Saturday, June 28, 2014

My Emmy Ballot: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy

Cristin Milioti sparkled as "How I Met Your Mother's" eponymous character
As I wrote in my comedy supporting actor piece, this has been a banner year for comedy and nowhere is that more obvious than in the ballot for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy.  As I prepared my nominations shortlist I realized that fully half of the actresses I was considering were from new comedies and that doesn’t even take into account potentially Emmy-worthy performances from Allison Janney and Niecy Nash, who were on shows I didn’t watch.  There isn’t much room on the ballot for new performers, but it would be great to see a handful break through, especially those from the amazingly diverse cast of Orange Is the New Black.

As always, I'm using the actual Emmy Performer Ballot, so I can’t put leads who submitted as supporting (Amy Schumer) or supporting actors who submitted as leads (Rob Lowe) in their proper category, nor can I put shows that probably should be in drama (Orange Is the New Black) or comedy (Key & Peele) into their appropriate categories, nor can I nominate somebody who didn’t submit themselves (like anybody on Enlisted not named Parker Young).  Also, I’m only including actors from shows I watch regularly, so if your favorites from The Middle, Nurse Jackie, Veep, or Raising Hope aren’t here, that’s why.

My 2013 Choices:
Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory)
Carly Chaikin (Suburgatory)
Elisha Cuthbert (Happy Endings)
Jenna Fischer (The Office)
Jane Krakowski (30 Rock)
Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation)

Actual 2013 Emmy Nominees:
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) – 2013 Emmy Winner

Merritt Wever was the surprise winner last year and gave a correspondingly great acceptance speech.  This year’s nominees could be just as surprising.  30 Rock is done and it feels like Glee has run its course as a cultural touchstone, which should open a pair of slots.  I also feel like Mayim Bialik wasn’t asked to do as much this year as perhaps in the past, though she might have the strongest single episode in “The Locomotive Manipulation.” 

The biggest question, however, is how the new faces will fare.  Orange Is the New Black has the Netflix cachet (if not the names) that got House of Cards a bucket of nominations last year, features a huge cast of great supporting characters, and just happened to drop its second season right at the start of Emmy voting season. Allison Janney and Margo Martindale are drama stalwarts returning to television and making the move to comedy with a combined seven Emmy nominations and five wins between them.  And there are at least a half dozen more actresses on new shows who are extremely unlikely to get nominated but are still worth consideration.  The Modern Family women probably aren’t going anywhere, but with as many strong, new candidates there are this year, I could see anything happening with those other four spots.

As I said in my supporting actor post, I generally like to limit myself to one actor from each show, but I feel like I’m going to be breaking that rule a lot this year.  In this category, it’s impossible not to recognize at least two women from one of “television’s” (or whatever we’re calling Netflix this week) strongest and most diverse casts.  Thankfully, Uzo Aduba submitted herself as a guest actress so I don’t have to find room for three Orange Is the New Black actresses, but Danielle Brooks and Kate Mulgrew make great nominees on their own.  Brooks had the meatiest of the supporting storylines as Taystee first left, then returned to prison for lack of any real options on the outside.  It was a disheartening, if honest story that appropriately portrays the difficulties many convicts have returning to a “normal” life once released from prison.  Without any kind of support system outside, it’s easy to see how Taystee could get lost and ultimately make the decision that life inside is better than life on the street.  Mulgrew, meanwhile, got to play a villain and seemed to relish the role.  It would have been easy for her to go over the top with the role, but she kept the character grounded in emotion.  Red wasn’t evil.  She was prideful.  And when that pride was injured, she lashed out.  It made for a riveting but realistic performance.

