It’s hard to think of an event that was more inexplicable or rage-inducing at the Emmys last night than Jeff Daniels’ win for Best Actor in a Drama for playing Will McAvoy in The Newsroom. Daniels isn’t bad in the role, but the role itself isn’t very good. McAvoy has two modes: a full, monologuing bluster that he puts on whether he’s stoned, broadcasting the news, or proposing to a woman he’s castigated for two full seasons, and occasional contemplative silence breaks when something like his father’s death stuns him into inertia. If Daniels was transcending the material, saving The Newsroom to himself by sneaking more empathy, vulnerability, and self-awareness into Will McAvoy than Sorkin had written into the character, I could see giving him the trophy. But in a year when Bryan Cranston is doing superb work as Walter White on Breaking Bad and Jon Hamm is opening up new parts of Don Draper on Mad Men, Daniels is doing work that’s just fine in a much less demanding role.
It would be easy to say that this is a reflection of the timidity and middle-brow tastes of the Emmy voting pool. Fortunately, Film Crit Hulk is here to provide us with a structural explanation:
FOR INSTANCE, WE CAN ALL AGREE THAT HBO PUTS OUT SOME TRULY WONDERFUL TELEVISION, BUT DID YOU KNOW THEY EMPLOY THE MOST PEOPLE BY FAR? THEIR NUMBERS QUADRUPLE OTHER NETWORKS BECAUSE OF THEIR UNIQUE MODEL. SO, YES, THEY HAVE THE BIGGEST SINGLE CHUNK OF EMMY VOTERS TOO. WHICH MEANS IT’S NOT AN ACCIDENT WHEN JEFF DANIELS (AN INCREDIBLE ACTOR OF COURSE) WALKS AWAY WITH EMMY GOLD INSTEAD OF BRYAN CRANSTON OR JON HAMM. THE NEXT BIGGEST GROUP OF VOTERS IS THOSE WHO WORK FOR THE MAJOR BROADCAST NETWORKS, WHICH OFTEN MAKE A DECENT SHOWING, ESPECIALLY IN COMEDY CATEGORIES. AND WHEN YOU COMPARE THE AMOUNT OF THESE VOTERS TO THE STAFFS AT, SAY, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX OR FX OR AMC (WHO RUN LEAN STAFFS PER CORPORATE MANDATE). THIS DOESN’T MEAN THEY CAN’T WIN. BUT IT DOES MEAN THEY ARE AT A SERIOUS DISADVANTAGE WHEN IT COMES TO A “BASE VOTE” LIKE THE OTHERS. THEY ONLY GOT A PUNCHER’S CHANCE.
That structural explanation has creative implications, of course. Among other things, it gives the impression that everything HBO does is better than everything that FX does, an imbalance that reinforces the inferior status of pulp as a genre, given the pulpy elements of FX’s signature dramas, like Sons of Anarchy and The Americans. Sometimes HBO’s wins are justified, like the one for Behind The Candelabra, and I’m glad to see cable putting pressure on networks to develop more and better original movies and miniseries. But a win like Daniels is a bad incentive, reinforcing the idea that any middle-aged white man with issues is interesting and nuanced, no matter how pedantic he is, or how cliche his issues are.