The Conundrum of THE EMMYS: SCHITT’S CREEK Sweeps & Other Random Tidbits

There was something truly exciting and joyous about watching SCHITT’S CREEK sweep the Emmys this past Sunday. Some might argue that a couple of its wins were a little bit much (I still don’t know if I would’ve given it Directing, for example)…but I can’t deny that watching such a small Canadian series swoop in during its final year and do a historic unprecedented sweep was quite the sight.

SCHITT’S CREEK was up for all of the major categories it could’ve been on Emmy might: Series, Directing, Writing, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress…and it won all seven of them. It also won two Creative Arts Emmys a couple of nights prior for Casting and Contemporary Costumes. With those nine wins, it beat the record previously held by THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL for the past two years (8 wins) as the most honored Comedy show in a single year in Emmys history.

What makes this sweep even more bittersweet is that Emmys essentially ignored this show right up until the very end.

I can still remember when I first heard of SCHITT’S CREEK. I was waiting in my old train station in Astoria, Queens about to head into work when I saw an advertisement on the platform. The title certainly got my attention but seeing Eugene Levy and especially Catherine O’Hara’s involvement made me very excited being a fan of both of their work from SCTV and the Christopher Guest movies, to name a couple of examples.

At first, the show struggled in the ratings. This was primarily due to the fact that SCHITT’S CREEK was picked up in the states by a fledgling cable network called Pop TV, which I had never heard of at that point nor have I heard anything about any other show to have aired on the network since.

It took NETFLIX acquiring the show in 2017 to really let it find its audience…and due to the fact that I didn’t have cable (and still don’t have cable), I didn’t get to see the show either until it was placed on NETFLIX. I had managed to see a few episodes of the first season but was actually surprisingly mixed on it at first. It wasn’t until the second season that I started to get more invested.

Much like NETFLIX gets commented on for helping bring a stronger fan base to perhaps the greatest show in the history of television (BREAKING BAD), this certainly helped SCHITT’S CREEK. However, the show received zero Emmy nominations for its first four seasons…and a lot of people think the 4th season was the show at its true peak (I honestly don’t know how I feel about that…I am still at a point where I thought the show was just truly consistent up to the end). It wasn’t until the show’s penultimate season, its 5th which the show barely creeped into the Emmys with nominations for Series, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Costumes…but it lost the first two bids to FLEABAG (another foreign show, from the UK, which built up goodwill quickly thanks to Amazon and which the Emmys showered praise upon it knowing that it was its final season) and Levy lost to Bill Hader from BARRY. Honestly, it was a tough race…and I truly think the FLEABAG and BARRY wins were deserved.

Then, SCHITT’S CREEK came in for its final season this year and got a very solid 15 nominations…and won nearly half of them. It even lost one of its nominations to itself (in Writing).

So yes…I feel very happy about this sweep. I think it also swept due to the fact that it had been so ignored prior that a lot of voters may have felt compelled to give it a lot since they would never have another chance (although this kind of mentality didn’t help another show nominated that also departed this year: THE GOOD PLACE, which won zero major awards during its 4 year run).

The Emmys have always been a rather irreverent award show. For many years, a lot of people bemoaned them for two major reasons: their voting system and their penchant for rewarding the same shows and actors over and over again.

A lot of this goes back to the 90s when they gave FRASIER the Emmy for Best Comedy Series FIVE YEARS IN A ROW. This was at a time when its biggest competitors were the highly inventive THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (which had been on HBO at a time when it seemed like a big deal for a show on that network to even be nominated…my how times have changed!) and another little show called SEINFELD. Also, this was at a time when THE SIMPSONS was at the peak of its genius and yet The Emmys ignored it when its staff chose to submit if for Best Comedy Series instead of Animated Series.

In more recent years, the Emmys developed a strong attachment to MODERN FAMILY, which pulled off the same feat as FRASIER by winning Best Comedy Series for its first five seasons…despite battling such strong contenders as VEEP, THE OFFICE, PARKS & RECREATION, and 30 ROCK.

In terms of actors, they latched onto FRAISER stars Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, giving them 4 wins apiece…but they aren’t the only actors that the Emmys seemed to have a penchant for rewarding multiple times.

