Oscar & Emmy Watch: Musings & Misgivings: Hit and Myth
In today’s lesson, biding our time while the year-end movie-critic awards begin to roll in — expect ample recognition for The Social Network and not enough for The Town -- we’ll try and dispel some myths about myths surrounding the Emmys and the Oscars.
First we’ll concentrate on the Emmys, some of whose officials, during my years at TV Guide Magazine, were relentlessly pushing the idea that their prizes reflected what industry professionals and audience members already knew, that today’s television fare — in its sheer diversity (a fractionalized programming universe with hundreds of channels will do that), graphic treatment of even the rawest subject matter (thanks to premium cable, anything goes, and who says that’s such a good thing) and pure entertainment value — constitutes the medium’s real golden age. “What is it with this nostalgic haze,” a CBS executive asked me at one Emmy ceremony in the ‘90s, “lamenting the shows of the ‘50s and ‘60s as if they were truly superior to today’s programs?” The so-called 1950s-‘60s golden age of television, went the argument, is a myth.
But I wonder if that itself is a myth, and whenever I took up the golden-age-then-or-now question (a generational one, I grant you, relevant only to viewers of a certain age) with a veteran actor whose work spanned many decades, as I once did with Jackie Gleason and Jack Klugman , the conversation generally pivoted on two words: live television. There were giants indeed among the writers and directors working in live TV during the ‘50s — Chayefsky, Mosel, Foote, Serling, Mandel, Rose, Cook, Mann, Hill, Frankenheimer, Lumet, Pollack, Schaffner and Nelson among them. “There will never be another time like that,” said a wistful Klugman at a press tour event in Los Angeles. Like many of his contemporaries such as Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston, Klugman got his start and honed his craft doing countless live TV anthologies, including Playhouse 90, in the ‘50s. Live television was America’s national theater.
So where are the new, trend-setting writers and directors who might energize the medium today? There are a handful of true innovators (J.J. Abrams and Matthew Weiner among them), but so many more toil invisibly in a steady churn of dramas and comedies that come, go and register with few.
That is, if they can find a scripted show, at least on network television. Scripted shows once dominated the medium and there was also a time in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the long-form miniseries and a full slate of made-for-TV movies flourished and gave next-generation artists like Steven Spielberg a chance to grow. Now TV thrives as a niche-driven, specialized-content-for-every-conceivable-taste landscape populated with an ungodly number of reality series (filling one-quarter of network line ups according to one estimate), a few of them — such as the reigning Emmy reality winner Top Chef, Amazing Race (which won the prize the preceding seven years in a row) American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and Project Runway -- earning loyal followings.Continued on the next page