I pounded the drum for Carly Chaikin last year too but got nowhere then because, let’s face it, Suburgatory is not a show that gets a lot of love from either viewers or Emmy voters.  This honestly wasn’t as great of a year for Chaikin’s Dalia, but that’s mostly because of a heavy focus on other supporting characters (Lisa and Malik most notably).  While she may not have gotten as much time on screen, the dry wit and amazing consistency of both the character and the actress meant that her laughs per appearance ratio remained incredibly high.  Suburgatory was canceled this year and Chaikin is one of three actresses on this list whose shows won’t be on next year.  It really is a shame because, while Suburgatory was never the kind of show that could knock at a classic television season, it had a unique sensibility and consistently hilarious, dry supporting woman.

I wanted to recognize one of Trophy Wife’s supporting actresses and was really trying to find a way to get a second in here but, ultimately, one seems right and it is Marcia Gay Harden.  What I loved most about Trophy Wife was how instantly the cast (with the exception of Natalie Morales, though that wasn’t her fault) gelled together and one of the big reasons for that was Harden.  What impressed me most was her ability to play off of any character.  Put her with ex-husband Pete, and she’s the ice queen.  Pair her with Kate and she’s aloof but sympathetic.  With the kids, she’s the stern, loving overseer who’s always three steps ahead.  She even manages a rapport with batty, awkward middle wife Jackie.  Harden is required to play the straight woman most of the time, but she still finds ways to make me laugh.

I generally find Saturday Night Live to be an incredibly inconsistent show, but when it hits, it hits hard, and one of the funniest voices the show has belongs to Kate McKinnon.  I briefly considered Cecily Strong for this spot, but her role as host of Weekend Update means that she’s not as frequently present throughout the rest of the show and McKinnon gets a big boost because she has such a talent for creating instantly realized characters.  A lot of SNL players have an assortment of impressions and recurring characters and McKinnon is no different, whether it’s Olya Povlatsky on Weekend Update, Angela Merkel, or Ellen.  But what makes her excel is her ability to build an entire personality in a three minute sketch, whether it’s her game show mom or her stranger in a bar in “Last Call.”  Telling a complete story with notable characters is SNL’s biggest struggle (note how often they return to the same wells when former cast members or previous hosts return), but McKinnnon does it extremely well.

I did not care for the How I Met Your Mother finale.  I ultimately saw what they were trying to do, but found it to be a complete failure in execution.  Part of what hurt that finale, however, was that the show had done such a good job at building up the mother during the final season that the way she was treated during the finale felt like a betrayal.  I would not have had nearly the negative reaction that I had if I did not care about the mother as much as I did and much of the credit for that goes to Cristin Milioti.  The mother could have been nothing; she could have been infuriating; she could have been boring.  But she wasn’t.  She was lovable, cute, and, above all, perfect for Ted.  And it’s no accident that the best episode of the season was “How Your Mother Met Me,” which focused entirely on Milioti.  Much of what made the final season so disappointing was the feeling that the previous seasons could have been made so much better by bringing Milioti in years earlier.

Others Meriting Consideration: Stephanie Beatriz, Mayim Bialik, Laura Prepon, Cecily Strong, Michaela Watkins, Allison Williams
So those are my Emmy choices.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Emmy Ballot - Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy

Parker Young can't to recite the plot to "Toy Story 3" without crying in "Enlisted"

The Emmy nominations will be announced in less than thtree weeks, so it feels like the right time to take a look at this year’s ballots and highlight what I thought were the best performances and shows on television this season.  I’m hoping to run an article every few days covering one or categories each day.  First, we’ll start with the candidates for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

Last year I wrote of television comedy’s recent lull (at least compared to drama), but the 2013-14 season changed all of that.  This was the year of the comedy.  It started last July when Orange Is the New Black burst out as Netflix’s first consensus hit.  It continued into the fall as a half-dozen comedies debuted to some measure of critical success.  None were breakout ratings hits like Modern Family or New Girl a few years ago, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine ended up shocking the pundits by winning the Golden Globe for best comedy, Mom found a niche as a weird comedy featuring a couple of amazing performances (including that of Allison Janney who, in a just world, would walk away with the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress for her role in Masters of Sex), and Trophy Wife charmed the pants off of the few people who managed to watch it.  The comedy revival continued into the winter and spring as Enlisted and Review hit to critical adoration and minimal audiences.  I don’t know if this wave of new comedies will find their way onto Emmy ballots (especially given how many of them were canceled), but it’s nice to be able to talk about new, great comedy again.