In the 80s and 90s alone, the Emmys gave as many as 4 or 5 Emmys to the following:

John Larroquette for NIGHT COURT (after his 4th win, he felt like it wasn’t fair so he insisted he be removed from competition after that).

Candace Bergen for MURPHY BROWN (after her FIFTH win, she followed the same path as John Larroquette)

Helen Hunt for MAD ABOUT YOU (for the final four seasons of her show, she won on each nomination…including beating out two contenders that many fans and critics felt were more deserving at the time, Ellen DeGeneres and Calista Flockhart)

Brad Garrett and Doris Roberts for EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (each won 4 Emmys…and I can still remember the tinge of annoyance I felt when Brad Garrett beat out costar Peter Boyle, who never won, for their final nominations for the show).

Tony Shalhoub for MONK (while he only won three, I feel like he managed to beat out some very formidable contenders who would go on to never win for their work. One such person was Steve Carell for the truly iconic Michael Scott on THE OFFICE)

Allison Janney for THE WEST WING (in her case, she managed to win twice in Supporting Actress and then twice in Leading…and I still recall the internet being upset when she pulled off that fourth win)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus for VEEP (this one is particularly a mixed bag because she managed to win a whopping SIX Emmys for the same role…a record. On one hand, it seems a bit excessive because she managed to win over extremely worthy candidates who never got to take an Emmy for their great work…such as Amy Poehler for PARKS & RECREATION. However, in this case, I feel like JLD was truly masterful as Salina Meyer so it somehow doesn’t feel as scandalous).

One comment I hear some people say about the Emmys (that truly know the process) are that if they have the work to back it up, they deserve the award no matter how many times they may have won.

The Emmys have a particularly tough road when compared to such award show voting bodies. While Oscar voters have to watch maybe upwards of a dozen or so nominated films, Emmy voters would have to watch dozens and dozens and dozens of TV shows which might have as little as 8-10 episodes in a season or as many as 18-23 in a season.

How can you expect someone to keep up with that?

This is why the Emmys created what is still referred to by many as “the tape system”.

Around for decades, this system means that either an actor or a show’s producer can submit an episode of their choosing for to be viewed for consideration. This system is actually surprisingly flawed and while there is the whole case of “art is subjective”, there were times where it seemed like favoritism and politics would propel someone to a win even though they didn’t necessarily have the best submission.

You could even argue that someone who may have had a great overall season with plenty of tapes to choose from could lose to someone who had a relatively meh to okay season but had one truly amazing episode that they submitted. One example of this that some people brought up at the time of its occurrence was Edie Falco winning for season 4 of THE SOPRANOS. She submitted that season’s finale, WHITECAPS, in which she was truly magnificent but the season as a whole wasn’t considered as strong as some of her other contenders (I particularly remember people praising Jennifer Garner for ALIAS and Frances Conroy for SIX FEET UNDER).

A lot of it simply comes down to what shows voters may have a stronger affinity for…and while it did take a while for The Emmys to actually reward a show from Cable in the Series’ categories, they did start giving those shows awards in the acting categories…and in the case of THE SOPRANOS, it certainly had a lot goodwill for the likes of Gandolfini and Falco.

You could also argue that a certain sense of class or recognition could help someone in a close race. In 2005, three of the four main DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES were nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy: Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, and Felicity Huffman.

(SIDENOTE: The snubbed housewife was Eva Longoria. At the time, creator Marc Cherry commented on this snub and, knowing the system, actually said that he intended to write her more baity scenes in the upcoming second season to rectify this error. In short, it didn’t work…and a lot of Longoria’s baity scenes floundered…as did much of the second season to fans and critics and its Emmy tally dropped and never fully recovered).

At the time, many people were divided on who would win that Emmy. Teri Hatcher was seen as the ambassador of the show and managed to win the Golden Globe and SAG Award prior to the Emmys. While these aren’t necessarily reliable precursors like they can be for the movie side of things, many felt she could pull it off…and then she submitted an episode called “Move On” (which is the episode in which she sings New York, New York in a karaoke bar while lashing out at her ex-husband) instead of “Impossible” which was seen as her season highlight in terms of both comedic and dramatic work.

