Outstanding Emmy nominees signal a Great Leap Forward for television

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Flipping channels Monday night, I was amazed at what caught and held me. I stopped flipping for -- the Emmys! What the %&$#?@! I hate awards shows. I totally concede to the mavens who dismissed this year's Emmys compared to the Video Music Awards the night before on grounds of red carpet, performances and a dazzling ending with Beyoncé en famille.

What gripped me in the Emmys was the list of nominees (excluding categories like Outstanding Hairstyling in a Single Camera Miniseries). I don't even care who won. Winning is usually a lottery based on criteria like vote-splitting among other contenders and sentiment. (Breaking Bad was an inevitable winner because it ended this year.)

Sherlock got the most awards and it's a shockingly good show. But it's the competition that's stunning: Fargo, Luther, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc. There are literally too many to list. Here's the WTF component: TV used to be utterly low-rent in the cultural environment. "Film" (not movies) was the serious arena. Once in awhile something good snuck through on U.S. TV, usually sitcoms like Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers or Big Bang Theory but even earnest shows that aimed high, like Hill Street Blues long ago, never dared much. TV did better when it aimed modestly: The Rockford Files then, NCIS recently.

What accounts for the Great Leap Forward? There's the liberating role of cable: it frees TV from total dependence on ads and from the Grundyesque standards of network bosses. Modern Family, a network show, beat Veep for best comedy but it's so self-consciously daring. Veep hammers it for audacity and hilarity. It makes Modern Family look priggish.

There's also the Brit factor. U.S. actors excelled on the big screen, where you could radiate supersized star power. They were less good at playing with others. Brits do it brilliantly because they all come through a theatre tradition reaching back to Shakespeare, where actors depend on each other. U.S. actors tend to do star turns in turn, like Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. But Sherlock and Watson's most recent final scene (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) was utterly mutual. You can see they adore each other's work as they're doing it. Now Brits are being imported to help U.S. actors up their game, like Freeman in Fargo -- which bested the movie in my view, partly since it lacked the sniggering at bumpkin accents by the Coen brothers.

There's also the accidental discovery that TV combines the virtues of film (live presences with all their density and nuance versus the limited resources of wordy descriptions in literature) with those of the novel: complexity, length, an ability to digress and return at a leisurely pace.

This isn't so much a new golden age of TV (every age tends to call itself that, it's a sign of our endearing narcissism) as a new golden age of culture. It's striking that it occurs simultaneously with an apparent decline of print and literature -- culture's gold standard for so long. It's like a demise of the written and an energized return of the oral repressed. Not the old oral tradition: TV isn't interactive between cast and audience as theatre was, but a new kind, especially among the young who watch these shows online, study them as one used to explore books and interact with each other about them. Take the online debate over sexism in recent seasons of Doctor Who, and whether last week's episode, introducing Peter Capaldi, overcame that trait by casting an older doctor.

This wasn't expected or predicted. It's delightful how change -- of an encouraging sort -- happens. Just when you thought TV was an eternal cesspool (or wasteland as it was politely called), along comes this year's Emmys with its fine array. It's particularly intriguing how the young have embraced the new TV. You could call them literate but not print-oriented, as previous generations (and centuries) were. The brilliant Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion in Game of Thrones, is 46 and a reader but he chose not to read those volumes before playing the part. That might have drawn frowns in an earlier era. There's something happening here but we don't yet know what it is.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: King-of-Herrings/flickr

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