognition.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Moira Walley-Beckett – Breaking Bad (Ozymandias)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Children)
Beau Willimon – House of Cards (Chapter 14)
Nic Pizzolatto – True Detective (The Secret Fate of All of Life)

X
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES

Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Farewell Daddy Blues)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Evans – Downton Abbey (Episode 1)
Neil Marshall – Game of Thrones (The Watchers on the Wall)
Cary Joji Fukunaga – True Detective (Who Goes There)

Thoughts: Without having seen the Breaking Bad episodes, I have no doubt both were expertly crafted. And the nominated episode of True Detective got a lot of attention for its lengthy tracking shot that moved in and out of several houses as it followed McConaughey’s character on an undercover assignment gone bad. But how can anything here compare to the directorial challenges and superb execution of the battle for Castle Black on Game of Thrones? The extensive use of visual effects to create so much of the surroundings, the multiple storylines playing out within the limited location, the ability to make it all look so impressive and cinematic on a TV budget. This is the first directing nomination Thrones has received in three seasons, and its omission from the past two years is absurd. It deserves the award not just for this episode, but as compensation for past mistakes.

X
OUTSTANDING MINISERIES

American Horror Story: Coven
Bonnie & Clyde
Fargo
Luther
Treme
The White Queen

Thoughts: American Horror Story is always a force to be reckoned with, but Fargo was the buzzy critic’s darling this year, and accomplished the impressive feat of standing on its own in the shadow of a classic piece of contemporary cinema. I wasn’t totally sold on it at first, but it grew on me steadily as it went along, and I still find myself thinking about it. I’ll definitely have to revisit it eventually.

OUTSTANDING TELEVISION MOVIE
Killing Kennedy
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
The Normal Heart
Sherlock: His Last Vow
The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Helena Bonham Carter – Burton and Taylor
Minnie Driver – Return to Zero
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Coven
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Coven
Cicely Tyson – The Trip to Bountiful
Kristen Wiig – The Spoils of Babylon

Thoughts: How awesome is it to see Kristin Wiig sneak into this line-up for her performance in the absurd comedic series The Spoils of Babylon? This show was totally ridiculous, and totally hilarious. Not everyone’s style of comedy, I’m sure, but for those who appreciated what they were going for, it was lots of fun, and Wiig was aces.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Dancing on the Edge
Idris Elba – Luther
Martin Freeman – Fargo
Mark Ruffalo – The Normal Heart
Billy Bob Thornton – Fargo

Thoughts: The delightful ubiquity of Martin Freeman is evident in the fact that half his fellow nominees are actors he’s worked with. He’s joined here by his Fargo co-star Thornton, as well as his Sherlock and The Hobbit pal Cumberbatch. Plus he and Ejiofor were both in Love, Actually. But they had no scenes together, so maybe that doesn’t count? You decide.

Jesus, this is a strong line-up. Tough, tough call.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Angela Bassett – American Horror Story: Coven
Kathy Bates – American Horror Story: Coven
Ellen Burstyn – Flowers in the Attic
Frances Conroy – American Horror Story: Coven
Julia Roberts – The Normal Heart
Alison Tolman – Fargo

Thoughts: No surprise that this category is dominated by ladies of American Horror Story. Bassett, Bates and Conroy were all fantastic. The former two especially, had probably the best roles they’ve had in ages thanks to Ryan Murphy and his team, who can always be counted on to create roles that actresses can tear into. It’s no wonder they signed on to return for the upcoming season, American Horror Story: Freak Show. It will be a challenge to choose between them. So maybe the voters won’t, going instead for Allison Tolman’s wonderful breakout turn in Fargo.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Matt Bomer – The Normal Heart
Martin Freeman – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Colin Hanks – Fargo
Joe Mantello – The Normal Heart
Alfred Molina – The Normal Heart
Jim Parsons – The Normal Heart

Thoughts: This category is kind of a slap in the face to Taylor Kitsch. He was the only main cast member of The Normal Heart to be overlooked, and he was just as good as everyone else. He certainly had a bigger role than Joe Mantello, but Mantello had something that Kitsch unfortunately didn’t: a showstopping scene in which he took center stage and was allowed to fly. He was basically nominated for that one scene. All the other cast members had at least one standout moment like that. Kitsch’s character didn’t, and it probably cost the actor a nomination.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Brad Falchuk – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Noah Hawley – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Neil Cross – Luther
Larry Kramer – The Normal Heart
Steven Moffatt – Sherlock: His Last Vow
David Simon, Eric Overmeyer – Treme (…To Miss New Orleans)

X
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Adam Bernstein – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Colin Bucksey – Fargo (Buridan’s Ass)
Stephen Frears – Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
Ryan Murphy – The Normal Heart
Nick Hurran – Sherlock: His Last Vow

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Thoughts: The golden of age of television we continue to find ourselves in is not limited to fictional series. The late night field is also full of gems, as evidenced by how strong this category is. Saturday Night Live is always going to be hit or miss, but the rest of these shows are just great. Conan could easily be here too, as could some of the other shows which pop up in the Writing category below (despite the list of nominees, this isn’t actually a late night category). Last Week with John Oliver probably debuted too late in the season to qualify, but its chances next year are looking great. Strong as all of these shows are though, none of them equal the satirical brilliance of The Colbert Report, which finally won this award last year after a record-setting 10 years of domination by The Daily Show.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Inside Amy Schumer
Key & Peele
Portlandia
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

X
OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM

Archer (Archer Vice: The Rules of Extraction)
Bob’s Burgers (Mazel Tina)
Futurama (Meanwhile)
South Park (Black Friday)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Manhattan Project

Thoughts: Much was made of the fact that for the first time in 23 years, The Simpsons wasn’t nominated. The consenus may be that the show is long past its prime, but I still probably laugh harder and more often during a Simpsons episode than I do at any other series. Now maybe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is good…but better than The Simpsons? I seriously doubt it.

X

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out. Seth Meyers hosts the show, which airs tomorrow night, Monday, August 25, on NBC. Go Amy Poehler and Game of Thrones!

And now I leave you with another classic moment of Emmy past.

 

Advertisements

July 19, 2013

Emmy Nominations 2012-13: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 5:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmys do not occupy the same level of alarming obsession I have for the Oscars. For example, I didn’t wake up at the ass-crack of dawn yesterday to watch the live nominations announcement, as I do every year for the Oscar nominations. But that hardly makes me immune to Emmy fever. I’m as hopped up on TV as I am on movies, so the Emmys are firmly on my radar. You won’t find me engaging in the same series of prediction and reaction posts that I dive into during Oscar season (many of you are grateful for that, no doubt) but of course I have plenty of thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of today’s nominations.

Now, once again, I have to make the point that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—and nearly every other body that hands out awards for television—faces an impossible challenge. There is a staggering amount of TV programming out there, and now that outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are producing content, the arena is even more packed. How can every show and all their components—acting, writing, directing, production design, etc.—be fairly evaluated? I’ve elaborated before, both in last year’s version of this post and in an earlier, more detailed overview, on the flawed process for Emmy voting at the nomination stage. And once again, you should read the latter, because I was right when I wrote it and I’m even more right now. (This is also a succinct summary of what’s wrong with the Emmys.)

