billy bob thornton in fargo

Are you ready to spin from last night’s broadcast of the mildly freaky MTV Video Music Awards, and last night’s broadcast of the mildly geeky Creative Arts Emmy Awards, to tonight’s live broadcast of the 66th Prime-Time Emmy Awards? I thought so. The Big Six media megacorporations await your genuflection! (They are: CBS, Comcast/NBC, Disney/ABC, Fox/FX, Viacom, and Time Warner, who own HBO and thus expect you to be extra appreciative tonight.)

I don’t do full previews; you have the major media for that. I’ll just chime in with a few thoughts on a few major things. SPOILERS for these shows: Fargo, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black

Predicted winner, Best Mini-Series: Fargo 

I’m only mildly surprised that none of the major TV critics have pointed the following out: why does True Detective qualify as a Drama Series but Fargo qualify as a mini-series? Same amount of episodes. Same self-described “anthology” format which will unveil a Season 2 with different actors and different settings. I really feel HBO has done a bit of category fraud here, or perhaps more accurately, poached away votes from other networks. Not that we should cry for the networks, but I worry a little bit about the Emmys, who in the last few years have found themselves thrust into the surprising position as first arbiter of quality for America’s best popular art (in other words, the best TV is better now than the best movies, music, sites, what-have-you)…more of these True Detective-Fargo category shenanigans, and they’ll turn themselves into the Grammys.

Balancing the tone of Fargo was like successfully making a gin and tonic out of vermouth and snow…in other words, in terms of production design and direction, the series was brilliant, and so were the actors, who deserve any and all awards they receive tonight. The problem was the tale of two halves that was the writing: brilliant, then disappointing. Malvo spent three episodes looking for the money, and after Milos put it back to where he found it, Malvo forgot all about it. That might have been a statement about who Malvo really was, if the show treated Malvo’s previous motivation as anything but forgotten goods. Then Malvo killed 22 people in America’s worst massacre since 1922…but somehow, unlike the way the FBI, police, and media have since responded to all events that were even half as deadly, Malvo escaped strolling down the street, and could confidently stroll through camera-laden casinos in Vegas with little but a new haircut. Again, could have been a statement, but a TV show doesn’t get credit for suggesting that Americans forget about mass violence just by forgetting about mass violence. More importantly, what made the opening episodes terrific was that you were half-rooting for everyone, something like Heat (1995) or the Mike Leigh ensemble style made into a noir. However, as Malvo lost his consistency and Nygaard turned contemptible, we were left without rooting interests outside of Solverson (whose husband became too passive) and Key and Peele (who were more of an awesome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than plot-critical). Seriously, I haven’t seen this shaky a foundation on a show this highly-praised since The Walking Dead. (Get on a sailboat, find any one of dozens of football-stadium-sized islands in the Bahamas, check carefully for walkers, live happily ever after. Do I have to do everything around here?!)

Predicted winner, Best Comedy: Orange is the New Black 

Orange is the New Black here feels like a little bit of category fraud – how many one-hour shows have ever been nominated for Best Comedy? doesn’t it just feel weightier? – but who cares, anything to get this thing an award. Modern Family has won this award for the last three years; as a continuing fan of that show, I nonetheless recognize it’s time to spread the awards love. The other most-deserving comedy this year is Veep, but the smart money says that the most nominated actress in Emmy history (!), Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is going to win Best Comedy Actress, and so it’s time to hope Orange is the New Black – and in fact Netflix – doesn’t go home without a big award. (Some people are predicting Robin Wright to win for Best Actress in a Drama, to which I say that’s an award she should have had the previous year – I don’t want to reward House of Cards for reducing so much of the screen time of its first season’s two best female characters. Since Tatiana Maslany is very inexplicably not nominated for Orphan Black – don’t get me started – they should give it to Lizzy Caplan or Kerry Washington.) What a turn of events for Netflix, splitting the difference between Emmy love and Hollywood envy…just as it splits the difference between Silicon Valley and the film industry. They really do seem like HBO circa 1981…but it remains to be seen if the Big Six media groups (above) will let them play like they did HBO, without cutting into their profits. (Hint: they won’t.)

