We take for granted, and often complain about during Oscar season how precursor awards take much of the suspense out of the Academy’s eventual choices. It begins each December with awards from Los Angeles and New York City film critics, whose early choices often help shape the season to come.
Not all of their winners go on to prevail at the Oscars, and critics often gripe about how the Oscars aren’t really about quality anyway. True, it can be tempting to dismiss critics’ influence on the Academy when acclaimed films like “The Dark Knight,” “WALL-E,” or “United 93” fail to make the cut for Best Picture, or when more poorly reviewed films like “The Reader” or “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” break through. But despite those outliers, critics undoubtedly matter.
Along with an aggressive studio campaign, critical support is vitally important at the Oscars, especially to smaller art-house films. Without them, there would have been no chance for “The Hurt Locker,” a downbeat summer box office disappointment without A-list stars, to win Best Picture in 2009. And though “The Social Network” ultimately lost to “The King’s Speech” in 2010, it’s unlikely the Academy would have paid any attention to a movie about college kids inventing Facebook without the near-unanimous plaudits it received on the critics’ awards circuit. In 2012, we again saw the influence of critics in the multiple nominations for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour.”
So why don’t TV critics exert as much influence over the Emmys?
Yes, a show like “Breaking Bad” has been able to ride the rapturous praise of journalists to multiple nominations for Best Drama Series and wins for its cast over the years, but what about “Enlightened,” the season’s second most highly rated program on MetaCritic with a score of 96? Or “Justified,” which scored 90 but seems unlikely to be nominated for Best Drama and may struggle to eke out more than a couple of acting bids? Why hasn’t widespread praise for those shows and others translated to a higher profile on the awards scene?
It may partly be the result of the unique time commitment of watching TV. A Motion Picture Academy voter, upon reading glowing reviews for “The Social Network,” only needs to watch a two-hour screener, while a TV Academy member intrigued by similarly effusive praise for “Justified” must set aside 13 hours for a single season, and then another 39 if they wish to catch up on the series from the beginning.
Because television relies on a much longer form of storytelling, it produces audiences – and, perhaps inevitably, awards voters – who are creatures of habit, as opposed to film, where a new experience begins and ends whenever you enter the theater. Perhaps that’s one reason why it took so long for Emmy voters to honor serialized shows like “The Sopranos” and “24” against the comfortable, more self-contained weekly dilemmas of earlier winners “The Practice” and “The West Wing.”
Also, TV critics don’t always put their money where their mouths are. Though they frequently blasted the Emmys for ignoring “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Wire,” neither show won a single award from the Television Critics Association, except for Heritage Awards as consolation prizes after they went off the air. And despite their high scores, neither “Enlightened” nor “Justified” was nominated by the TCA this year.
Instead, the winners of TCA’s top prize, Program of the Year, indicate an organization often more interested in identifying current watercooler hits than in recognizing potential classics with staying power: consider that “The Wire” lost two of its three bids in that category to “American Idol” and “Heroes.”
The Critics’ Choice TV Awards, after three years still in their infancy, are presented by the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, a small-screen offshoot of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which has presented the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards since 1995. Already the CCTAs have shown a willingness to champion underdogs on the fringes of the TV conversation – like “Fringe,” for instance, as well as “Cougar Town” and 2012’s Best Comedy winner “Community.”
This year, Critics’ Choice, presenting their awards in the middle of the Emmy voting period, honored underdogs like Eden Sher (“The Middle“) and Michael Cudlitz (“Southland“), while both Critics’ Choice and the TCA singled out Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black“) and Monica Potter (“Parenthood“). Whether that recognition translates to Emmy nominations will depend, in large part, on whether voters unfamiliar with those shows were willing to watch them before filling out their ballots, due June 28.
In this age of DVRs, Netflix, and binge-watching, it’s increasingly possible for a voter to be a stranger to a show one day and a fan the next, which means it may also be possible that in coming years critics’ organizations could exert more influence than they have in the past.
Or perhaps that time has already come. We’ll find out in July if any of this year’s surprise critics’ choices also become surprise Emmy nominees.