So with that said, I offer a small selection of artists whose work this past year deserved to be recognized. I won’t get into which nominations did happen and shouldn’t have, nor will I argue that any of my choices that didn’t make it are more deserving than certain ones that did. For I am not immune to the problem I describe in my 2009 post; I don’t watch every TV show, so I can’t fairly judge what does and doesn’t deserve an Emmy nomination. I’m simply saying that the offerings below—whether at another’s expense or not—were worthy of the recognition.

But before we get to that, here are the nominations in what I consider the major categories, with some brief thoughts along the way. I’m not a fan of reality TV around these parts, so I’ve omitted those categories. BUT, a huge congratulations to my friend Carl Hansen, who earned his first Emmy nomination yesterday. He was an Executive Producer on Outstanding Reality Program nominee Shark Tank. Way to go, Carl!

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Girls
Louie
Modern Family
30 Rock
Veep

Thoughts: A fine list, but the omission of Parks and Recreation is criminal. That show, along with its ensemble cast—which has to be the best on any current comedy series—continues to kill it every week, without fail. I also would have liked to see Arrested Development here. I know many people were disappointed in the new season, but I thought that while it had some problems, its density and ambition were staggeringly impressive. And even flawed, there was still more than enough hilarity.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Laura Dern – Enlightened
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey – 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

Thoughts: How great to see Laura Dern here. Enlightened was not renewed for a third season due to low viewership, but it was a beautiful show. This nomination for the always underrated Dern is a small but appreciated way to bid it a premature farewell.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Alec Baldwin – 30 Rock
Jason Bateman – Arrested Development
Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Jane Krakowski – 30 Rock
Jane Lynch – Glee
Sofia Vergara – Modern Family
Merritt Wever – Nurse Jackie

Thoughts: Seven nominees and they couldn’t find room for Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter? Jane Lynch’s role on Glee is pretty much played out at this point. She’s great, but I would swap her for Walter in a heartbeat. Or how about some love for Parks and Rec‘s Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza?

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Bill Hader – Saturday Night Live
Tony Hale – Veep
Ed O’Neill – Modern Family
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Bit of a surprise to see Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet left off, though it does keep the category from becoming a Modern lovefest once again. Still, I’d always nominate Stonestreet before Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who I’ve always found to be a little too one-note. Great to see Bill Hader and Tony Hale here, but the real delight is Adam Driver’s nomination for Girls. I didn’t expect voters to come through for Driver, so I had included him among my write-ups below. Well, now I can delete that. Every moment of Driver’s performance feels authentic, electric and unscripted. Kudos to the Emmy voters for not overlooking his sensational work. As for disappointing oversights, how about every single male actor on Parks and Recreation? Seriously, line up Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. Now put on a blindfold and throw a dart. Throw a few. Whoever you hit, they deserve to be here. If this category is going to be dominated by one show, Modern Family ain’t the one. And I say that as a big fan. But these Parks and Recreation guys…they crush it. And how stupendous were Will Arnett and David Cross on Arrested Development?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Dot-Marie Jones – Glee
Melissa Leo – Louie
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live
Molly Shannon – Enlightened
Elaine Stritch – 30 Rock
Kristen Wiig – Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Bobby Cannavale – Nurse Jackie
Will Forte – 30 Rock
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory
Justin Timberlake – Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: As long as we’re giving it up for SNL guest hosts, where’s the love for Martin Short? His Christmas episode was among the season’s strongest. At least they included Louis C.K., whose Abraham Lincoln sketch was the best of the year.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 209)
Louis C.K., Pamela Adlon – Louie (Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 1)
Greg Daniels – The Office (Finale)
Jack Burditt, Robert Carlock – 30 Rock (Hogcock!)
Tina Fey, Tracey Wigfield – 30 Rock (Last Lunch)

Thoughts: The Office and 30 Rock each went out on a good note, but not good enough to exclude a single nomination for Arrested Development, whose writing was brilliantly ambitious on levels that I don’t think any other show ever has even aimed for.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls (On All Fours)
Paris Barclay – Glee (Diva)
Louis C.K. – Louie (New Year’s Eve)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Arrested)
Beth McCarthy-Miller – 30 Rock (Hogcock!/Last Lunch)

OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men

Thoughts: Yeah, that looks about right. Downton could have been left off. I love it, but the past two seasons have been uneven. I don’t watch them, but based on their reputations, it would have been cool if Justified or Sons of Anarchy had snuck in. There seemed to be a lot of love for The Americans, too. And why can’t The Walking Dead catch a break?

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Connie Britton – Nashville
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Vera Farmiga – Bates Motel
Elisabeth Moss – Mad Men
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Not that I watch the show, but I’m surprised not to see Julianna Margulies here for The Good Wife. I thought she was a perennial in this category. I also didn’t watch Orphan Black, but heard Tatiana Maslany was off-the-charts amazing. I thought she might find a place among the more recognizable names. On the other hand, I love that Robin Wright made it. I consider Wright, like Laura Dern, to be one of the most undervalued actresses around. Any and every bit of attention she receives is deserved. Great to see Vera Farmiga make the cut too. She did some impressive tightrope walking as the complex mother to Norman Bates. And even though I don’t watch Scandal, I kinda love Kerry Washington, so good for her making it as well.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Hugh Bonneville – Downton Abbey
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Damien Lewis – Homeland
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Morena Baccarin – Homeland
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Emilia Clarke – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: Emilia Clarke breaks in for Game of Thrones! Nice. Her character had a kick-ass season. She only stands to kick more ass as the show progresses, so I might have gone with her castmate Michelle Fairley instead. But hey, any love for Thrones is fine with me. Good to see Homeland‘s Morena Baccarin recognized too.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Jonathan Banks – Breaking Bad
Bobby Cannavale – Boardwalk Empire
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad

Thoughts: The Station Agent‘s Dinklage and Cannavale, together again! Though frankly, I would sacrifice Cannavale in favor of House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll, who had a terrific, heartbreaking arc as a troubled congressman. I also think Sam Waterston was a worthy contender for The Newsroom. And while I didn’t see The Americans, I heard Noah Emmerich was outstanding. I’m thrilled to see Mandy Patinkin here after he was overlooked last year. Perhaps one of these days, another member of the amazing Game of Thrones cast will join the always deserving Dinklage. A little love for Charles Dance, please?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Linda Cardellini – Mad Men
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Carrie Preston – The Good Wife
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Diana Rigg = Awesome. And Jane Fonda was a blast on The Newsroom.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dan Bucatinsky – Scandal
Michael J. Fox – The Good Wife
Rupert Friend – Homeland
Harry Hamlin – Mad Men
Nathan Lane – The Good Wife
Robert Morse – Mad Men

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
George Mastras – Breaking Bad (Dead Freight)
Thomas Schnauz – Breaking Bad (Say My Name)
Julian Fellowes – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
Henry Bromell – Homeland (Q&A)

Thoughts: I figured that Homeland would receive at least one writing nomination, but I wasn’t sure which episode it would go to. I’m glad to see it went where it belonged; that’s another write-up I did that I can now discard. “Q&A” was the stellar episode in which Carrie interrogates Brody after finally confronting him with evidence of his treachery and taking him into custody. Writer Henry Bromell used to write for NBC’s great police series Homicide: Life on the Streets, and penned many of that show’s most intense sequences: Det. Pembleton questioning suspects in an interrogation room known as The Box. He proved with “Q&A” that he still knows his way around that intimate setting. The session between Carrie and Brody is the episode’s lengthy centerpiece, and the writing—from the broad scope of Carrie’s approach to the carefully chosen words and brutal honesty with which she reaches him—is masterful (as are the performances by Claire Danes and Damien Lewis). On top of recognizing this excellent achievement, the nomination doubles as a tribute to Bromell, who died of a heart attack in March. Like James Gandolfini, he was a great contributor to dramatic television who left us too soon.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Margate Sands)
Michelle MacLaren – Breaking Bad (Gliding Over All)
Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
Lesli Linka Glatter – Homeland (Q&A)
David Fincher – House of Cards (Chapter 1)

Thoughts: Fincher!