Her co-stars were in a tougher position:

Marcia Cross was, and still is, the best aspect of that show in many ways. I adored her character of Bree, an uptight conservative housewife battling a family that basically hated her, but the problem with Cross in that first season was that she didn’t exactly have an episode that I felt truly showcased her for an Emmy tape. It truly benefitted by watching her work for the full season.

Felicity Huffman had one episode entitled “Guilty” in which she hits a breaking point in dealing with her wild children and it leads to her crying in the park talking to her friends. It’s truly a wonderful episode for her…though not in the least bit comedic. In the end, she didn’t submit it…she actually submitted the pilot episode in which she didn’t have the strongest presence.

In fact, some of the award prognosticators at the time thought the all three tapes from the DH ladies benefitted Marcia Cross…though Felicity Huffman ended up pulling it off.

Many were floored by Huffman’s win because if you truly base it on the tapes, she didn’t deserve it but some argued she came across as looking very good in Hatcher’s tape and especially in Cross’ tape.

Due to the massive success of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES that first season, one could suspect that voters saw Huffman’s work in full (or at least the episode “Guilty”, which was the highest rated episode of that season due to big promotion that a character would be killed off)…but Huffman did have a pedigree about her that the other two didn’t. Huffman had been around in more respected circles doing theatre (particularly Mamet) and was known as being married to respected actor William H. Macy plus she was the star of the short-lived but wonderful Aaron Sorkin show SPORTS NIGHT…and that same year, she was garnering Oscar buzz for her work as Transgender woman in TRANSAMERICA, which did turn into an Oscar nomination.

The Oscar buzz angle definitely helps…and I think it helped the likes of Melissa McCarthy winning for MIKE & MOLLY the year she was getting buzz for BRIDESMAIDS and also Regina King winning for SEVEN SECONDS in what was considered an upset over Laura Dern’s work in THE TALE because she had IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK coming out…which would actually win her the Oscar.

The Emmys system can certainly cause a lot of political decisions…and I think it can also lead to rather questionable nominations. It also doesn’t help when networks campaign too hard for something.

One of the most bizarre (and most revealing) incidents at the Emmys in terms of Emmy nominations occurred in 2006.

HBO had a TV movie called MRS. HARRIS starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley as Jean Harris and Herman Tarnower, the murderer and victim in the highly publicized Scarsdale Diet murder. When the movie was released on HBO, the credits showed Bening and Kinglsey first but then showed the rest of the cast in alphabetical order.

This made the third name shown in the credits as Ellen Burstyn. It goes without saying that Burstyn is a truly legendary actress and has the performances (and awards) to back that up. HBO included her name on submissions list for a Supporting Actress nomination and she ended up getting a nomination.

Here’s the problem though:

Her performance was a cameo. Not only was it a cameo, it lasted 14 seconds.

That’s right.

Ellen Burstyn got nominated for an Emmy for a performance in which she was onscreen for 14 seconds and had two lines. I haven’t even watched this TV movie in over a decade and I can still basically recite her lines:

“I had my own money so he was more relaxed with me…but I don’t think it can be said that Herman was relaxed with any woman”.

AND:

“His favorite piece of music was the film score to CLEOPATRA”.

That’s it.

Was she bad? Obviously not…but it was just two lines while talking in an accent. She probably did the part primarily as a favor plus she had played Jean Harris in another TV movie years before.

What this nomination truly proved was how lazy and problematic the Emmy voting system was and it did lead to a new rule where a performer had to be onscreen for a certain percentage of time…(I should look the rule but I’ve already been rambling for a bit now. I believe the rule was that they should be onscreen for roughly 5-7 minutes at least in their film/series).

I also mentioned political factors earlier and while I agree that politics are important when DISCUSSING POLITICS, I am not sure you should choose who you are voting for based on the simple fact of who they are playing.

In 2017, both Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin won Emmys for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in the Supporting categories.

(SIDENOTE: The fact that SNL performers can actually be nominated in the Comedy Series category when they are technically a Variety Show is a bit unfair to people on actual comedy shows.)