A couple of caveats before we start.  First, I’m working from the actual Emmy Performer Ballot, so I can’t put leads who submitted as supporting (Amy Schumer) or supporting actors who submitted as leads (Rob Lowe) in their proper category, nor can I put shows that probably should be in drama (Orange Is the New Black) or comedy (Key & Peele) into their appropriate categories, nor can I nominate somebody who didn’t submit themselves (like anybody on Enlisted not named Parker Young).  Also, I’m only including actors from shows I watch regularly, so if your favorites from The Middle, Nurse Jackie, Veep, or Raising Hope aren’t here, that’s why.

Supporting Actor
My 2013 Choices:
Max Greenfield (New Girl)
Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation)
Damon Wayans, Jr. (Happy Endings)
Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live)
John Krasinski (The Office)
Keegan Michael-Key (Key & Peele)

Actual 2013 Emmy Nominees:
Ty Burrell (Modern Family)
Adam Driver (Girls)
Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family)
Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live)
Tony Hale (Veep) – 2013 Emmy Winner
Ed O’Neill (Modern Family)

I never said my selections were particularly predictive, as the differences between my choices and the actual nominees last year make clear, just that they’re my selections.  The Emmy voters’ continued refusal to recognize Nick Offerman’s performance as one of the all-time great comedic characters is still infuriating, but it’s tough to really argue with any of their choices last year.  Obviously, Modern Family is going to continue to rake in the nominations even if they didn’t collect any acting awards last year and despite the relative drop in quality over the last few years.  There’s no reason to think that the group of six we saw last year is going to be any different this year, with the exception of the retiring Bill Hader likely being replaced by the returning Eric Stonestreet. 

My selections, on the other hand, are going to be significantly different.  Krasinski, Wayans, and Hader are all off the ballot and the glut of new, great comedies is bringing a new wave of potential nominees to the ballot.  Unfortunately, the large number of new faces also created a problem of filling these few slots so I had to be particularly judicious in selecting the supporting nominees.  I’ve tried my best to avoid those characters who may have had a few great moments or even great episodes (I’m looking at you, Lamorne Morris and Albert Tsai) for those who really had greater impacts on their shows.

Andre Braugher is the most likely newcomer to earn a nomination in this category.  We already know the Emmy voters love him; his seven nominations and two wins prove just that.  I’m not certain that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Golden Globe win for Best Comedy means much in terms of Emmy voting, but it certainly can’t hurt.  Nine-Nine was a tough comedy for me to grab on to at first.  Andy Samberg’s man-child Jake Perrera was a bit grating.  But around midseason, the show really turned around and, throughout, Braugher was phenomenal as the straight man, Captain Ray Holt.  Braugher isn’t given the most outlandish comedic routines: those typically go to Samberg or his two fellow supporting actors Terry Crews and Joe Lo Truglio.  But when he’s asked to be funny, such as at Holt’s birthday party or when the captain becomes addicted to a Candy Crush-like game that forces Braugher to repeatedly utter the phrase “Kwazy Kupcakes,” he’s more than up to the task.

I normally try to limit myself to one nominee from any given show, but for this category it’s almost impossible, not least because Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt are so great at what they do.  Pratt had the lesser role this season, owing to his spending most of the fall shooting Guardians of the Galaxy, but as soon as he returned, he fell right back into being the Andy Dwyer we know and love.  Nick Offerman, meanwhile, was killing it as usual as pantheon comedy character Ron Swanson.  This year, Ron got to show some depth, taking on family life, marriage, and parenthood and pushing Leslie to finally move on from the parks department in Pawnee.  Their stories paralleled this season as Leslie embraced an uncertain future in the federal government and Ron did likewise, marrying Diane and thrusting himself into life as a father.  Even without such a deep, emotional storyline, Offerman would have been worthy of a nomination based solely on his discovery of the iPod.