OUTSTANDING MINISERIES OR MOVIE
American Horror Story: Asylum
Behind the Candelabra
The Bible
Phil Spector
Political Animals
Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Asylum
Laura Linney – The Big C: Hereafter
Helen Mirren – Phil Spector
Elisabeth Moss – Top of the Lake
Sigourney Weaver – Political Animals

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Parade’s End
Matt Damon – Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas – Behind the Candelabra
Toby Jones – The Girl
Al Pacino – Phil Spector

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Ellen Burstyn – Political Animals
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Asylum
Charlotte Rampling – Restless
Imelda Staunton – The Girl
Alfre Woodard – Steel Magnolias

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Scott Bakula – Behind the Candelabra
James Cromwell – American Horror Story: Asylum
John Benjamin Hickey – The Big C: Hereafter
Peter Mullan – Top of the Lake
Zachary Quinto – American Horror Story: Asylum

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Richard LaGravenese – Behind the Candelabra
Abi Morgan – The Hour
Tom Stoppard – Parade’s End
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Jane Campion, Gerard Lee – Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Steven Soderbergh – Behind the Candelabra
Julian Jarrold – The Girl
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Allison Anders – Ring of Fire
Jane Campion, Garth Davis – Top of the Lake

Thoughts: Soderbergh!

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Portlandia
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: Wow, Saturday Night Live still hanging on here. I would have thought Conan or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would earn a place.

OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM
Bob’s Burgers (O.T.: The Outside Toilet)
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Enter the Dragon)
Regular Show (The Christmas Special)
The Simpsons (Treehouse of Horror XXIII)
South Park (Raising the Bar)

For what it’s worth, some stats: HBO was—to nobody’s surprise, I’m sure—once again the most nominated network, but I couldn’t believe how far ahead they were. With 108 nominations, they had just over twice as many as the second most honored network, CBS. (Really? CBS?) The most nominated program was American Horror Story: Asylum, with 17 nominations, followed by Game of Thrones with 16. And while I haven’t seen this factoid called out, I think Louis C.K. may have been the most nominated individual. Between his Saturday Night Live hosting gig and the multiple hats he wore on both his series and his HBO standup special, he received nine nominations. I would think that’s gotta be tops for the year.

Some people actually get paid to watch and write about TV, and are therefore likely to have seen all the eligible shows, so here’s a sampling of their reactions: Vulture‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman, and Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen and James Hibberd. Goodman had a lot to say (he usually does), and actually wrote three different pieces reacting to (mostly railing against) the nominations. The initial two can be accessed through the one linked here. He talks about what I wrote of back in 2009: the impossible task of fairly evaluating all the choices out there. Then he goes on to damn the voters for too frequently eschewing bolder options in favor of the same old thing. He does have a point. I mean, I love 30 Rock, but it was past its prime. Did the final season really deserve an Outstanding Series nomination over Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation? He also suggests that it’s time for the Emmys to expand the major categories to ten nominees each, in order to better represent the overwhelming number of shows and performances vying for recognition. I think that’s a great idea; some of the categories already have seven nominees. But let’s face it: expanding the categories doesn’t mean that more critically favored but Emmy-retardant shows like Justified, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans or Hannibal would suddenly find a seat at the table. More likely, given Emmy voters’ tendencies, we’d just see more middle of the road choices. This year, the Outstanding Comedy category might have made room for Parks and Recreation, but it would probably have also included shows like Two and a Half Men, The Middle and Mike & Molly over Community, The Mindy Project or Arrested Development. Still, I agree with Goodman; it’s time for an expansion.

As usual many of the nominees released statements of gratitude. Best Reaction Statement: Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy) – “Given all the hilarious film work I’ve done, from Traffic to Crash to Flight, it’s nice to finally be recognized as the comic genius I am. Thank you, Academy members.” Second Best Reaction Statement goes to Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama) -“Yer chomoe anhaan. Jin ha Khalaan, shekh ma shieraki anni. For those not fluent in Dothraki, it translates to: You do honor to me. This is for the Khal — my sun and stars.”

Now then, for your belated consideration…

These write-ups make no attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you come across one for a show you haven’t seen yet but intend to watch someday, I advise you to skip it.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Denis O’Hare – True Blood
Although it’s past its prime and I watch it more now out of habit, there was a time when True Blood was really killing it (the current season has actually been pretty strong). But the Emmys have never had much use for it. A shame; its terrific second season earned it a nomination for Best Drama Series, and it has garnered some below-the-line nominations over the years – sound editing, makeup, casting, that sort of thing. But probably because it’s an out-there, gothic fantasy soap opera, it has often been unfairly overlooked, especially in the acting department. In five seasons, only a single acting nomination has been bestowed: Alfre Woodard for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, from the third season. I like Woodard, but hers was hardly the most deserving or memorable performance True Blood has given us. Nelsan Ellis should have been cited in the first year or two for his great performance as Lafayette, and Michelle Forbes was robbed of recognition for her luscious turn as the second season’s antagonist, Maryann Forrester. And where was the Guest Star nomination after Season Three for James Frain as the sicko vampire Franklin Mott?

Also robbed after season three, was Denis O’Hare for his hilarious, whacked-out performance as extremist vampire king Russell Edgington. After being absent from season four, Edgington returned last year, colorful and crazy as ever, giving voters a chance to rectify their mistake. They failed to do so. O’Hare was nominated last year in the TV Movie or Miniseries group for his role on season one of American Horror Story. If he could get nominated for that, he surely deserves a nod for his far more memorable work as Edgington. (Come to think of it, why has American Horror Story been embraced so enthusiastically by Emmy voters while True Blood has been repeatedly stiffed? If anything, AHS is even more lurid and over-the-top.)

X

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: David Lynch – Louie
In a three episode arc last season, Louie was under consideration to replace a retiring David Letterman as host of CBS’ Late Show. In order to see if he has the right stuff, the chairman of CBS sends Louie to an old school TV producer named Jack Dall to help whip him into shape. As I watched the episode, I was stunned and delighted to discover filmmaker David Lynch playing Dall. Like his films, Lynch is a little…odd. He’s pleasant and mild-mannered, but always seems just slightly out of sync with the world around him. As C.K. explains in this story about how he got Lynch to do the show, he wasn’t looking for the director to show up and be someone else; he wanted Lynch to be Lynch. Layering his own unique, deadpan persona on top of the cryptic, impatient Dall, Lynch was bone-dry hilarious, fitting right at home with the often surreal tone of C.K.’s show. Lynch the director would be proud of Lynch the actor, and Emmy should have taken note.

