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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Why Nicki Minaj is American Idol’s Saving Grace

If there’s one reason to tune into American Idol this season, it’s Nicki Minaj.

In the two years without the acerbic Simon Cowell, the American Idol judging panel was nothing more than a cheerleading squad which became increasingly and frustratingly stale. We were treated to the idiocy of Randy “For Me, For You” Jackson, the repetitive effusiveness of Jennifer “I Have Goosies!” Lopez, and the frivolousness of Steven “Well Hellfire, Save Matches, F*ck A Duck, And See What Hatches” Tyler.

In this twelfth season of American Idol, Nicki Minaj outshines her fellow judges, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and, yes, still Randy Jackson. She is entertaining, opinionated, and passionate: all the ingredients of a successful and likable television personality.

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Nicki Minaj laying down truths.

Like Simon Cowell, Nicki Minaj doles out brutal honesty and sticks by her opinions. She was a champion and supporter of contestant Papa Peaches, praising his vibrancy and originality in his initial audition. But in Hollywood Week, after a string of uninspired performances, including the predictable “You and I” by Lady Gaga, Nicki told him:

“I’m pretty sure that flame is now completely burnt out. I’m so disappointed. I don’t know why you would choose that song. I can’t believe you’ve allowed the competition to just suck that amazing quality out of you… I just hope you realize how special you are.”

Coming from the eccentric Nicki, her disappointment lands hard, as her words are devastatingly honest. But unlike Simon, she doesn’t come off as needlessly antagonistic or mean-spirited; nasty for nasty’s sake. You feel that she does actually care about the contestants.

Through her clear and direct critiques, Nicki Minaj gives contestants the reality check they deserve. Contestant Paul Jolley gave an impassioned excuse of nerves to the judges before a crucial solo performance. When the song concluded, Nicki put Paul in his place:

“You walked out so defeated and that really irritated me. It’s such a turn off. Just give us one minute of professionalism and focus, so you don’t break in the middle of your song.”

Who knew that of these judges, Nicki would turn out to be the most professional mentor as well?

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Nicki Minaj feeling the music.

Nicki Minaj doesn’t mince her words and doesn’t shy away from harsh critiques that my tarnish her reputation. Contestant Matheus Fernandes was featured with the sob story of overcoming his small stature. Never failing to mention his height, he opened a solo performance with an irritatingly self-deprecating, and self-servicing introduction to the judges: “I’m twenty-two years old. Not ten… When I mentioned to people that I wanted to be on the show, they’d laugh at me.” This heavy-handedness became tiresome, and thankfully and mercifully, Nicki gave him the hard truths he needed to hear:

Sometimes things can go from being inspiring to becoming you wanting a pity party. And once you’re great, we don’t even notice your height. You don’t have to milk that ever again. Ever. Be you, be great, and just rest in your talent after today.”

In the end, Matheus Fernandes did not make the cut. How refreshing that Nicki is a judge who isn’t swayed by sob stories.

This is not to say that Nicki Minaj is all negative all the time. In fact, some of Nicki’s most shining moments are some of her most praising, like when she tells standout Candice Glover: “I’m obsessed with you. I want to skin you and wear you,” or her effusive praise for the quirky and endearing Charlie Askew: “Today, you became an artist in my eyes. You have this quirky thing that is so odd, that it’s right. You are so, so special.” Nicki isn’t afraid to shower the right contestants with praise and you can tell that she has a strong investment in the success of these singers, which can only strengthen their talents.

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The American Idol judges plus Randy.

We shall see how well Nicki Minaj will fare come the live shows. That will be the ultimate test of her worth. Ellen Degeneres came off as playful and witty in American Idol season nine’s Hollywood Week, but during the live shows, she was hesitant to provide any constructive criticism whatsoever.

Not to mention, I am just digging this season’s judging panel’s vibe in general: Nicki Minaj provides a biting antidote to Randy Jackson’s inanity, Keith Urban’s enthusiasm is genuinely infectious, and Mariah Carey is… inoffensive at best. Based on the auditions and Hollywood Week rounds, it looks like season twelve will have a judging panel worth watching, or at least one worth not muting.

