Emmys 2014: Déjà vu all over again

The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards hosted by Seth Meyers took place this past Monday night, but you wouldn’t be blamed for having a strange feeling that the only difference from past ceremonies was not airing on its usual Sunday.

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Can’t shake off that feeling of déjà vu? Don’t worry, it’s not you; it’s just the Emmys. Here are the staggering stats for this year’s acting winners:

  • Ty Burrell – Supporting Actor in a Comedy, Modern Family
    • 2nd win, 5th consecutive nomination
  • Allison Janney – Supporting Actress in a Comedy, Mom
    • 6th win, 2 wins this year, 8th nomination
  • Jim Parsons – Lead Actor in a Comedy, Big Bang Theory
    • 4th win, 7th nomination (2 noms this year)
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Lead Actress in a Comedy, Veep
    • 3rd consecutive win, 5th career Emmy, 18th nomination
  • Kathy Bates – Supporting Actress in Miniseries/Movie, American Horror Story: Coven
    • 2nd win, 11th nomination
  • Martin Freeman – Supporting Actor in Miniseries/Movie, Sherlock: His Last Vow
    • 1st win, 3rd nomination (2 noms this year)
  • Jessica Lange – Lead Actress in Miniseries/Movie, American Horror Story: Coven
    • 3rd win, 6th nomination
  • Benedict Cumberbatch – Lead Actor in Miniseries/Movie, Sherlock: His Last Vow
    • 1st win, 3rd nomination
  • Aaron Paul – Supporting Actor in a Drama, Breaking Bad
    • 3rd win, 5th nomination
  • Anna Gunn – Supporting Actress in a Drama, Breaking Bad
    • 2nd consecutive win, 3rd nomination
  • Julianna Margulies – Lead Actress in a Drama, The Good Wife
    • 3rd win, 10th nomination
  • Bryan Cranston – Lead Actor in a Drama, Breaking Bad
    • 5th win, 12th nomination
Emmys_2014_Bryan_Cranston

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Did you catch that? In series acting, every single winner had won an Emmy before. There were only two first-time Emmy winners in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

Now let’s look at the series winners:

  • The Amazing Race – Outstanding Reality-Competition Series
    • 10th win, 11th nomination [UGHHHHHHHHHH]
  • Fargo – Outstanding Miniseries
    • 1st win, 1st nomination [YAY!]
  • The Colbert Report – Outstanding Variety Series
    • 2nd consecutive and last win, 9th nomination
  • Modern Family – Outstanding Comedy Series
    • 5th consecutive win, 5th nomination [UGHHHHHHHHHH]
  • Breaking Bad – Outstanding Drama Series
    • 2nd consecutive win, 5th nomination [YAY!]

This is not to put down any of the impressive talents of this year’s winners, as there are certainly well-deserved winners in this bunch (well, not you, The Amazing Race). The Emmy voters are broken, sticking with familiar nominees in a brazenly predictable fashion. This voting pattern becomes increasingly frustrating year after year, especially when there are dynamic fresh faces nominated or overlooked perennial nominees. But why do we collectively groan at Jim Parson’s or Ty Burrell and Modern Family‘s wins, but cheer wildly for the wins of Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Bryan Cranston, and Breaking Bad? There’s a perceived difference here between voting complacency and voting for excellence.

In its first season, Modern Family was an excellent series, but five years later, it is simply an OK one. Its wins are simply passé and uninspired, surpassed by Veep‘s sharpness and Orange is the New Black‘s audacity. There are clearly more vibrantand funnyseries elsewhere. Breaking Bad, however, is in the pantheon of all-time greatest television shows. As the show progressed, it just kept getting better. Last season’s gut-wrenching “Ozymandias” was one of Breaking Bad‘s, if not television’s, finest hours. It rightfully won Moira Walley-Beckett an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and was the submission episode for both Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston. No one will argue that the Breaking Bad actors were undeserving of an Emmy trophy.

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Other Emmys thoughts:

  • Allison Tolman was ROBBED! Seriously and utterly robbed. Tolman was the beating heart within the dark, twisted soul of FX’s Fargo. While not as showy as her fellow scenery-chewing nominees or even Fargo costars, her steadfast and star-making turn as the cool and collected Molly Solverson was such a joy to watch. Damn you, Kathy Bates’ racist severed head!
  • Thank GOD Fargo won Outstanding Miniseries. It was one of my favorite scripted series of the year. Intriguingly off-kilter characters amidst a fantastically rich landscape. It’s a darned shame that series creator Noah Hawley didn’t win for Outstanding Writing.
  • Kudos to Louis C.K. for winning for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Louie episode, “So Did the Fat Lady.” Even more kudos to Louis C.K. for immediately thanking actress Sarah Baker for owning those words.
  • Seth Meyers was a fine, if not memorable, host. I am a huge Seth Meyers fan, but this material wasn’t the sharpest. However, he did excel when riffing off his SNL friend or celebrity audience members who were game for participation.