X

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Chris Colfer – Glee
An Emmy darling after its first season, Glee has largely disappeared from the awards landscape after subsequent seasons have proven uneven. It picked up some nominations here and there yesterday, but it has mostly dropped off the radar when it comes to awards. I can’t really argue with that. But one aspect of the show that was great from the start and hasn’t faltered is Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt Hummel, a character destined to be remembered as one of the most important in television history. The series may have jumped a number of sharks by now, but it tends to be at its best when Kurt is around, because Colfer is too genuine to let it get away with its more absurd tendencies. He’s a performer who exudes authenticity, and so it seems that the writers—by the very nature of having to serve him—are forced to come up with stronger material. And he never lets us down. His vocal range continues to astound, and across the entire television landscape he’s probably second only to Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey in his ability to deliver a line (especially a cutting one) with brilliant timing and precision. Colfer’s work on Glee has already earned him two Emmy nominations, plus a Golden Globe win, but his fortunes have faded along with the show’s. Too bad; he still deserves the accolades.

X

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: David Nutter – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
For the second year in a row, I’m bewildered by the absence of a single directing nomination for the impeccably produced and impossibly scaled epic series that deserves mention in this category for both its narrative accomplishments and its production quality. Seriously, how in the seven kingdoms does this series not get cited for Directing? While almost any episode of the season would actually be a worthy contender here, the obvious choice would be the now infamous ninth episode “The Rains of Castamere,” which climaxes with the shock and awe of the Red Wedding. (At least the episode scored a writing nomination.) The tension builds during the initial scenes at The Twins, and then when we get to those last ten minutes, in which the trauma is parsed out with thrilling dexterity. The closing of the hall door. The change in the music. The looks exchanged between Catelyn and Bolton. The stabbing of Talisa. The rain of arrows. Then we’re outside with Arya, her excitement disintegrating when she sees the Stark men being killed, followed by Grey Wind. Back in the hall, Catelyn’s desperate plea to Walder Frey. Bolton’s final betrayal and Robb’s death. And then Catelyn after she cuts her hostage’s throat, after she lets out a final wail for her murdered first-born, the camera slowly pushing in as she stands there utterly spent, her husband killed, her daughters captive and all her sons dead (as far as she knows). She stands there and we wonder, “Is it done?” And then just when maybe we think the worst is over, in steps one of Frey’s men to end her too. She falls out of frame. The camera holds for another moment before the credits roll in silence. C’mon, Emmy voters. This was a no-brainer.

X

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series: Mike White – Enlightened (The Ghost is Seen)
In just a single half hour of this little seen HBO gem, writer/actor Mike White delivers one of the most honest, heartwrenching, haunting portraits of loneliness I’ve ever encountered. He doesn’t just expose it from an objective, bird’s-eye view; he takes you inside it, right into its beating, yearning heart and shows what it feels like to live with it everyday, enveloped in it, trapped by it, resigned to it. The episode focuses on White’s own introverted character Tyler and the connection he makes with Eileen (nominated guest star Molly Shannon), the executive assistant to the head of the company, and therefore the unwitting foil in Amy’s mission to expose the illegal activities of the corporation and its CEO. The scenes between Tyler and Eileen are as awkward as they are sweet, and if this doesn’t sound like it belongs in a comedy category alongside shows like Modern Family or Parks and Recreation, well, Enlightened is indeed a different ilk, walking that fine line between comedy and drama, and probably leaning slightly toward the other side if we’re being honest. But whether it’s labeled a comedy or drama for awards purposes shouldn’t ultimately matter. The quality of the writing speaks for itself, and this exquisite episode should not have been passed over.

X

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Jack Huston – Boardwalk Empire
From the moment he was introduced about halfway through the first season, Huston’s Richard Harrow was one of television’s most interesting characters, and one of my favorites. A WWI veteran who wears a specially designed mask over half of his face to conceal a disfiguring battle wound, Harrow is soft-spoken and alone when he meets Jimmy Darmody in an army hospital. After joining up with Jimmy in the bootlegging business, the former sharpshooter discovered a sense of renewed purpose. Upon his promotion to series regular in the second season, Harrow’s role expanded and deepened. This past season, in the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, he became a caretaker to Jimmy’s little boy Tommy (a duty he shares with Jimmy’s mother, who provides him a room in her brothel). He also falls in love with a kind, pretty woman who loves him back, only to reach the conclusion that his hope for a normal life may not be in the cards.

Harrow is a man divided not just physically, but psychologically. He is gentle and sensitive with those he loves, but brutal with those who threaten him or the people he cares about. Both sides battled it out this season, and Huston’s consistent ability to underplay the character winds up making him one of the show’s strongest performers. It may be Harrow’s face that is damaged, but really his wound informs the way his whole body moves. Huston plays him with deliberate physicality – usually hesitant, but quick and determined when he becomes deadly. He still speaks softly—and nervously—but he also carries a big stick (in the shape of a shotgun). Huston—a member of the showbiz dynasty that includes aunt Anjelica and grandfather John—makes the dichotomy between Harrow’s halves into fascinating, essential, Emmy-worthy viewing.

X

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series: Scott A. Gimple – The Walking Dead (Clear)
This quiet, thoughtful episode, which provided a respite from the escalating tension between Team Prison and Team Woodbury, finds Rick, Carl and Michonne taking a drive to Rick’s old town in the hopes of securing weapons from the police station. What they find is the main street rigged with elaborate zombie traps, and the man responsible for it: Morgan, Rick’s former neighbor who saved his life after he woke up in the hospital and wandered home unaware of what had happened to the world. Morgan chose to remain behind when Rick went in search of his family, and this episode finally brought him back, as a broken, half-crazed shell so far gone that he initially doesn’t even recognize Rick, and tries to kill him. As Rick attempts to bring Morgan around, he sees him as a warning sign. He has been dangerously close to the same line that Morgan has crossed, and their encounter becomes an important step in his efforts to reclaim himself. Carl, meanwhile, reveals his own agenda for coming along: the recovery of a family photo that will offer the only picture of his mother that his baby sister will ever have. His determination to get it partners him with Micchone, still seen as an outsider by the group.

The episode offers a stark look at how the new world our characters populate can get the best of those who are incapable of retaining hope, and that survival—not just existence, but real survival—takes more than guns and ammo. Gimple provided an unexpected and creative way to bring Morgan back to the show that didn’t merely satisfy fans, but also furthered the overall story. He also did a nice job balancing Rick and Morgan’s reunion with the side journey that provided some badly needed development for an underserved Michonne.