The X-Factor SF Auditions: What you didn’t see on TV

I attended a live taping of The X-Factor “San Francisco” auditions at the Oracle Arena in Oakland in June of 2012. As you can imagine, when the SF auditions aired on television on September 12th & 13th, everything that happened in the arena did not make on air. In fact, my taping that lasted three hours was one of six scheduled for San Francisco. A lot of interesting (and some not-so-interesting) stuff was left on the cutting room floor.

I’m sure the question on yours and everyone’s mind is: How was Britney Spears actually as a judgefree of the wizardry of TV editors?

On television, Brit Brit appeared somewhat at ease, rattling off a variety of “No”s, offering tempered encouragement when needed, and delivering barely catty quips, thanks to a slickly edited montage set to “Toxic.” Simon Cowell even went so far as to proclaim, “And everybody thinks I’m the mean one!” It’s clear by these edits that the producers would like us to think that Britney can deliver honest critiques and still maintain her likability in spite of her bluntness. But, of course, her real test will come during the pressure of the live shows…

My view in the Oracle Arena: Can you spot tiny Simon, Britney, Demi, and L.A.?

Live in the Oracle Arena, I would say that Britney was probably completely lucid only 25% of the time. She rarely was the first judge to speak, and mostly recycled the other judges’ comments, taking cues from their reactions, and substituting in a word or two for her own critiques. Many of her responses were a wooden single sentence line reading, and it didn’t seem to put much effort into making a connection with the contestants, as opposed to spunky little sister Demi Lovato (she was a fine and refreshing judge, by the way) or the take charge attitude of Simon Cowell.

It’s Britney, bitch.

However, there were flashes of triumph when B. Spears was actually pretty pointed with her remarks. The absolute highlight for me came during the final auditioner of our taping: a woman with a raspy voice who belted, of all things, “The Star Spangled Banner.” She made the crowd stand up as she sang the audience was eating up all her over-singing. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stand her. When it came to the critiques, Britney was the lone judge in opposition to her singer. Against the crowd’s loud and vocal opinion, Ms. Spears called her singing “rusty” and my heart swelled with pride. You go, Brit!

And boy, could Britney lay down a “NO” to the singers. A single word: sweet, harsh, and to the point.

Britney Spears recognizes Don Philip

The biggest watercooler moment of the San Francisco auditions, nay of the entire premiere week of The X-Factor, was when Britney Spears was confronted with her former duet partner, Don Philip. The two singers sang together on the song “I Will Still Love You” on Britney’s debut album over ten years ago.

On television, Britney immediately recognized Don Philip. When asked by Simon what happened to him in these past ten years, he broke down crying and told Britney “I never thought I would see you again.” He sang Beyoncé’s “Halo,” but failed to make it through. To the swells of sad music, Britney told Don gently, “I feel like through the years maybe you’ve gone through a lot of hardships and battles, but your voice really isn’t up to the bar of the standards of The X-Factor and what we want.” Offstage, Don proceeded to have an intense meltdown.

Of course, this segment was intensely edited and nowhere near as ridiculously intense as it was live in person. What you DIDN’T see is that when Simon asked what he had been doing in the past ten years, Don Philip talked and talked and talked at length about how he’s changed as a person, using tiring vague generalities. Don avoided answering Simon’s question directly, much to the chagrin of the audience who became antsy, booing and hissing.

After more pressure from questions by Simon and L.A. Reid, Don finally opened up and announced to the arena that he is gay. The crowd applauded and cheered in support. Don looked clearly troubled by everything and said to Britney, “I didn’t think you thought it was OK that I am gay.” Britney was quick to respond that this was not the case, and said that it was fine that he is gay. Don then continued to talk in circles and L.A. told him that he was making Britney feel “uncomfortable.”

Don Philip: 32, vocal coach

At that point, the atmosphere in the arena was pretty tense and Simon jumped on the mic and gave him a speech about how this wasn’t the place for this and that Don needed to focus on this audition. Don then continued to ramble on and the crowd began to chant “SING A SONG! SING A SONG!” Eventually Don stopped talking and proceeded to sing Beyoncé’s “Halo.” Simon then gave a pretty tough critique and the judges dismissed him. After Don left the stage, it was clear from looking at the television monitors that Britney was visibly confused and uncomfortable. Don Philip’s entire audition was an intense fifteen minutes or so.

