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Snub of some shows spells doom before awards begin

Chris Hine | Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I didn’t have to tune in to the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday to be disappointed by them.

Inexplicably, the show that claims to reward the best of television, failed to recognize four of television’s best dramas – “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” – in the best drama category. Critics hail them as four of the best shows on television, and rate them higher than “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Boston Legal” and “House,” three shows that were nominated in place of the four snubees.

The snub of “Lights” is especially shocking. It is on the verge of cancellation due to low ratings, but has so much critical appeal that NBC decided to give it a second season in the hope it can find an audience.

Usually, the Emmys try to give shows like “Lights” a boost by giving them some hardware. “All in the Family” struggled with low ratings when it premiered but won Best Comedy in 1971 and went to on become the No. 1 rated show on TV for five years in a row. The same goes for “Hill Street Blues,” and “Cheers” in the 1980s and “Arrested Development” four years ago.

All received the top prize at the Emmys despite low-rated first seasons. In each case, except for “Arrested Development,” the shows found an audience and stayed on the air for years. Even this year on the comedy side, the Emmys gave the top award to “30 Rock” – a critically acclaimed, but low-rated show that was on the verge of cancellation after its first season.

But sometimes, as in the case of “Freaks and Geeks,” critically acclaimed shows do not get that extra support from the Emmys. This happened to “Friday Night Lights” because people who vote for the Emmy nominations use a faulty system.

Nominees this year were determined by a combination of popular vote and scores based on panels that screened one sample episode of each show. People who work in television are the people who vote for the Emmys and often are too busy to watch every episode of each show contending for an Emmy.

So when they go into the panels and watch one episode of a series such as “Lights,” “Lost,” or “The Wire” – shows that require the viewer to know what happened in previous episodes to understand what he is watching – voters cannot put the show in its proper context, and the episode does not have its intended impact.

Since voting is based on one episode, other shows, like “Boston Legal,” whose episodes are mostly self-contained, can steal a nomination. Critics – or people whose job it is to actually watch every episode of the top TV shows – have no voice in the process.

It is hard to grasp the depth of Connie Britton’s and Kyle Chandler’s performances in “Lights,” without having the proper context of their stories. For example, Britton’s sample episode contained a scene in which she yells at her daughter for wanting to have sex at the age of 15. (For reference, go to youtube.com and search for “Friday Night Lights – The Talk.”)

On its surface, you see Britton as a mother trying to protect her child. But in the context of the show, you see much more on Britton’s face and hear much more in her words. Throughout the series, the writers hinted that Britton’s character, Tami Taylor, was not happy when she was a teenager because of her promiscuity.

For fans of the show, this scene between mother and daughter shows Tami’s worst nightmare – that her daughter was becoming her. Britton portrayed this fear subtly and let the tone of her voice and the expressions on her face convey this fear instead of coming out and saying it.

Of course, Emmy voters did not have this frame of reference when watching this scene and Britton was not nominated.

But TV critics took notice of her strong performance. They nominated her – along with her “Lights” co-star, Chandler – as one of only five actors or actresses in television drama to receive the top prize for acting at the Television Critics Association Awards. I thought the Emmys would help me out this year and give “Lights a top award or two so people would watch this wonderful show in season two. I was wrong.

At one point in your life, you, too, will have your favorite show suffer from low ratings. Just don’t count on the Emmys to help keep it on the air.