X

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Patton Oswalt – Parks and Recreation
Having made memorable appearances on seven shows during the past year, Patton Oswalt was recently named TV’s Most Valuable Guest Star by Vulture. The most memorable of those appearances may have been on Parks and Recreation, as Pawnee history enthusiast Garth Blundin, whose opposition to Leslie’s planned repeal of numerous outdated town laws leads him to deliver the greatest filibuster in the history of filibustering. Star Wars and Marvel Comics fans should take note. (If Republicans filibustered like this in our actual Congress, we all might be less critical of them flagrantly overusing it.) Leslie and Garth eventually make a wager that finds them living in a Pawnee Historical Cabin with only 19th century tools and methods at their disposal. Oswalt is, of course, the perfect guy to play a part like this, lovably inhabiting a smug, know-it-all nerd and making sure we like him enough not to turn against him when he outdoes our beloved Leslie. Oswalt tapped into his own irrepressible enthusiasm for pop culture when he delivered the entirely improvised filibuster, which lasted for about eight minutes. Of course, only a short piece could be used on the show, but the full speech was released on YouTube and became a viral sensation. If nothing else, Oswalt deserved an Emmy nomination for going so imaginatively above and beyond the call of duty.

X

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Hugh Dancy – Hannibal
Not that I’ve been following reactions too closely, but the sense I’ve gotten is that the lion’s share of attention for Hannibal‘s acting has gone to Mads Mikkelsen for his quiet, controlled work as Hannibal Lecter. But it’s co-lead Hugh Dancy who delivers the show’s more gripping performance and who deserved recognition from Emmy voters. His Will Graham has such an acute, overdeveloped sense of empathy that he is able to imagine himself as the killers he hunts, executing their crimes himself and therefore gaining unique understanding into their methods and motivations. But this takes an increasingly dire toll on his state of mind, as he begins to identify so deeply with one serial killer in particular that he worries about crossing the line and becoming a killer himself. Hannibal takes us visually into Graham’s point of view to show us what he sees, but Dancy takes us much further and reveals things only an actor can. He wears the oppressive weight of Will’s visions in every fiber of his physical being. He cloaks himself in Will’s fatigue, isolation, and anxiety, drawing us so close that we can practically smell the fevered sweat that accompanies his sleepless nights and haunted dreams. There’s an obvious sadness and loneliness to Will, but while it is directly acknowledged, Dancy never plays it for sympathy. He earns the audience’s identification through the wholeness of his performance, not through cheap emotional manipulation. It’s a truly fascinating portrayal, understated and underrated. Dancy will likely be at the Emmys anyway, accompanying his nominated wife Claire Danes. But he should be there as a nominee himself.

This is off-topic, but I feel compelled to say that I have mixed feelings about Hannibal in general. On one hand, it may be the most gorgeously art directed and photographed TV show I’ve ever seen. The entire visual design is extraordinary. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything so relentlessly, overbearingly bleak. This show is daaaark. Not just its highly disturbing imagery (made all the more unsettling because the crime scenes, like everything on the show, are staged so artfully), but the entire sensibility. There is precious little humor or levity to break the tension. It’s not so much a suspenseful tone as it is a severe one. It’s all so Serious and Heavy. In a way, the show has a hypnotic feel that distinguishes it from anything else I watch. But rarely did an episode go by that didn’t have me thinking at least once, “Jesus, this is too much!” (At least they seem to be having fun on the set.) It doesn’t help that some of the violence really bothers me…and I’m not someone who usually has an aversion to on-screen violence. All told, I’m debating whether or not to stick with it when the next season begins. I admire and appreciate so many things about it, but I can’t exactly say that I enjoy it.

X

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 5)
Jeremy Webb did earn a nomination in the Directing category, but I would argue that it was for the wrong episode. The nomination should have come for the subsequent installment, which delivered the shocking death of Lady Sybil. News of actor Dan Stevens’ departure from the show was all over the internet a few months before Downton‘s third season had its U.S. premiere, so we had a pretty good idea of what was coming down the road for his Matthew Crawley. But the departure of actress Jessica Brown Findlay was preceded by no such commotion, allowing the excellent work done by Webb, writer Julian Fellowes and the cast to take us by complete surprise. Sybil’s demise, which comes in the middle of the night, hours after delivering a healthy baby girl, seemed more shocking than so many other TV deaths because it felt so random. Downton Abbey may be classy, but it’s still a soap opera, with all the melodramatic ups and downs that go with such territory. But Webb directed the scene with such plain, stark realism that it transcended the melodrama. The veil between the audience and the screen dropped, and we were brought into the room along with the family, experiencing the terror, confusion and helplessness as palpably as they did while Sybil writhed in her bed, struggled to breathe, turned ghostly pale and finally expired. We shared in the stunned silence when Dr. Clarkson pronounced her dead, and then shared the pang of heartbreak when her newborn daughter began crying offscreen.

I realize that, as with the Game of Thrones example above, I’m focusing on one scene from an hour-long show. But sometimes that’s all it takes to make an episode. And to be clear, many moments that follow were handled just as effectively by Webb: the servants learning the news in the middle of the night, the Dowager Countess’ arrival the following morning, and the final shot of Sybil’s widowed husband Tom, holding his baby as he stands alone at a window of the house in which he has never felt entirely welcome.

X

So there’s that. Finally, a few other odds and ends from further down the list of nominations:

-The nominees for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special included Don Mischer for The Oscars. Sorry, but no. At the risk of beating a dead horse (and one that nobody other than me cares about), Mischer’s direction of the Oscars was, as I said at the time, incompetent, and has been for the past few years.

-There are a couple of categories that I hadn’t heard of before, one called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs, the other called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Nonfiction Programs. I noticed them this time because they included some nominees from the internet that made me smile: Zach Galifianakis’ hilarious faux-interview show Between Two Ferns was cited in the former, along with the brilliant web series Burning Love, while Jerry Seinfeld’s excellent Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee was nominated in the latter. Great to see these three programs recognized.

-There’s an award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, and this year’s nominees are Arrested Development, The Borgias, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Last Resort and Mr. Selfridge. I find it hard to believe that all of those shows offered better dramatic scoring than Game of Thrones, on which composer Ramin Djawadi does better work on a weekly basis than most theatrical movies have done in the past few years. Since each show is cited for a specific episode, I’ll submit this past season’s fourth installment of Thrones. The music accompanying the climactic sequence (Daenarys taking ownership of the Unsullied) and end credits was worth a nomination on its own. Also missing here: composer Mark Mothersbaugh, the former Devo member whose scoring for Enlightened was the most original and effective I can recall for any show in a long while.

-The Emmys give awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, Lighting Design, and other such technical achievements. This year, an obvious nominee in all three of those categories would have been Hannibal, which as I mentioned above, is one of the most visually arresting shows I’ve ever seen. Amazingly, it was passed over in all of these categories. In fact, the show didn’t score a single nomination. If you’ve seen it, you’d agree: that’s unfathomable. (Anyone as geeky as me who might be interested in seeing the full list of nominations that includes these below-the-line categories like Art Direction, Makeup, Special Effects, Music, etc. can have at it here.)

Okay, that about does it. If you’re inclined to share any thoughts of your own, I’d love to hear them.

This year’s Emmy Awards will air Sunday, September 22 on CBS. Until then, I’ll close out with another favorite moment from Emmy past, as I did last year. This one doubles as a tribute to Glee‘s Cory Monteith, who died this week at age 31. The words “too soon” are too small. Here’s the clever, rousing opening to the 2010 ceremony, featuring host Jimmy Fallon, Monteith and some of his Glee comrades, and more.