Another pair I’m glad to have room for are the stars of Key & Peele, Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele.  Last year, I had this pair slotted in as numbers six and seven on my list and flipped a coin to choose one.  This year, with three slots vacated by actors from canceled shows, I’m more than able to fit the pair in for nominations.  Key & Peele is one of my very favorite comedies on television, though its continued listing under the variety category still boggles my mind.*  There’s also a bit of category fraud here as both actors could reasonably list themselves as leads.  No matter the categories, however both Key and Peele are more than deserving of accolades.  They manage to hit both dramatic and comedic beats while demonstrating an incredible ability to create lively characters in brief sketches.  Modern sketch comedy may be a unique beast that the Emmy voters aren’t quite ready to recognize outside of SNL, but these two are at the top of the genre.

* Sketch comedies very often nominate themselves in the variety category as you can see this year with Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Portlandia, and Saturday Night Live.  I’m wondering how long that will last, however, since the category is so often dominated by the late night shows (Leno, The Daily Show, Colbert, etc.) and no comedy series other than SNL has managed a nomination since Da Ali G Show in 2005.

No comedy surprised or infuriated audiences this year quite like Enlisted.  They were surprised by the fact that it was so good and so quickly found its comic footing and infuriated by the callous treatment it received from Fox.  Buried on Friday nights, Enlisted never had a chance to find an audience, but those few who did see the show were treated to a wonderful performance by Parker Young.  What made Young such a great presence was his ability to change gears from silly and stupid to emotional center.  Randy was such an over-the-top character that it would have been easy for Young to push him into parody, but he straddles that line perfectly, managing to be funny without becoming a cartoon.

Others meriting consideration:  Jason Biggs, Ty Burrell, Adam Driver, Max Greenfield, Taran Killam, Ryan Lee, Joe Lo Truglio, Lamorne Morris, Albert Tsai

So those are the first of my Emmy choices.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Orange Is the New Black Review: In Opposition to Binge-Watching

Yael Stone and Uzo Aduba share a moment in "Orange Is the New Black"

Editor’s Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first six episodes of the second season of Orange Is the New Black.  Proceed with caution.

Since the second season of Orange Is the New Black was released last Friday, I’ve been slowly making my way through.  And by “slowly,” I mean that I’ve that I’ve seen six episodes in nine days as opposed to streaming the whole thing last weekend like the rest of its viewers seem to have done.  I get that impulse.  Orange is an entertaining show.  It’s structured in a way to always leave us wanting more.  I know because I watched the first season that way, consuming all 13 episodes over the course of about a week.  Upon finishing this season’s fourth episode, “A Whole Other Hole,” I came to the realization that not only do I not enjoy binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, it actually becomes a lesser show when I do.

The turning point came after the big reveal in “A Whole Other Hole,” in which we discover that Morello’s relationship with her fiancée was fabricated entirely.  He’s a man with whom she went on one date, before stalking him, threatening his new girlfriend, and planting a bomb under her car.  It’s a remarkable twist that plays not only with her character, but with our perception of her, of the other characters, and of how Orange tells stories in general.

Part of what makes the twist so great is how the writers set Morello’s character up, from the very first episode, not just in terms of plot, but thematically as well.  The way Morello is introduced to the audience in the pilot, we know immediately what to expect from her.  We first meet her reading a bridal magazine and talking about her wedding plans.  The purpose is obvious: the audience is to recognize Morello as a parallel to Piper.  Both women are engaged and think of prison as simply a stopping point on their way back to a normal life.  While the show never really followed up on that initial assumption, the idea was still in viewers’ heads: This is a (relatively) normal person who just wants to do her time and get out.

