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5 Things To Watch For On Monday's Emmy Awards

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play partner detectives Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart in HBO's <em>True Detective</em>, nominated in several major categories Monday night.<strong></strong>
Michele K. Short
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play partner detectives Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart in HBO's True Detective, nominated in several major categories Monday night.

Sure, some of the coverage so far has been about the fear that holding the Emmys on a Monday — and forcing the attendees to compete with weekday traffic — will create havoc. But one way or another, Seth Meyers is hosting the Emmy Awards on Monday night, and there are a few races that will be interesting to watch.

Now, the reason these races will be interesting is not that they mean anythingin terms of who is actually the best at anything. TheHollywood Reporterrecently got itself in a little hot water with a spread made up of what they called "24 Legendary Creators" of television, and elsewhere the makers of "trailblazing TV" — which in this case meant the creators of Emmy-winning shows. The problem? A picture of 23 white guys and Barbara Corday of Cagney & Lacey. Of course, as the magazine pointed out, they can't control who's won Emmys. (Fair.) But, as others pointed out, they control what visuals they choose to use, and the loose equating of greatness with the winning of Emmy Awards isn't self-evidently correct unless you believe the Emmy Awards are consistently good at recognizing the highest quality. Making Emmy winners the canon of great TV requires believing the Emmys are infallible.

Which, as fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Tatiana Maslany and any number of other shows and people will tell you, they are not.

So that's not the reason these races are interesting. What the Emmys do represent is a snapshot of what those folks willing to participate in a regulated viewing and voting panel believe television is — where they believe it's going, and what they believe it should recognize when given the chance.

1. Lead Actor In A Drama Series.The conventional wisdom is that this should come down to Bryan Cranston and Matthew McConaughey — Cranston for his final year in a role he's already won for three times, and McConaughey for a much-admired performance in a hot HBO property fronted by movie stars. (We all like to believe that as television has come to be as respected on many fronts as film when it comes to storytelling, TV people have gotten over their infatuation with visits from movie actors. It is sadly not the case.) But before you go flipping a coin, remember that there's also Woody Harrelson, who has a long history in TV before he went into film; Jon Hamm, who's on his seventh nomination for a consistently brilliant role for which he's never won; Kevin Spacey, who is widely admired and (once again) an actor from the movies; and Jeff Daniels, who won last year. (Remember? He won last year.)

Yes, McConaughey probably takes it. And if not him, then probably Cranston. But maybe somebody looks around, sees the part Jon Hamm has played in the development of high-end television in the past few years, and says, "Wait, that guy has neverwon?"

2. Outstanding Comedy Series.Modern Familyhas won four in a row now, despite much of its critical acclaim having worn off. (The same thing happened to The West Wingin its day.) The huge commercial juggernaut that is The Big Bang Theory, though nominated the last three years as well as this year,has thus far been boxed out over and over again.

Those two fairly conventional broadcast comedies are up again this year, as are the cable shows Veepand Louie, both strong and plausible contenders led by respected figures in comedy. HBO's Silicon Valleywould be a real dark horse, but perhaps the most likely disruptor of the Modern Familyempire is Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, which is in the running as a comedy.

3. Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series.This, again, has been a Modern Familycategory for years. This is the first year since Modern Familyhas been on the air, in fact, that it isn't occupying at least half the slots in the category. This year, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Ty Burrell are up against some very stiff competition: Tony Hale of Veep(who won last year), Adam Driver of Girls, Fred Armisen of Portlandia, and the remarkable Andre Braugher of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. A win for Braugher, who has a towering reputation in drama and is now doing excellent work on an excellent comedy, would be an absolute and utter delight.

4. Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series.Come on. Come on. Come on. Amy Poehler has never won. Come on. Stop being dumb. Amy Poehler. Come on.

OK, not everyone is enough of a Poehler fan to make that the reason to keep an eye on this race. But even if you're not, there's a fascinating range here, other than Poehler, from straight-up broad comedy (Melissa McCarthy in Mike and Molly) to wry premium cable comedy (Lena Dunham in Girlsand Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep) to barely comedy at all (Taylor Schilling in Orange Is the New Black) to, by her own admission when she won a couple of years ago, not comedy at all (Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie). The world of comedy actresses continues to be a tricky one in which to compete and a challenging one to predict.

5. Outstanding Drama Series. Breaking Badcould win. Game of Thronescould win. Mad Mendoesn't feel like it has the momentum, but it's certainly got the history (it won four times before Homelandbroke its streak in 2012, followed by Breaking Badlast year). Netflix fascination might drive folks toward House of Cards, though that feels like a bit of a long shot. Downton Abbey is perhaps the only one that feels like it can't really be in the running.

The favorite, I would say — and I base this on nothing but my gut — is HBO's True Detective, a show that only produced eight hours of television. Or what would, a few years ago, have been a miniseries.

In its Emmy package this year, The Good Wife — which didn't get nominated, leaving commercial broadcast TV out of the category entirely for the third year in a row — made a point of creating a little chart that showed how many episodes each show was making. It stressed that True Detectivemade only eight episodes, and that Mad Men actually only made seven this year and Breaking Bad eight, as a result of split seasons. It asked people, rather explicitly, to recognize that making a great show 22 times is inherently more difficult than making a great show eight times. Or seven times. Or even, like House of Cards, 13 times.

But it's an argument that broadcast is losing at the moment. When it comes to cable shows and number of episodes, how low can they go? It's not clear. The British model, toward which U.S. cable has been drifting, has always been shorter seasons, fewer episodes. More events, fewer institutions. But True Detective, asking a lean eight hours from its shiny Hollywood cast before rebooting with a new story and new faces, would make a new kind of Outstanding Drama Series — and, quite frankly, a new challenge for a show like The Good Wife that's trying to stay in the game.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.