June 21, 2013

The Great Gandolfini

Filed under: TV — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

My heart plunged Wednesday afternoon when I read that James Gandolfini had died. I can barely comprehend that he’s left us this soon. The details of his death are as sad as the loss itself. We invest an awful lot of time and energy into the TV shows and movies we love, and when the performers pass away, the feeling of loss can be as genuine as for those we knew in person. I have relatives who have died who were less familiar to me than James Gandolfini. The Sopranos is probably my favorite TV show of all time, and Gandolfini was without a doubt one of my favorite actors.

When the show burst onto the scene in 1999, immediately launching Gandolfini into a new stratosphere of national recognition, I took pride in being one of the people who knew him when. His work in films such as True Romance, Get Shorty and A Civil Action had already endeared him to me. And like many—though relatively few in the scheme of how many millions came to know him after The Sopranos hit—I didn’t just know him as “that guy.” He was an actor who had earned name recognition, and his involvement in The Sopranos was one of the first things that caught my interest when the commercials began running on HBO.

I remember in the show’s early days, when it was saturating the pop culture conversation, a friend of mine who hadn’t seen it but knew me to be a committed fan asked me what the big deal was. I asked her to name a movie that she loved. Not one that was simply fun or entertaining, but one that was so compelling, so well acted and so well written that it blew her away. When she answered, I said, “Now imagine seeing that movie for the first time, every week. That’s The Sopranos.” And while it took an uncompromising creator in David Chase, an amazing staff of writers and a brilliant ensemble of actors to make it all hum, in the end it boiled down to Gandolfini and his portrayal of Tony Soprano. Many will say it was the role that defined him, but Gandolfini was too good to be defined by any one part. He succeeded in other roles during and after The Sopranos because he had too much depth and charisma to be pigeonholed by the role that made him famous. It will surely be the one for which he is best remembered, but no conversation about his work will ever start and stop there. His presence elevated anything he was in. He could make an otherwise forgettable movie like The Mexican worth seeing. He could make an already good movie better, most recently demonstrated by his three or four brief scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Without even appearing on camera, he could convey ferocity, anguish and loneliness enough to break your heart, as he did voicing the lead creature in Where the Wild Things Are.

It was exciting when great directors like the Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze enlisted his talents, and it was disappointing when planned projects didn’t come to pass. (He filmed a role for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that was cut, and he also came close to starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio as the dogged FBI agent in Catch Me If You Can when that film was going to be directed by Lasse Hallstrom. By the time Steven Spielberg came on board to direct, production had been delayed and Gandolfini was no longer available. The part went to Tom Hanks). I always looked forward to more collaborations between Gandolfini and other top actors and directors. A few years ago, he earned a Tony nomination for the play God of Carnage, in which he starred with Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. Just the other day, I watched a commercial for the new season of Daniels’ HBO series The Newsroom and saw that both Harden and Davis were guest starring. I hoped maybe they would try to get Gandolfini to come on at some point and round out the reunion. He was supposed to return to HBO on a limited series called Criminal Justice, for which he’d already filmed a pilot, and in a movie with Steve Carell about rival paleontologists in the 19th century, called Bone Wars. I looked forward to those too. Clearly, I was looking forward to a lot more from Gandolfini. We all were. There are a couple of posthumous offerings that will serve as final showcases for his talents. He had completed shooting two movies that will likely be released next year: one called Animal Rescue, written by Dennis Lehane and starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and one called Enough Said, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Catherine Keener.

And that will be all. I occasionally wonder what John Lennon would be doing today, or what Phil Hartman would be up to. What would Heath Ledger’s latest project be? There might be others about whom you ask the same questions. I will be asking it about Gandolfini for years to come.

As the tributes, statements and appreciations from friends, colleagues and admirers poured in, many pointed out that Gandolfini was not just a great actor, but a great friend. A great person. It’s easy to believe. Every time I saw him accept an award on TV—he earned three Emmys, a Golden Globe and five SAG awards (three for individual achievement, two as part of an ensemble)—he seemed truly humbled and almost embarrassed by the attention. The same was true when he appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was generous with his thoughts on process and the work, but reticent to be in the spotlight. At all times, he was quick to praise his co-stars, his writers and his acting teachers. Two remembrances I read—one from Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter and one from Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture—brought up a Television Critics Association event in the summer of 1999 where Gandolfini was honored with an award, and how uncomfortable he was when the press started to swarm; how he couldn’t wait to get out of there. As Seitz mentions near the beginning of his piece, Gandolfini didn’t understand why people were interested in what he had to say. Well, we were interested because our culture is always interested in what celebrities have to say. At least someone like Gandolfini was worth listening to. Once he realized that, he tried to use his voice to bring attention to things that mattered to him. He was an advocate for U.S. soldiers who returned from war with severe injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to private work he did with these men and women, he actively produced two documentaries for HBO to raise attention to their experiences. By all accounts, this was a guy whose heart was as big as his talent. How tragic that it gave out on him.

Some of the writers who have eulogized Gandolfini online since his death Wednesday—including Entertainment Weekly‘s Mark Harris and Yahoo’s Richard Rushfield—talked about his refusal to apologize for Tony Soprano’s dark deeds, pointing out that he never sentimentalized the character, tried to soften him or ask for the audience’s sympathies. One of my favorite scenes in the show’s history—one that has always stayed with me among the series’ countless examples of excellence—exemplifies this. It’s the final scene of an overall fantastic episode titled “Cold Cuts,” from the remarkable fifth season. In the episode, Tony’s sister Janice is arrested at her stepdaughter’s soccer game for attacking another mother after an incident between the two girls. Much to his agitation, Tony’s name gets dragged into the local news coverage. He impresses upon Janice that such outbursts are bad for business and that she needs to control herself. She attempts to do so by taking anger management classes. Tony, meanwhile, can barely contain his own rage as frustrations on both his home and business fronts continue to mount. He sees Janice benefitting from her classes, and even though this is exactly what he wants, he resents her newfound ability to keep her cool. In the end, this is what happens.

When she explodes, he’s the happiest and most satisfied he’s been during the whole episode. That smirk he gives just before walking out of the dining room speaks volumes. The scene shows the kind of cruelty Tony is capable of even to the people he loves, and there are others like it throughout the series. As he walks away, with the aggressive strains of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” perfectly used on the soundtrack, we have to admit to ourselves—as we have many times before—that this character we love (or if not love, exactly, then feel for) is an unrepentant sociopath. And why did we feel so much for Tony? Because Gandolfini gave us no choice. You’ll notice in that clip that the closing credits begin to appear before the screen has gone to black, which is atypical for an episode of The Sopranos. It’s almost as if the director just couldn’t move on quite yet. Even with his back to us, walking away after that instance of emotional violence, James Gandolfini compelled us to watch him. And we watched in wonder.

I’m so sad he’s gone.

May 17, 2013

Player Hader

Filed under: TV — DB @ 3:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Saturday Night Live‘s 38th season comes to an end tomorrow night, and with the close of another year comes the departure of a cast member who, for my money, has long been the show’s MVP: Bill Hader.

