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Sunday, June 12, 2016

How The Fall of TV's White Male Anti-Hero Will Lead To One Of The Weakest Best Actor Emmy Nominations

Hollywood is not lacking in roles for white men. Considering the massive influence The Sopranos had on prestige television, television networks love to spit out shows starring the White Male Anti-Hero (WMAH). From examples like Walter White on Breaking Bad, Don Draper on Mad Men, and Dexter Morgan on Dexter, the way to create great television was to have it star a middle aged, white, male anti-hero. For the longest time, these male anti-heroes were actually interesting, fascinating, and worthy of Emmy nominations. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Hugh Laurie (House), and Damien Lewis (Homeland) all have a plethora of nominations (and wins) for playing this archetype. Sprinkle in a handful of nominations for guys like Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom), Timothy Olyphant (Justified), and the two leads of season one of True Detective and you have more WMAHs than you can shake a stick at.

Yet for any problems (mainly lack of diversity and creativity) you may have with these roles and the actors who portray these anti-heroes, it’s difficult to say they weren’t all deserving of their nomination. You could nitpick here and there, but for the most part, these roles were excellent and the actors truly were deserving of an Emmy nomination. However, in 2016, the tide has changed. Networks are still making shows with the WMAH, but they aren’t nearly as good and this trope is starting to feel derivative and less worthy of a nomination.

Shows like Low Winter Sun, Vinyl, and Halt and Catch Fire all star a WMAH, but do so without any creativity. Five years ago, these shows would be revolutionary and their leading men would be worthy of Emmy nominations. However, thanks to the works of people like Bryan Cranston and James Gandolfini, today’s current crop of WMAHs feels old and tiresome.

I believe that’s the biggest reason why the crop of actors who deserve an Emmy nomination for the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category is so weak. GoldDerby and TheHollywood Reporter both predict that the category will be full of actors who play WMAHs, but frankly their nominations feel like they’re the best out of a weak crop versus being great on their own merit. The past two winners of this category are Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm, both of which are ineligible since their shows have ended. The same is true for all the perennial and deserving WMAHs listed above (in terms of getting nominated). What we’re left with are actors like Kevin Spacey for his work in House of Cards and Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti for their work on Billions- a show best described as “eh,sure it’s good”. I respect the hell out of all three gentlemen, but their work this past year hasn’t been terribly inspiring.

That is not to say that that there aren’t any deserving WMAH’s in 2016. Wagner Moura did a spectacular job as Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos, Rami Malek carries the superb Mr. Robot and is sure to get a nomination, and I don’t know how you can say Justin Theroux doesn’t deserve a nomination for his work as Kevin Garvey on HBO’s The Leftovers after “International Assassination”. Bob Odenkirk also did an admirable and Emmy-nomination-worthy job as Jimmy McGill in the second season of AMC’s Better Call Saul. However, after those four gentlemen, I’m struggling to come up with even one more name of an actor who truly did outstanding work for this category.

It seems counterintuitive that in a year that created more original television programming than any other year in America’s history could lead a Best Lead Actor in a Drama field that is this weak. We live in Peak TV in an era that still believes men should get paid more than their equal female counterpart. With the litany of shows and shows that star male actors, how is it possible to struggle to come up with 6 names for this category?

It’s a “conundrum” that we saw at these past Oscars. Leonardo DiCaprio was the clear favorite from the getgo and no one came close to him. Despite Bill Simmons’ belief that every DiCaprio movie would be just a liiiiiiitle bit better as a Matt Damon movie, Matt Damon and his other 3 compatriots never had a chance to snatch the Best Actor Oscar away from Leo because none of them even came close to giving all THAT great of a performance. Further, these past Oscars, like this year’s Emmys, also showed us the weak overall nomination field. I thought Michael B. Jordan was legitimately snubbed for his work in Creed, but other than that, no other actor outside of Leo even made a semi-decent argument that they * deserved * to be nominated. Contrast that to two years ago when you could have created an entire list of deserving actors out of the men who didn’t get a Best Actor Academy nomination.