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  • Sorry HBO, looks like your decision to move True Detective out of Movie/Miniseries and into Drama Series backfired spectacularly. HBO logic followed that by submitting True Detective as a Drama series, The Normal Heart would be able to reap all the Emmy bounty in the Movie/Miniseries category. Unfortunately for HBO, not only did Matthew McConaughey lose the Emmy, but so did every single nominated actor from The Normal Heart: Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina, Mark Ruffalo, and Julia Roberts. Whoops!
  • No to Weird Al parodies.
  • No to Sofia Vergara objectification.
  • Yes to Billy Crystal tributes: “Robin Williams: What a concept.”
  • Jon Hamm will probably never win an Emmy for Mad Men.
  • Amy Poehler will probably never win an Emmy for Parks and Recreation.
  • If the groundbreaking Orange is the New Black couldn’t stop the Modern Family juggernaut, what can?
  • Billy Eichner and Billy on the Street will always be a goddamned delight.

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Chekhov’s Box Cutter: Breaking Bad Season Four Premiere

We all know about “Chekhov’s Gun”: that literary device wherein Anton Chekhov argues that you shouldn’t introduce a loaded rifle into the narrative without having it have gone of by the story’s conclusion. Breaking Bad, arguably the best television show on the air, has used this device to great aplomb in the past. The hollow-point bullet from “One Minute” comes immediately to mind, or even the omniscient teddy bear eye introduced in the opening moments of season two. Naturally, you don’t title a season premiere “Box Cutter,” without making daring use of that eponymous tool.

This will be my first season watching Breaking Bad in real-time. I watched the first three on Blu-Ray over the course of the past three months. While it was quite a grueling marathon at times, the upside was that while most viewers had to wait over a year to witness the fallout from season three’s final moment, I only had to wait a day. “Box Cutter,” subsequently, was my first experience with commercials on AMC. Halfway through the episode, the audience is greeted with this potentially spoilery disclaimer:

The following segment contains intense violence which may be unsuitable for some viewers.

Viewer discretion is advised.

Immediately, we are brought out of the context of the scene. Our expectations are set. Something extreme is about to go down. Time to grab a pillow. (I now have a Pavlovian instinct to reach for whatever’s handy, whenever the aural tone shifts and silence fills the scene. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was sent to the ER due to a box cutter accident, so this segment was particularly intense.)

As a television audience with knowledge of the basic inner workings of television production, we know that Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will survive whatever ordeal comes their way. So will Mike, played by series regular Jonathan Banks. All three will make it out alive. Shook to the core perhaps, but alive. Through this simple deduction, we can surmise that Victor is doomed. But fitting together the puzzle pieces of the scene’s tv logic doesn’t lessen the impact one bit. Quite the opposite, as the suspense becomes even greater in anticipation of an impending showdown.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Our senses our heightened and the proceedings are intensified, as our attention is placed squarely on Gus Fring. Seemingly nothing escapes Gus’ steely gaze from behind his delicate frames. And as Gus takes off these spectacles in order to change his wardrobe, our eyes become fixated on Giancarlo Esposito’s masterful performance. His silent command and composed savagery is unsettling to say the least. Gus says no more than five words in the entire lengthy scene, but his actions speak volumes. Every deliberate step he takes sends a message.

Breaking Bad is a series which thrives on its cast delivering meaty monologues, weaving compelling and intricate yarns with emotional prowess. Aaron Paul, whose Jesse has long been the seemingly moral center in this ever-shifting cat-and-mouse game, serves as the storytelling king. His spellbinding delivery leaves us hanging on his every word. However in “Box Cutter,” it’s Jesse’s reactions that communicate the most powerfully: his instability and anguish after shooting Gale, his fierce indignant stare-down with Gus. In fact, it isn’t until Walt and Jesse’s disposal methods are challenged that we Jesse hear speak for the first time. Fifty minutes or so into the episode and Jesse utters two words, “Trust us,” a grim callback to the first season.

My have our former chemistry teacher and his surrogate son have transformed these past three seasons. It has been an engrossing journey to witness, from the two squeamishly dealing with the fallout of Krazy-8 and leaving it to fate with a coin flip, to wordlessly cleaning Victor’s murder as if it were daily routine. (Side note: That cut from spilled blood to ketchup and fries? Quintessential and delicious Breaking Bad bleakness.)

With Vince Gilligan at the helm, Breaking Bad demonstrates just how effective storytelling can be through the lack of spoken dialogue. Through Jesse’s numb demeanor, contrasting his usual turbulence… Through the amplified sounds of Gus’ footsteps down the metal staircase… Through the time spent watching Gus’s dressing and undressing with a chilling control and calculation… Through the stunning breakdown of primary hues: the fluorescent laboratory lamps, the deep blood-red floor, the icy blue shadows cast on Walt and Jesse… Breaking Bad succeeds in showing its story, rather than telling.

As for setting up groundwork for the season, “Box Cutter” hints at themes of building and rebuilding. In the opening sequence, we see the late Gale building the future Walt-Cave. Hank cultivates his new-found collection of minerals, while Marie is left to slowly rebuild her husband’s broken spirit. As Skylar crafts her own web of lies and fabrications to deceive a locksmith, she builds up her capacity for breaking bad herself. Will we journey into Jesse’s attempts to rebuild his damaged soul, or will he go deeper down the rabbit hole with his possibly false sense of security?

Whatever Breaking Bad has in store for us this summer, it surely won’t go the way of The Walking Dead‘s first look at season two, hitting us over the head with blunt force. Chekhov’s Lab Notes, anyone?