Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman is a new kind of television heroine for a new era of television. Playing a grandfather who comes out to his family as a transgender in Transparent. Tambor is embracing a part that is close to his heart, and extremely personal for show creator Jill Soloway. But beyond that, Maura is also a potent symbol for a television landscape that is itself in the middle of a dramatic transition. As Soloway put it ‘I feel like I’m a part of this creative revolution’. And for the 68th Primetime Emmy awards, the challenge was to reflect that revolution.
In 2013, Netflix won the first-ever Emmy for a streaming service; the following year’s Transparent put Amazon Studios on the awards map by taking home surprise Golden Globe statutes for the show and for Tambor. It barely matters where television comes from anymore, or the size of the screen on which it’s viewed. Broadcast, public television, basic cable, premium cable, subscription, streaming, web-based, who cares? The Emmys cast a wide net, and the competition is bursting with shoes from avenues that would have been unimaginable only eight years ago.
Eight years ago Mad Men premiered and won the first program Emmy that ever went to a basic-cable series, against a field heavily weighted toward broadcast networks. And now Matthew Weiner’s show is in its final season, competing one last time in an era which no broadcast network has ever been nominated in the top drama category in four years. This is a television landscape we couldn’t have imagined any more than Don Draper could have imagined the Internet and President Hillary Clinton.
Emmy voters are famously creatures of habit, which means that old timers like Don Draper may still have the edge over newcomers like Maura Pfefferman. Or do they? Are the Netflix wins last year a sign that things are cracking? Or was the fourth straight comedy series victory for Modern Family just as reliable an indicator that those cracks don’t run too deep?
In the comedy-series categories, common sense says that Modern Family’s winning streak (five years and counting) has to eventually come to an end. But last year’s seemingly strongest challenger, Orange is the new black, has been pushed to the drama categories by new Emmy rules, perhaps opening the door for HBO’s Veep or Silicon Valley, for FX’s Louie, for NBC’s Parks and Recreation or CBS’s The Big Bang Theory or just as likely for Transparent or Netflix’s The Unbreakable skinny Schmidt to steal the biggest ever for streaming show.
On the drama side, meanwhile, the juggernaut that was Breaking Bad is gone, which could allow the final seasons of Mad Men to claim the prize that was eluded it since 2011, when it scored the last of its four consecutive wins. But voters seem to have cooled on the show, so unless Weiner sticks the landing the way Vince Gillian did with Breaking Bad, there could be a real opportunity here for Netflix and House of Cards, for HBO and Game of Thrones, for PBS and Downtown Abbey or just maybe, for the broadcast networks to reclaim the territory they once owned by scoring a victory for Fox’s Empire or CBS’s The Good Wife.
That’s the great beauty of this Emmy season: for once, almost anything seems possible. In this state of transition, great TV can come from anywhere. Maybe voters will care where they came from and maybe they won’t, we will find out in a few days.