I don’t believe that it was a coincidence that we saw a weak Best Actor eligibility field in the same year we saw one of the strongest Best Actress eligibility fields in a while. I think the same is true for television and the Emmys this year. While more shows are being created, these shows are more diverse and more female centric. Dramas like Orange Is The New Black, Homeland, How To Get Away With Murder, UnREAL, and The Girlfriend Experience all have a female in its lead role and all either are getting Emmy buzz or already have it. As television viewers grow more and more weary of now clich├ęd WMAH, they are more than willing to accept complicated female characters. And as we’ve seen with Taraji P. Henson on Empire, Viola Davis on How To Get Away With Murder, and half the cast of Orange Is The New Black, these characters don’t have to be white.

Additionally, Peak TV has given us the rise of the mini-series. Despite Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for season one of True Detective, many great actors are producing great work on television that just is not eligible for a Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy. Mini-series like Fargo, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and Roots give us great male lead performances from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and Courtney B. Vance, yet none of which are or were eligible for a Best Actor in a Drama Series award.

If what the prognosticators predict are correct (which they most likely won’t be), then the Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy will be 6 of the following 9 actors: Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Damien Lewis (Billions), Paul Giamatti (Billions), Kyle Chandler (Bloodline), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Liev Schrieber (Ray Donovan), Bobby Cannavale (Vinyl), and Aaron Paul (The Path). That’s a pretty shaky list. All of those guys are great actors, but none of them have churned out stuff that was even close to their best work in the past 12 months (save for Malek). Even if the Emmys threw us a curveball and nominated a good actor on a well-respected show like say Matthew Rhys for his work on The Americans or Wagner Moura, you’d still have a below average list of 6 roles.

Compare your top 6 (or even 5) in 2016 to the list in 1996- 20 years ago and well before television’s revolution. The nominees were Andre Braugher for Homicide: Life on the Streets, George Clooney and Anthony Edwards for E.R., and Jimmy Smits and the winner Dennis Franz for their work in NYPD Blue. That’s an incredible and stacked list and lightyears better than whoever will get nominated this year. After all television has been through and how much better it has become in the past two decades, how come 2016’s eventual list of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nominees look so porous?

It's not that shows with a WMAH just aren’t that good anymore, for the most part, networks haven’t been able to adapt with male leads and the show surrounding them. Out of the top 15 shows’s 2015’s Television Critics Poll, 8 are dramas (according to Emmy rules), but only 5 of them have an actor that would be eligible for an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination. Of those five, two are Malek and Odenkirk, two are Theroux and Rhys who for some reason won’t get a nomination, and one is Aden Young from Rectify- a show too small to earn an Emmy nomination.

Networks aren’t producing prestigious (or good) dramas with male leads any more. Cable networks aren’t even producing House level quality shows anymore, and are instead giving us dumb detective procedurals like Limitless and Lucipher. And basic cable isn’t doing much better. The leaders like AMC, FX, and HBO have given us mostly duds when it comes to dramas over the past few years. HBO hasn’t been able to produce a new hit since Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, and only has one new drama, The Leftovers, that’s any good in that time frame. AMC, while now said in the same breath as HBO, really hasn’t produced quality television outside of the two shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, that put them on the map. And FX is killing it with comedies, like Baskets and You’re The Worst, and mini-series, like Fargo and The People vs. OJ Simpson, but haven’t produced a quality drama since Justified debuted in 2010.

The “networks” that are really pushing the quality boundaries are streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Netflix consistently produces quality shows, but are always diverse in their content. Shows like Master of None, BoJack Horseman and Making A Murderer are excellent (and all technically star a male), but obviously don’t qualify for any Best Drama Series categories. The shows that Netflix do have that qualify are either superhero shows (which will never earn a nomination despite how good something like Jessica Jones is) or subpar dramas. Shows like Bloodline and House of Cards aren’t very good, but are considered Emmy worthy because they’re still the best of a bad crop.

And that’s representative of all networks and their dramas. Shows like Billions, The Path, or The Affair aren’t great, but they’re still some of the best drama shows of the past 12 months. And that in turn will lead to whatever six men are lucky enough to earn an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category. They won’t be great, but they’ll still probably be the best that we’ve got.



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