Hader has been on SNL for eight years, joining at the start of the 2005-2006 season at the same time as Andy Samberg. (Jesus, was that really eight years ago?) He quickly proved to be one of the show’s most versatile and reliable cast members, excelling at original characters and impressions, though just as capable of playing the straight man. Well…straight-ish, anyway. Last year, he became only the 18th cast member in the show’s history to earn an Emmy nomination for his individual performance. But one thing that also struck me about Hader during his time on the show was how quickly the outside comedy community caught onto his talent and started to utilize him. I haven’t researched this, but my sense is that most SNL cast members who break out beyond the show tend to do so after serving for a few years. But Hader was snatched up fairly soon after hitting the stage of Studio 8H, winning roles in some of the best comedy films of the latter aughts, including Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder and Superbad. Greg Mottola, who directed the latter, also used him in Adventureland and Paul, while the actor’s association with Judd Apatow continued beyond Knocked Up with roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express.

As it turns out, Hader may not be the only performer leaving SNL after tomorrow’s finale. Rumors abound that Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis will also bid farewell, and with Seth Meyers leaving halfway through next season to replace Jimmy Fallon as host of Late Night, the show is about to experience a major makeover. Of course, this has always been the nature of Saturday Night Live. Cast members arrive, grow successful, move on, new players arrive, lather, rinse, repeat, lather, rinse, repeat. From Chevy Chase to Kristen Wiig, this has been the way of SNL, and so it shall continue to be. But it’s still sad to bid adieu to the greats, and Hader is one of the greats; a terrific character comedian in the tradition of Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey. (I’ll miss Sudeikis a lot too, but I’ve always been indifferent about Armisen. If Sudeikis follows Hader out the door, the two best things about Kenan Thompson’s “What Up With That” sketch will be gone: the former’s enthusiastic, red tracksuit-clad backup dancer, and the latter’s repeatedly snubbed guest, Lindsey Buckingham.)

So what’s next for Hader? Sleep, and moving back to Los Angeles, he says. Careerwise, I don’t see him graduating to many lead performances in comedy movies. He seems more suited to supporting parts in that medium, while TV is the likely place for him to find a central role. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he flexes his muscles a bit and takes on some characters and material with more serious overtones; I suspect that he has the talent for them. In the meantime, he’ll be seen in an upcoming project called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple whose relationship is seen across two separate films: one from her perspective, and one from his. Hader also reunited with director Mottola for an HBO movie called Clear History, co-written by and starring Larry David. And I’m sure he’ll pop up on SNL again, for a surprise cameo or a hosting gig. Until then, here are a few of my favorite Bill Hader moments from his tenure at SNL.

Most notably, Hader’s departure leaves the show without its best recurring character of recent years, Weekend Update’s delicate, trendspotting City Correspondent, Stefon. One of my favorite things about Hader has been that, like Jimmy Fallon before him, he often has trouble getting through a skit without laughing…which only makes it funnier. Never is this more true than in his appearances as Stefon, probably because a) his material is always so bizarre, and b) writer John Mulaney apparently likes to switch up the dialogue between the dress rehearsal and the live show, so that Hader is often seeing Stefon’s lines for the first time when he performs them on air. Under those circumstances, it’s a miracle he holds it together as well as he does. (Incidentally, Stefon’s first appearance on the show was not as part of Weekend Update, but in a 2008 sketch featuring Hader and host Ben Affleck as brothers pitching a movie idea. If Hader reprises Stefon tomorrow night when Affleck hosts, it will mark a nice bit of symmetry.)

Hader’s performance as a beleaguered Vincent Price hosting a Halloween special would be enough to lodge this sketch in my memory, but it gets additional points for Jon Hamm’s turn as James Mason.

Although not as much of a breakout character, I’d put Hader’s Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci up alongside Stefon as one of his best and funniest creations. I was recently lamenting that Vinny hasn’t turned up in a long time, and have been hoping for a return appearance. We’ll see if he shows up tomorrow night to add Affleck to a list of guests that has included John Malkovich, Shia LaBeouf and Drew Barrymore.

Hader’s impressions over the years range from James Carville to Julian Assange, but one of his best — and most unexpected — is Alan Alda. The veteran M*A*S*H star does have a distinct voice, yet it’s not one that is often imitated…not this successfully, at least. Hader’s take is truly uncanny, as demonstrated in this sampling of Back to the Future auditions. Close your eyes and you’d never know it’s not Alda himself.

Another of Hader’s great characters is TV news reporter Herb Welch, a creaky correspondent long past his expiration date. More than his other recurring characters, if you saw one Herb sketch you saw them all. But Hader made them worth seeing.

Beyond recurring characters and impressions, Hader could always be counted on to elevate an otherwise ordinary sketch. This clip shows that the proof is in the puppet.

Farewell Mr. Hader, and thanks for eight seasons of great work.

December 15, 2012

The De Niro Dilemma

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not because of Christmas; because ’tis the season of movie awards! The Oscar nominations are less than a month away (begin to mentally prepare yourself for my usual, agonizingly deep immersion into that), but in the meantime, national and regional film critics groups are rolling out their accolades. This week saw nomination announcements for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Awards. And among the Best Supporting Actor nominees put forth by two of those three groups (the Globes denied a hat-trick) was Robert De Niro, for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s superstitious, football-obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook.

In an acting career spanning 47 years, more than 80 films, six Oscar nominations, two wins, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and countless other awards and nominations, De Niro is rightly regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. But it’s been a while since he’s been on the awards circuit. Because the hard truth we all know is that Robert De Niro has been lost. For the past 13 years or so, he has been wandering in a desert of bad movies and half-hearted performances, a shadow of the actor he once was. (It’s too bad he isn’t Jewish; perhaps ancestral instinct might have kicked in after a few years and helped him course correct.) So what happened? Good intentions that just didn’t pay off? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Look at the movies he made between 1973 and 1999, and the directors he worked with.

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

1974
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

1976
1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

1977
New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

1978
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

1980
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

1981
True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard)

1983
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

1984
Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)

1985
Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

1986
The Mission (Roland Joffé)

1987
Angel Heart (Alan Parker)
The Untouchables (Brian DePalma)

1988
Midnight Run (Martin Brest)

1989
Jackknife (David Hugh Jones)
Stanley & Iris (Martin Ritt)
We’re No Angels (Neil Jordan)

1990
Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

1991
Backdraft (Ron Howard)
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Guilty By Suspicion (Irwin Winkler)

1992
Mistress (Barry Primus)
Night and the City (Irwin Winkler)

1993
A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro)
This Boy’s Life (Michael Caton-Jones)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)

1994
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh)

1995
Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Heat (Michael Mann)

1996
The Fan (Tony Scott)
Marvin’s Room (Jerry Zaks)
Sleepers (Barry Levinson)

1997
CopLand (James Mangold)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)

1998
Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer)

1999
Analyze This (Harold Ramis)
Flawless (Joel Schumacher)

Obviously there are some all-time classics in that era, and it’s an overall impressive filmography filled with strong, memorable, in some cases legendary performances and plenty of gifted directors. Not every film there is well-known, and not every one is a keeper, but by and large it’s a list that justifies De Niro’s status as one of the greats.

Now let’s look at what happens when we enter the new millennium.

2000
The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (Des McAnuff)
Meet the Parents (Jay Roach)
Men of Honor (George Tillman, Jr.)