Meanwhile, OITNB feels as unlike the networks as anything on any screen. What a draw for other talent. More than any show I’ve ever seen, I wonder why OITNB bothers with 1-hour episodes; why not just keep the narrative going? Jenji Kohan’s show feels more organic than fresh kale, more of a sense of “it’s just happening” than a surveillance video. I could list my favorite characters, but those change day to day; not unlike with Fargo (but far more sustained), I really never know who I’ll wind up rooting for. If you look around the TV landscape, flashbacks are kinda going out of style, probably because they feel too manipulative; you never see them on most of the Best Drama or Best Mini-Series nominees. But like the show that popularized the flashback 10 years ago, Lost, OITNB benefits from narrative urgency for flashback: if you were stuck in this sort of prison-purgatory, you’d think about your old life too! I loved how often the second season made you think you were going to find out what some character did to get into prison…only to pull the rug out from under you and postpone that reveal for another time. I also love how OITNB moved beyond Lost‘s schematic insistence on assigning flashbacks to the episode’s given character…you never know where OITNB is going with its looks back, which feels more transgressive and more pleasantly feminized all at the same time. If not for the recent Boyhood, I would have said that the movies have lost the ability to effectively blend quote-unquote BIG and quotidian moments in the same narrative…but it’s still rare enough to merit your attention when a show does it as well as Orange is the New Black. I hope it stays around long enough for Orange to become the Old Standby.

Predicted winner, Best Drama: Breaking Bad

I feel the commentariat has done a reasonable job with Breaking Bad, and also I haven’t seen it for a year, so I’d rather discuss another show that won’t win, namely the absolutely terrific Game of Thrones. We are living in salad days when an ongoing adaptation of an already superb book series is itself uniformly excellent – trimming some aspects of the narrative and deepening the themes of others. Speaking as just one fan of the books, I love the fealty to the big moments and most of the new inventions, like the baby becoming a White Walker, and the thrill of the Hound-Brienne battle. I won’t say there weren’t misjudgments – Asha’s aborted rescue of Theon should never have been attempted (it wasn’t in the book), the Wall battle episode should have ended with the Stannis ex machina (I’m guessing this particular decision happened late in post-production), and blaming Lysa’s death on suicide stretched credibility (in the book, there’s a court jester to blame it on) – but the main narrative thrusts regarding the Lannisters, Daenerys, Jon Snow, and especially the Arya-Hound relationship were as skillfully deployed as a pie full of crows. But…for all that, when it loses tonight to the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, I will have to admit that Breaking Bad’s achievement was greater. And it’s a real shame, because the second half of Book Three of George R.R. Martin’s septology was the best source material the GoT producers had, or will have, to work from (unless Martin pulls a Mordor-sized rabbit out of his Book Six bascinet). They’ve cannily laid the groundwork for a season five that will improve upon book four – they saved the Jon-Melisandre intrigue, they turned Sansa into a Disney villain in her last shot, they’ll probably (hopefully?) kill the kingsmoot and merge most of books four and five – but it won’t be enough for critics, who will notice the meandering and lack of deaths. Tonight represents fantasy TV’s and Game of Thrones’ only real chance at the Best Drama Emmy – unless the final season somehow blows everyone’s mind – and it’s a little sad to see that tide get so close, then recede.

Predicted my-favorite-moment-of-the-night: The Robin Williams tribute by Billy Crystal

Like Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times and Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter, the Emmys will try to claim that TV “owned” Robin Williams, or that he was most at home there. Don’t you believe it. Yes, he did a lot on TV he couldn’t do in movies…he also did a lot on stage he couldn’t do in either place. His was a titanic, generous talent that would have shone like a supernova anywhere he went. When he was on TV, he owned it and he gave it all away. That’s just one reason so few can come close to what he did. Still, tonight I’ll enjoy watching them try…between tears.