Someone like Alec Baldwin winning may not seem surprising as he IS quite talented and he is an Emmy favorite and his portrayal of Donald Trump was very well received…the problem is that he still mostly just appeared in an episode for a few minutes and then would leave. It sort of defeats the whole purpose of “the tape system” even though that system in and of itself is flawed. Plus, you can’t deny that some of those voters just wanted to vote for Baldwin to spite Trump. Don’t get me wrong, Trump deserves every ounce of criticism and vitriol spewed at him but I feel like voting in such a way also costs a very talented performer an Emmy (i.e. Titus Burgess for UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT)

Then you have Kate McKinnon, who has actually won TWICE in her category. Here is the deal with her: she’s fantastic. I cannot begrudge her having two Emmys but I do feel like her 2nd win was riding off the coattails of her portrayal of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In fact, her submission episode was the one hosted by Dave Chappelle…the episode right after Clinton lost to Trump. In it, McKinnon opened the show as Clinton playing the piano and singing a mostly somber rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Truthfully, it is a lovely moment and it served also as a tribute to Cohen who happened to pass away that week…AND it served as a fitting message on Clinton’s election loss.

However, I feel like the entire buzz of that election propelled her to the win. That year, she was up against Judith Light for TRANSPARENT. She submitted the season 3 finale “Exciting & New” in which the family goes on a cruise and much to their surprise, she manages to put on a one-woman show in which she airs out a lot of repressed emotions. The season had been glorious for her (and her nominated co-star Kathryn Hahn) as we learn more about her past dealing with her husband’s desire to transition to being a female and, perhaps even more revealing, how she was sexually abused as a child by a teacher. All of this hits breaking point in her episode…and when I first saw, I knew it was one of my favorite performances on an episode of every TV show I’ve seen.

And yet, she lost. Art may be subjective but I just don’t see how someone could watch that episode and think “I feel bad about Clinton. I am voting for McKinnon!”

Even this year at the Emmys, Brad Pitt got nominated for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his brief opening bit on SNL (that he did over ZOOM no less) in which he played Dr. Anthony Fauci. It was an okay bit…not particularly that funny. In fact, a lot of the political humor on that show has been dying down in my opinion, and it’ll be curious to see how they fare this fall.

So you want to hear how political it can get? This is about as clear as it can be.

The Hollywood Reporter released anonymous Emmy ballots from voters who had been interviewed. It is a common practice that has done with the Oscars for years. One such vote was quoted as such:

This was very much a political statement. I talked all of my friends into voting for him too. Trump will be pissed to see Pitt win for playing Fauci.

I get it. We want to troll Trump. He’s horrible and I loathe him more than I can possibly say…however this is about voting for the best person. I simply don’t see any reason to consider Pitt the best in that category. He did end up losing to the much more deserving Eddie Murphy.

CONCLUSION:

I had originally intended to write about just SCHITT’S CREEK but it got me thinking about the history of the Emmys and how many bizarre incidents have occurred and also their penchant for having a hard time to break out of the box. I do feel that for the most part, they’ve gotten better about spreading the wealth (though the attachment still happens with stuff like MODERN FAMILY and JLD winning for VEEP six time).

Award shows are, at their basic core, not important. In the end, they are essentially political and popularity contests…and yet, I still find myself watching them and critiquing their choices. A lot of the time, I get more excited when series or performers get an award and it leads to a boost in their profile. While SCHITT’S CREEK may have ended, it is nice to see them get to go out with a passionate embrace. Long-time working character actors Margo Martindale (“CHARACTER ACTRESS MARGO MARTINDALE!!!”….BOJACK HORSEMAN anyone?) and Ann Dowd winning Emmys for such fantastic TV work and them being so moved upon winning makes you feel happy because you like that they finally get recognition.

This even goes for other award shows. People that know me or read my social media posts or this blog know how much I was worshipping and praising PARASITE and how thrilled I was when it won the Oscar. A movie like PARASITE benefitted much more from that exposure than say something like 1917 or ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Plus, all of the industry awards before it seemed to favor those two films to PARASITE which made the Oscars embrace of it all the more delicious (though them ignoring its actors primarily due to lack of recognition was unforgivable).

Award shows are certainly a complex beast. In the end, what stands the test of time will do so…but there are those moments where a certain actor or film or series wins and you can’t help but be thrilled for the people involved.

SCHITT’S CREEK sweeping was definitely one of those times.

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