Last night, HBO emerged the victor at the 68th annual Emmy Awards, securing top prizes for Best Comedy and Best Drama.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ beloved series, Veep, once again swept the comedy section, with Dreyfus winning her fifth consecutive award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. HBO’s flagship series about dragons, Game of Thrones, also took home prizes for Best Writing for a Drama Series, Best Directing for a Drama Series and the big one, Best Drama Series.
This isn’t the first time that Veep or Game of Thrones have won an Emmy, and it won’t be the last, but it may be the first time in either series’ run that they didn’t deserve to win.
It’s not that they’re bad. They’re just not the best
The episode that Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik won for, "Battle of the Bastards," may have been the best directed episode of the year. I doubt there’s anyone that’s going to dispute the exceptionality of that episode. There are episodes of Veep that are genuinely very funny, and once again, I doubt anyone will argue that. The question is whether or not Veep and Game of Thrones are truly representative of the very best television has to offer.
This past year (which, for the Emmys, means between last September and now) saw an explosion of incredible series, some old and new, celebrating a variety of voices. The Americans, easily one of the most critically-acclaimed, raved about series, finally received a few nominations this year after four seasons, but wasn’t actually awarded anything. Black-ish, which received a couple of big nominations, didn’t take anything home, and as I’ve said before, it’s the best and most important comedy on television right now. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which garnered recognition at this year's Golden Globes, satirized how rom-coms make women look and opened up dialogue about mental health issues. It didn't even receive a nomination at the Emmys.
It’s not that Veep isn’t good, it’s just no longer the best
In order for a series to be deemed the best, it has to do more than just engross an audience or make them laugh. The show has to enlighten us, make us think, or at the very least, inform us about something in our own world. Game of Thrones, while admittedly more difficult considering its fantasy sub-genre, used to do this in the early seasons. There were actual conversations about injustice, discrimination, poverty and dozens of other issues that the show was able to tackle that it doesn't put at the forefront of storytelling anymore.
Veep does this still to a certain extent, but it’s not as daring or biting as it was in its earlier seasons. There aren't any accusations being thrown out anymore about the state of governance. Instead, those have been replaced with easier jokes that we've heard from dozens of other shows.
This past season, Black-ish devoted an entire episode to talk about police brutality and how to have a conversation about a society that can be so hateful to a group of people based entirely on the color of their skin. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dedicated an entire subplot to dealing with body image and the anxiety or depression that comes along with suffering from low-self esteem. Silicon Valley spent a portion of its last season looking at gender inequality in the tech sector and Master of None, a show that did take home a couple of awards, practically reinvented the personal essay-style of television.
Some of these shows might not be as popular as Veep, and much more importantly, probably don’t have actors as well regarded as Dreyfus, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Anna Chlumsky and others on HBO’s comedy, but they’re far more important to the conversation. These shows have something to say and they’re using comedy to break down those barriers and open up dialogue.
It’s refreshing have network series like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat trying to do what Norman Lear did with All in the Family back in the ‘70s, and that’s what makes it all the more disappointing to see them all lose out to Veep. Again, it’s not that Veep isn’t good; it’s just no longer the best.
The same thing goes for Game of Thrones, the most awarded drama series of all time at the Emmys. Game of Thrones is still one of the most striking shows on television, with stunning sets, beautiful scenery and some of the best choreographed fights that have ever graced the small screen. Just because it’s pretty, however, doesn’t mean its the best series on television, and when it comes to drama, it’s far behind some of its other competitors.
Shows like the aforementioned The Americans, which features some of the best acting on television, or Mr. Robot, which uses the effects of technology to talk about self-isolation and mental health, are making us reexamine the way we view what constitutes good TV. These series talk about drug abuse, depression, anxiety, fraud and so many other topics that Game of Thrones covered in its first few seasons but has since been far removed from. Game of Thrones had its reigning moment, especially when it was new, large and flashy, but the show hasn't been in the category of television's best for quite some time. Now, other newer series like Narcos or The Knick are excluded from mainstream conversation because we keep awarding Game of Thrones for simply existing instead of looking out for new shows that are trying to open up a conversation with the audience.
Game of Thrones hasn’t done anything this season to move along television and advance the type of content that we’re seeing on a weekly basis. Just because we all like something doesn’t mean that it is the best, and unfortunately, that’s something that the Television Academy voters have yet to realize.
It’s not just about being good
Last month, FX president John Landgraf — the man who got thanked each time someone from The People v OJ Simpson accepted an award last night — gave his annual talk on the state of television. He said that "while there is more great television [now] than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent."
Game of Thrones and Veep aren’t just merely competent. Both are terrific series that millions of people enjoy every single week. The question has never been about whether they’re good shows, but whether they’re the best.
This year, they most certainly were not.