A few days ago The Wire posed the question of why comics like Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, and "Portlandia"'s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were submitting themselves to the Emmy nominations process as supporting performers. Surely the star of "Inside Amy Schumer" is a lead performer on the series that bears her own name, isn't she?
Turns out Emmy rules consider a variety show's cast to be all equals, so none of the performers can submit themselves as leads. But it also looked like a good strategic move, since otherwise, these performers would be competing in the lead category alongside such popular hosts as Jon Stewart and David Letterman.
Such are the strange hoops your favorite stars will have to jump through in order to compete for Emmys when the networks submit ballots to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on June 20, and when the Academy, in turn, announces the Emmy nominations on July 10.
It's not just the performers who have to decide how best to position themselves. So do the shows' networks. Would "True Detective" fare better as a drama series or a mini-series? (HBO will submit it as a drama, even though it could have emulated FX's "American Horror Story" and compete in the less crowded mini-series field.) Is "Shameless" a comedy or a drama? (Showtime submitted it as the former for its first three seasons, but the darker recent season is competing as the latter.) Same question for "Orange Is the New Black," which Netflix submitted as a drama to the Golden Globes but a comedy to the Emmys.
Maybe HBO was smart to keep "True Detective" out of the Mini-Series category, which now looks increasingly overstuffed. After all, even though FX has submitted "American Horror Story" as a mini-series instead of a drama for the last couple seasons, it still keeps losing out to HBO's movies ("Game Change" in 2012, "Behind the Candelabra" last year). Besides, "American Horror Story" will be competing against fellow FX show "Fargo" for mini-series trophies; woe unto the FX functionary who has to decide which of the network's two shows to favor with more promotional money and publicity. (Same to whoever at Netflix has to divvy up the Emmy promotional push behind "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black," though submitting "Orange" as a comedy will keep it out of direct competition for awards against the clearly dramatic "Cards.")
New Emmy rules this year are adding further categories -- and further complications. The Academy is splitting up Best Movie or Mini-Series into two categories, but just for the program itself; performers and crew for TV movies will still be competing against their mini-series counterparts. (Also, there may now be as many as six people in each of those categories instead of five, while regular dramas and comedies are expanding their fields to include up to seven series each.) Outstanding Reality Program (an award for reality shows that aren't competitions) is splitting into two parts: Structured (shows that are format-driven, like "Mythbusters") and Unstructured (personality-driven shows like "Duck Dynasty"). And the Academy will now distinguish among voiceover performers, separating narrators from actors.
Other positioning moves that are making Emmy observers scratch their heads: Hannibal Lector portrayer Mads Mikkelsen submitted himself as a supporting player last year on "Hannibal," which may have been appropriate, given his limited screen time on the show, but this year, he seems to have noticed that his character's name is the title of the show, and he's choosing to compete as a lead. (There's a classy precedent for this move; in the 1991 Oscars, Anthony Hopkins competed as a lead actor for his portrayal of Lector in "Silence of the Lambs" and won, despite his similarly limited screen time in the film.)
Meanwhile, "The Good Wife" is coming off a game-changing season, but series regular Alan Cumming doesn't appear to be included on CBS' ballot for the show. Did he choose not to compete? Did someone at the network forget to include him?
Will all this repositioning and hoop-jumping will help shows and performers win in categories perceived to be weak? Not necessarily, but neither is the Academy likely to penalize anybody for taking advantage of quirks in the rules. After all, these oddities reflect a larger confusion –- among Academy members, networks, show creators, and viewers –- as to what defines a drama or comedy, a longform or shortform show, or a recurring series or a mini-series in this day and age. At a time when a single season of a show can take anywhere from one night to two years to air, the entire structure of television programming is in a massive state of flux. The Academy can scramble with rule changes and additional categories, but definitions of form and genre are mutating faster than the Academy can keep up.
Gallery | TV Shows Airing Final Seasons in 2014-2015
Image courtesy of James Bridges / HBO