Tuesday, September 23, 2008

(Un)Popularity Contests?

I didn’t watch the Emmys. That’s in large part because I don’t watch much television. I don’t watch much television because I don’t have the time. Keeping up with movies is task enough. Thus, I have lists of shows that I want to catch up with at some point via Netflix, but I struggle to get around to them. It was only within the past year that I finally watched the first season of 24. Didn’t care for it. Won’t be going back for more. Which I guess is a good thing, because it means that I’m even closer to seeing a single installment of stuff like The Wire, John Adams and Mad Men, to name a few things recommended to me.

The other reason I didn’t watch the Emmys is that they have always seemed an especially imperfect concept. The Academy Awards are problematic enough, but a single movie season is far more self-contained and easier to evaluate. With the Emmys I’ve never grasped how an actor can win an award year after year for playing the same character while another actor slogs away in one role for just as long, finally breaking through in, say, Season Six, because the writing finally got a little better or – let’s face it – because Hollywood decided it was time to throw a bone to someone new. You get the idea.

Anyway, I did read some Emmys coverage. And that led me to the post-Emmys chat with entertainment critic Tom Shales of my local Washington Post. And that led me to this shocking exchange:

Ashland, MO: What's the point of giving awards to programs most people have never seen? Not only is this true of Emmys, but also Oscars. Do critics automatically assume something can't be meritorious just because most people like it? It didn't used to be this way. What changed?

Tom Shales: I think it's actually worse with the Oscars. To be a best picture nominee now, it seems like a film has to be depressing, arcane, arty, dreary, and in limited release. I guess it's partly because so many films are made based on comic books, and the Hollywood establishment doesn't want to give awards to THEM. So they go looking for the most obscure films they can find. I don't think I saw any of this years' Best Picture Nominees.

Ugh. Where to begin?

Let’s start with Ashland, MO, who successfully uses “meritorious” in a sentence and yet thoughtlessly suggests that there’s no point in awarding TV shows or movies that “most people have never seen.” Seriously, take special note: Ashland doesn’t complain about a recent fad (ala: “What’s with the trend…?”). No, Ashland complains about the whole concept (“What’s the point…?”). It’s a disappointing outlook to say the least, especially in this age of DVR, DVD and Web-posted editions of shows (how I keep up with The Office, half the time), any of which make it easier than ever to – gasp! – try out a show that the entertainment establishment itself has seen fit to praise.

Even more disturbing, however, than the reader’s comment is that of Shales, of course, who doesn’t think he saw any of the most recent Best Picture nominees and thus thinks that Juno (one of the five) was “depressing, arcane, arty, dreary, and in limited release” because Ellen Page wasn’t wearing a cape. Holy Critic-Totally-Out-Of-Touch-With-Pop-Culture, Batman!

Sure, Shales is correct that an alarming number of mainstream movies these days are about men (and sometimes women) in tights. And, no, Hollywood probably “doesn’t want” to give awards to those pictures, either because the movies in question don’t merit such recognition (most of the time) or because giving recognition to a heavily-marketed popcorn flick that has already dominated at the box office and sold big on DVD has little financial incentive (almost all of the time). But the Academy Awards “go looking for the most obscure films they can find”? Really?

True enough, not one of last year’s Best Picture nominees was the kind of thing that the Average Joe Moviegoer (whoever that is) would have seen coming a year away. Juno, to keep with the previous example, became a Big Thing post-release, thanks to critical and audience acclaim. It opened in limited release, but it sure didn’t finish that way. To read the comment by Shales, the Academy should go ahead and nominate the latest Indiana Jones and Batman flicks today, not based on merit, but simply because they benefited from being highly-anticipated sequels that “most people” (to quote Ashland, MO) at least saw and may have actually enjoyed, too.

One of the many things that’s backwards here is that the Academy’s nasty habit isn’t fleeing the mainstream but being unwilling to leave it behind. Each year’s slate of nominees tends to include at least one Jerry Maguire – a marginally decent movie upgraded to contender status for the sole purpose of giving Shales and cinema shut-ins like him a reason to tune in on awards night. But I digress. What’s especially frightening is that Shales is apparently oblivious that The Departed won for Best Picture two years ago, and Crash before that, and Million Dollar Baby before that and, whaddyaknow, Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King before that. I could keep going (Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, etc.), but I don’t think I need to. These movies don’t fit Shales’ description of a Best Picture nominee as seen within the context of the question from Ashland, MO.

The ultimate irony, though, is this: while folks like Shales and Ashland, MO, feel shut out of the ceremonies and thus ungratified by the Oscars, cinephiles often come away equally disappointed. Among that more avid fan base, Crash, Gladiator and Titanic might as well be four-letter words – the movies’ vast successes mutate to become their biggest crime. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Either way, whether the Academy Awards recognize the obscure or the popular, the esoteric or the easily accessible, Oscar night seems to produce far more losers than winners.


Craig said...

The "I've never seen that!" argument is even more absurd for television than it is for movies, which was already ridiculous to begin with. It's not like viewers have to go far beyond the couch and remote to discover Mad Men or 30 Rock or any number of quality shows. And what they don't happen to catch at a given time they can always Tivo. And now I can finally say I've successfully used "Tivo" in a sentence.

While I've typically preferred movies as well, I have to admit that Charley Taylor, formerly of Salon, who often toed the line between brilliantly perceptive and sheer lunacy, was on to something when he frequently wrote that he was amazed at how much better the quality of TV is these days compared to movies. It's hard for me to argue that point. I can think of at least a half dozen episodes of Mad Men that are better than anything I've seen in theaters this year.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig, I think you and Charley Taylor are right. The problem for me and TV is that my life doesn't tend to revolve around a TV schedule, if you know what I mean. And I don't stay plugged in to the scene enough to know what's doing well and isn't. Used to. Not anymore.

And then it gets to that point where I really want to watch, say, "The Wire," but two seasons have gone by. So I pledge to get to it on Netflix, and I will ... but then there are all these movies that catch my attention. Lackluster movies? Many of them. But I'm ever hopeful. Sometimes it hurts being a believer.

In favor of the TV-better-than-movies argument: one show I got around to by the time it was wrapping up was "The West Wing." Its latter seasons were mostly just OK, albeit with some great episodes here and there. But the first few seasons were consistently excellent. I find myself constantly remembering parts of those episodes that I've seen only once.

I'm sure "Mad Men" is just as good...or better. And I'll get there. Really, I will.