What I learned from the 2012 Emmys: It’s the episodes, stupid

In 2010, Julianna Margulies had won a Golden Globe and SAG Award for the first season of “The Good Wife” and was favored to win the Emmy, but she submitted an underwhelming episode to Emmy judges. Most pundits predicted her to win anyway. She had the momentum.

But Kyra Sedgwick had the episode. The star of “The Closer” had previously lost four nominations, and her show had lost most of its media buzz from earlier seasons. The only thing working in her favor was her submission, which pundits generally agreed was the best in her category. And she won.

Last year, we expected slam-dunk wins by Steve Carell (“The Office“) and Jon Hamm (“Mad Men“), who had strong submissions. Both lost, as did Jane Lynch‘s who had a one-two punch – an emotional performance in her “Glee” submission, plus her hosting performance in Kristen Wiig‘s “Saturday Night Live” entry.

Melissa McCarthy‘s Best Comedy Actress upset for “Mike and Molly” was largely attributed to her success in “Bridesmaids.” Kyle Chandler‘s Best Drama Actor victory for “Friday Night Lights” seemed to be a sentimental choice.

The submissions, it seemed, didn’t matter as much after all.

But this year, the submissions certainly mattered. Those intangible, external factors that often play a major role in deciding other industry awards – momentum, history, sentimentality, veneration – mostly fell by the wayside. It’s the episodes, stupid.

And when I say stupid, I address mostly myself. For instance, after I watched Jon Cryer‘s Best Comedy Actor submission for “Two and a Half Men,” a sinking feeling set in. His performance in “Frodo’s Headshots” was the biggest and broadest in the category, full of screaming, suffering, a botched suicide attempt, and then an uplifting ending. I immediately moved him into second place in my predictions, behind “Louie‘s” Louis C.K. (whose performance in “Duckling” I still personally prefer), but then I chickened out and dropped him back down to third behind Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm“).

C.K. and David had the intangible factors on their side: cool factor (C.K. was the critics’ darling and an edgy TV auteur) and due factor (David had never won an award for “Curb”). All Cryer had was the broadest, showiest performance showcase in a category that usually favors the broadest, showiest performance showcase.

I had the right idea when predicting Best Drama Supporting Actor. “Breaking Bad” villain Giancarlo Esposito had the intangibles on his side as well, but I went out on a limb for his co-star Aaron Paul, who submitted “End Times,” an episode full of emotional fireworks in which he is grief-stricken over a poisoned child and holds Bryan Cranston at gunpoint. That submission won out.

So did Julie Bowen‘s. Her “Modern Family” entry, “Go Bullfrogs!,” featured a drunken Claire mistaking a straight friend for gay. That flamboyant turn trumped the emotion surrounding “Desperate Housewives” star Kathryn Joosten, a beloved Hollywood insider who recently died of cancer. It’s rare for the Emmys to bestow awards posthumously, as we have previously documented. Judging panels are notoriously unsentimental.

But alas, even if we more strictly focus on the submitted episodes, there’s still no foolproof method of predicting the Emmys. Categories are decided by separate judging panels, often with fewer than a hundred voters each. No two panels are exactly the same, and those panels change from year to year.

If, for instance, the same panel that awarded Bryan Cranston for the “Breaking Bad” episode “Full Measure” in 2010 had voted for Best Drama Actor this year, I suspect he would have won a fourth Emmy; I think his performance in this year’s submission, “Crawl Space,” was even better.

And though Maggie Smith‘s submitted “Downton Abbey” performances were reasonably competitive – thanks mostly to her co-star Joanne Froggatt, whose submission gave Smith more screentime than Smith’s own entry – her industry stature likely helped push her ahead of the more emotionally impactful performances of Froggatt and Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”).

Individual tastes may vary, and one cannot always account for the mercurial whims of judging panels – and it looks like “The Daily Show” could win Best Variety Series forever no matter what it submits – but when evaluating future Emmy races, we may all be well advised to put our Emmy blinders on.

Buzz didn’t help Esposito. Sentimentality didn’t help Joosten. Being overdue hasn’t helped Larry David, Steve Carell, Hugh Laurie, or Jon Hamm. Industry stature didn’t help Michael J. Fox in either guest-acting category. A history of repeated wins didn’t help Cranston this year, or Laura Linney last year. And momentum didn’t help Margulies in 2010.

When in doubt, stick with the old standbys: impact, range, and empathy.

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