Why were all references to Don Philip’s sexual orientation excised out of the televised airing? According to a FOX statement:

The judges were not given any information at all about Mr. Philip prior to his audition. The personal information that Mr. Philip quickly volunteered at the start of his audition was a surprise to the judges, who asked what had happened during the past 10 years, as they were interested in Mr. Philip’s career. While we understand his decision to discuss his personal life, Mr. Philip’s sexual orientation was not something that any of the judges or producers felt was relevant to this audition,” the statement read. “When advertising and promoting open auditions, thousands of people are informed about the ways to enter the show. Mr. Philip himself chose to enter for a chance to win a five million dollar recording contract.”

Read into that statement what you will… And watch Don Philip’s audition as it aired on The X-Factor:

10 Years Ago Today, A Superstar Was Found

On September 4th, 2002, American Idol: The Search for a Superstar crowned 20-year Kelly Clarkson its victor.

One whole decade ago.

In a television studies class in college, my professor remarked that Kelly Clarkson winning American Idol was the quintessential television moment, right down to Kelly’s emotional break during her performance of “A Moment Like This.” This was the American Dream being played out live in front of an audience of 23 million people. Only live television could capture that raw, intimate, ephemeral moment of triumph and emotion, and at the same time, bathe it with such pomp and spectacle.

Ten years later, Kelly Clarkson is indeed a superstar, with her 2012 smash hit “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” achieving the status of best-selling American Idol single of all time, with over 3,510,000 singles sold.

Looking back at American Idol’s roots to Kelly Clarkson’s initial audition, the audition room set-up looks small and quaint, amateurish even, appearing certainly more than a just decade old. These humble beginnings are nowhere near the bombast of the current show, with the most recent season’s San Diego auditions taking place on the historic USS Midway.

American Idol was the television show that changed the pop culture landscape forever. As part of its pop culture domination, the hit reality competition and its British counterpart, Pop Idol, spawned numerous copycats over the years, including American Juniors, America’s Got Talent, The One: Making A Music Star, Nashville Star, Rock Star INXS, Rock Star: Supernova, Duets, The Voice, The Sing-Off, The X-Factor…

I attended The X-Factor live auditions at Oakland’s Oracle Arena in June 2012. Believe me, there was no modicum of honesty there, other than Simon Cowell’s harsh, yet truthful critiques. In 2002, Simon’s persona and antics were brand-new, freshly compelling, and wholly shocking. Whereas the American Idol of today embraces an “everyone is beautiful” mantra.

Approaching its twelfth season next year, American Idol looks to continue its dominance with fresh blood on the judging panel. So say hello to Mariah Carey! And goodbye J.Lo and Steven Tyler! And hello to… Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban? And goodbye to Randy Jackson? (OH PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEASE!)

Let’s raise a glass to another year of American Idol and ten more years of Kelly Clarkson music!

“True or False: Zac Efron looks like he wants to be molested by an older person?”

Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, part game show, part man-on-the street ambush, is emblematic of today’s pop culture: Loud. In your face. Unapologetic.

In Fuse’s new television show, Billy Eichner, the gut-bustingly funny host without boundaries or a volume meter, asks the colorful people of New York City pop culture trivia questions for as little as a dollar bill.

Billy Eichner of "Funny or Die's Billy on the Street"

Nowhere else on television would you find the host of a game show chasing down random people to enlist them in an “Ask an Asian” lifeline or flat-out abandoning a game when a contestant reveals she may be coming down with an illness. And Eichner himself is only half of the show’s winning equation. The cynical and crazy citizens of NYC provide the other unpredictable element. Complete strangers often answer his questions with surprising and refreshing honesty. Eichner feeds off of New York City’s blunt, tell-it-like-it-is energy and the silly abrasiveness and over-the-top looseness of what ensues just adds to the show’s charm and entertainment value.

And nowhere else on television would you hear the hard-hitting questions like:

“Who’s more androgynous? Tilda Swinton or Prince?”

“Gerard Butler hates himself. True or false?”

“Miss! For a dollar, who’s hairier down there: Daniel Radcliffe or a yak?”

or “Has 50 Cent ever thought about Mitt Romney?”

(The correct answer, according to Eichner: No. “The only white people he likes are his accountants and Chelsea Handler.”)

But enough with the words, see just how hilarious the show is yourself and check out this preview of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, a.k.a. the funniest 8:43 minute video you’ll watch all week. But don’t be intimidated by the running length. It’s worth every second. Trust me.

[Unfortunately, full episodes of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street aren’t currently available online.]