Morello’s flashbacks in the episode are also used to effectively hide the truth.  The story plays out much like Sophia’s, in that we think we know her crime (credit card fraud) from the beginning, so the question will not be what she does to land in prison, but how her crime affects her loved ones, like her fiancée.  We even get the nice meet-cute with him making a joke about her potential criminal deeds.

But when everything unravels, it does so quickly in that devastating courtroom scene.  It’s not even the details of her harassment that are the worst part but the vapid smile and eyes stuck somewhere between sad and confused that betray the fact that she has no idea what’s happening there.  To her, it’s all a misunderstanding to be cleared up quickly.  She is so lost in her delusion that she can’t even fathom the idea that anything about her relationship is amiss. 

The most frustrating aspect is that Morello is a woman who is clearly not being served by the prison system.  In fact, prison is only deepening her delusion.  Because her mental illness is focused on something outside the gates, she’s actually able to pass for normal unlike Suzanne, whose issues are manifest for everybody to see.  It’s unclear how much the other prisoners buy into her story, especially given that her fiancee has never visited, but at the very least they don’t challenge her, allowing her to avoid the issue, to the extent that she’s willing to go to his home and play house, risking her future freedom in the process.

So why have “A Whole Other Hole,” in particular and Orange Is the New Black, in general, made me opposed to binge-viewing?  Because this episode crushed me.  It hit me hard in a way that I hadn’t expected.  I enjoy Orange a great deal.  It’s one of my favorite shows on television right now.  But it’s not a show I connect to emotionally all that much because, the truth is, I struggle to identify with the characters.  I’m a middle-class white dude who’s never done anything much worse than blowing off work to go to a concert. 

I’ve never been in these women’s shoes, whether inside prison or outside.  But Morello’s story was different.  There’s just something inherently terrifying about losing yourself so deeply.  Who are we if not the culmination of our memories and experiences?  What happens when those memories lie to us?  Who are we then?  And so this episode bothered me.  I had to sit with it and its meaning for two days until I could get to the next and, as I thought about “A Whole Other Hole,” as it burrowed its way into my mind, I grew to love it more.  I embraced its message of hopelessness and, most importantly, I yearned to see what happened next.  I wanted to see where the story goes.  And the truth is, I don’t if I would have felt the same way if I had immediately jumped into episode five. 

Don’t get me wrong, “Low Self Esteem City” was a fine episode.  But Morello’s story is largely dropped for a duel between Gloria and Vee and the sexual escapades of Nichols and Boo.  The sixth episode manages a beautiful moment between Morello and Suzanne that lets the two share in their illnesses and find some manner of connection.  It’s a fantastic scene made all the stronger by the fact that I had to wait for it.  I had to earn it.  And I had to spend three days dissecting what had come before.  I can honestly say I would not have gotten as much out of those episodes had watched them all in a row.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying nobody should binge-watch any shows.  There are many series that make for a great binge-viewing experience.  I can crank through five or six episodes of 30 Rock without blinking an eye.  A show like Review might even benefit from binge viewing because it makes it easier to keep track of the loose continuity.  I don’t even mind binging on procedurals, since the plots are generally the most important aspects of those types of shows. 

If all you want out of show is plot and humor, then by all means, binge away.  But what makes television unique as a story-telling medium is how important the characters are.  We fall in love with shows not necessarily because of their intricate plots but because we want to spend time with these characters week after week.  We grow up with them.  We watch them fall in love, and get married, and have children.  We watch them break up. We watch them die.  Our continued connections with characters are what make television special.  I lose those connections when I binge-watch and I imagine many others do as well.

I’m never one to tell somebody that they’re “watching television wrong.”  But we’ve become a viewing culture so intent on completion and being a part of the cultural conversation that when we’re presented with an excellent, addictive series like Orange Is the New Black, we’re tempted to watch as much as we can as fast as we can.  But that method might not give the best viewing experience.  The next time you’re tempted to crank out 13 episodes in two days of Orange, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, give it a second thought.  Let the episodes sit with you for a bit.  The great ones are worth it.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.