The Golden Globes, a ceremony that’s not even taken very seriously by its winners, has addressed one of the most befuddling questions in the awards world — one that the Emmys won’t touch. Which is: What is a TV show and what is a miniseries?
It seems like a straightforward question until you get into the specifics. Take “American Horror Story” and “Fargo,” two shows that start a completely new narrative, with new characters, every season. At the Emmys, both are treated as miniseries, because that’s where the network, FX, submits it. “True Detective,” a show that we’re told will also start a completely new narrative, with new characters, next year, is a drama series at the Emmys, because HBO thinks it could win and submitted it there. TV shows are whatever you say they are at the Emmys — and because the best miniseries field is far less competitive, this means that some nominations are head-scratching. The final seasons of “Treme” and “The Big C,” which wrapped up story lines that had been ongoing for years, were nominated as miniseries at the Emmys; last year, Laura Linney won an Emmy for miniseries acting, though it wasn’t a fair fight. Her performance in “The Big C” relied on what we’d learned in the preceding three seasons.
The Emmys show no sign of clearing up this confusion. But the Golden Globes recently announced that any series that clears the deck between seasons and starts a new plotline, even if it keeps the same title, is a “limited series” and will be nominated as such. This is far from just semantic: Miniseries and series do different things well, and placing them in competition against one another doesn’t make sense.
Consider this year’s best drama field: the idea of “True Detective” competing against longer-running series, and very possibly winning, is particularly unfair. The Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson drama didn’t have to worry about creating plotlines that could sustain years’ worth of action. It was able to tell a single intriguing story that was closed-ended — one that, even if you found it unsatisfying, had a kind of beginning, middle and end. Fellow nominees like “House of Cards’” second season or “Game of Thrones’” fourth were telling chapters of a story that hasn’t yet ended — they feel thin by comparison. This isn’t just a problem in the best drama category. Is it fair to compare McConaughey’s performance, which is now complete and has been retired, to a segment of a years-long performance undertaken by Jon Hamm or Bryan Cranston?
“True Detective,” in particular, told its story in a very approachable eight episodes. By comparison, to appreciate the Emmy-nominated final season of “Breaking Bad,” one has to have watched all that came before. It’s bad enough that network dramas, with their overwhelming 22- or 24-episode runs, have such a high barrier to entry, as the creative team behind “The Good Wife” found out when their show was surprisingly left out this year. Is any show that tells a story that goes longer than a single season going to be disadvantaged at the Emmys going forward?
Maybe the Emmys will follow the Golden Globes’ lead in the future. It won’t erase the asterisk that should be attached to any wins by “True Detective” in the drama series fields, but it would at least allow the TV academy to focus on solving far less clear-cut issues, like how “Saturday Night Live” is nominated as a variety show but its stars are nominated as supporting performers in sitcoms. The Golden Globes can’t help with that — we’re on our own.