2001
15 Minutes (John Herzfeld)
The Score (Frank Oz)

2002
Analyze That (Harold Ramis)
City By the Sea (Michael Caton-Jones)
Showtime (Tom Dey)

2004
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Mary McGuckian)
Godsend (Nick Hamm)
Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)
Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman) – Animated

2005
Hide and Seek (John Polson)

2006
The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro)

2007
Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

2008
Righteous Kill (Jon Avnet)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)

2009
Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones)

2010
Little Fockers (Paul Weitz)
Machete (Robert Rodriguez)
Stone (John Curran)

2011
The Ages of Love (Giovanni Veronesi)
Killer Elite (Gary McKendry)
Limitless (Neil Burger)
New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)

2012
Being Flynn (Paul Weitz)
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortés)
Freelancers (Jessy Terrero)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Well, the man certainly keeps busy. That’s a long list of movies to consider. But a few things can be quickly gleaned.

1973-1999: Lots of intense drama. Lots of smart comedies. Lots of classics. Lots of strong, established directors. Lots of Martin Scorsese.

2000-2012: Lots of tepid drama. Lots of broad comedies. Lots of duds. Lots of undistinguished directors. No Martin Scorsese.

Now to be fair, I’ll say this. First, I have not seen a lot of the movies from the 2000-2012 span. Second, just because some of those movies weren’t big box office hits doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Third, just because critics may have had low opinions of many of those movies doesn’t mean they’re right. Fourth, just because many of the directors are less well-known doesn’t make them untalented.

But…when the reviews are bad, and the movies don’t connect with audiences, and they don’t go on to develop enduring reputations for being good, it’s not unfair to draw certain conclusions. And of the films I have seen from that era, few feature De Niro anywhere near his best. The performances are uninspired. He appears to have a lack of energy or interest. He doesn’t look engaged. Could it be that a bout with cancer took a toll on him? De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but the disease was caught early and he went on to beat it (probably with a baseball bat). Maybe the cancer affected the energy he brought to his performances, but the problems began well before his diagnosis, and have continued well after he received a clean bill of health.

It’s reasonable to think that as actors get older, some of their intensity and passion will subside or burn out. But if we look at some of De Niro’s key contemporaries, who were also considered the best actors of their day – Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall – we see actors that are still delivering excellent work, if not quite as consistently as in their early days. Yeah, Pacino has had his duds over the past few decades, and has veered toward overacting at times, but he’s also shown that he’s still got the magic, in HBO movies like Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack, and even as the bad guy in Ocean’s Thirteen. He’s also continued to do impressive work on stage. Hoffman doesn’t do a lot of leading man work anymore, but has shined in supporting roles in films like I ♥ Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Confidence, Barney’s Version and Stranger Than Fiction. He also headlined this year’s short-lived HBO series Luck, delivering a quietly cutting, laser-focused performance as a recently paroled gangster out for revenge. Duvall has also continued to do excellent work in roles large (Open Range, Get Low) and small (Crazy Heart, Thank You For Smoking). He had a tiny part in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with about five minutes of screen time managed to give one of the best performances of that entire year. And what about Meryl Streep? Defying the oft stated problem that no good roles exist for older women, Streep is in the most successful stage of her career, turning character driven comedies into box office hits, still slam dunking dramatic roles and winning her third Oscar earlier this year. I’d like to think that if these actors are still capable of delivering top-notch work, De Niro is too.

In fact, I know he is…because I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s great in it. He does his best work in years. His character is just a regular guy with a few idiosyncracies, but not every part needs to be Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle to give an actor something special to do. His performance isn’t astonishing or transformative, but it’s vigorous and fully energized. The role gives him something to work with, and you can see him having a blast with it. I don’t think that anyone expects him to pull another LaMotta or Bickle out of his hat at this point in his life, but earlier in his career he could turn even ordinary parts into something special. Consider the fire inspector he played in Backdraft. It was a fairly small role, and there’s nothing dynamic about the character on paper. But even though he’s just “a guy,” De Niro gave him an appealing dry humor and a short fuse that kept things interesting. He does the same sort of thing in Silver Linings Playbook, and that’s why he once again finds himself in the conversation for awards. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, it will be his first in 21 years. While accepting an honor in October for Supporting Actor of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards, De Niro joked that he had become much more accustomed to presenting awards than receiving them. Well take a look at your filmography Bobby, and it’s not hard to see why your trophy shelf hasn’t had many new additions of late.

While it’s great to see him back in the game with this new movie, I worry that it may be only a brief return to form. His upcoming projects look to be mostly of the same ilk he’s been turning out for years now. Commercial, broad, maybe kind of fun, but not worthy of his talent:

The Big Wedding, a comedy that boasts some fine actors like Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Robin Williams, but sounds like generic, madcap fluff.

Last Vegas, with De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman as four buddies who go to Vegas for a bachelor party when one finally decides to get married. Great cast, and these guys will surely play nicely off each other, but you can almost see the script being assembled by a studio marketing team.

Grudge Match, a comedy with De Niro and his CopLand co-star Sylvester Stallone as two ex-boxers who come out of retirement for one last fight. Kinda fun to think about Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta squaring off…but again, you know this is just going to be a middle-of-the-road exercise that might offer some amusement before it’s forgotten.

There are a few others listed on IMdb.com, but only two sound like they have some potential to be interesting: Malavita, a crime drama directed by Luc Besson and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron, about a mafia family who enter witness protection in France and struggle with the adjustment; and The Comedian, which I don’t think is even an officially greenlit project yet, but would be directed by Sean Penn and star De Niro (alongside Kristin Wiig, intriguingly) as an aging, Don Rickles-like insult comic.

Those movies could prove to be bright spots, but otherwise De Niro’s current line-up doesn’t inspire much hope. Maybe he made those deals a while ago, and the experience of making Silver Linings Playbook, along with the acclaim he’s receiving for it, will reawaken whatever passion or desire for quality material has been lying dormant for so long. What De Niro really needs to do is hook up with HBO. As I mentioned before, the cable network has provided great material for Hoffman and Pacino. The latter will be back on the air in 2013 playing music producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector in a film written and directed by David Mamet. How great would it be to see De Niro topline a series with the kind of rich storytelling and writing that HBO consistently offers? Maybe he can dip his toes in those waters slowly, with a nice season-long arc on Boardwalk Empire? C’mon Scorsese, you’re a producer on that show! Make it happen! Or hell, put the guy in one of your movies again. Just because Leonardo DiCaprio is your new De Niro doesn’t mean De Niro can’t be your old De Niro. Give the guy a juicy co-starring role! I know, I know…De Niro was supposed to be in The Departed, in the role eventually played by Martin Sheen, but couldn’t do it because of his schedule directing The Good Shepherd. But what about the other projects over the last several years that were going to see you two reunite? Haven’t you been attached to a gangster film called The Irishman for years now? What’s the holdup? Marty, help us out. We want De Niro back in top form, and we need you to help get him there.

Only time will tell if Silver Linings Playbook is a turning point for De Niro, setting him on a path back to the kind of quality roles and impassioned performances on which he built his reputation. Nothing can take away from the momentous work that marked his early career, but it’s sad and frustrating to see such talent squandered on dumb comedies and flat dramas. Silver Linings Playbook is a much-needed reminder that Robert De Niro is capable of better. Here’s hoping some talented writers and directors can steadily provide him with the material to match his skills, and that he’s ready to bring his A-game when those scripts arrive at his door.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: