Every year when the big awards for mass culture roll around, everyone gets heated, not just about the various academies’ choices, but about the inadequacies of the categories themselves. Do shows such as “True Detective” or “American Horror Story,” both of which reset with new characters and a new plot every season, belong in a drama or a miniseries category? What counts as a lead or supporting performances in the growing roster of shows that are genuinely anchored by ensemble performances?
So before the Emmy Awards air tonight, here are five awards I wish it was possible for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to hand out, and the people I would have selected to win each of them. I picked the categories to honor both the collaborative spirit in which television is made and which distinguishes the medium from other artistic endeavors, and to recognize some of the most exciting trends in television at the moment.
1. Outstanding Collaboration, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga, “True Detective”: What makes television special — the rise of the superstar showrunner aside — is that it is made by groups of people working together. Sometimes, that means a room full of writers figuring out what makes the voices of their characters distinct, and then each finding a way to make those characters come alive. Sometimes it is a matter of a director working to execute a showrunner’s vision, as Paris Barclay has done so long with biker drama “Sons of Anarchy.” But it is a relatively new phenomenon for viewers to be able to recognize the unique style a director brings to a television episode, and even rarer for a single writer and single director to create a unified vision that carries over from episode to episode.
This year, a prize for collaboration should go to Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of “True Detective,” and his collaborator Cary Fukunaga. In circumstances unusual for an American television show, Pizzolatto wrote every episode of the first season, while Fukunaga directed every one. These men brought their strong artistic visions — Pizzolatto’s talent for genre pastiche and Fukunaga’s atmospheric landscape cinematography — together to produce an undeniably distinct show.
2. Outstanding Casting of Young Actors, Ross Meyerson and Rori Bergman, “The Americans”: We are in the middle of an amazing run of child acting on television and in the movies. I think it is worth recognizing that it takes particular talent to spot potential in actors without long resumes, and to find young actors who are going to continue to perform well in an ongoing series even as they age.
In previous years, I might have given this prize to the folks who cast “Game of Thrones,” which has an astonishingly broad cast and is getting terrific performances out of the younger members of its cast, including Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner as the Stark sisters. But this time around, I think recognition should go to Ross Meyerson and Rori Bergman for turning up Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati, who did breakout work as Paige and Henry Jennings, suburban Maryland children who are, unbeknownst to them, the progeny of deep-cover KGB spies.
3. Outstanding Achievement in Action Directing, Michelle MacLaren: Television prizes tend to be given for work on an individual show. But given that television directors often work on multiple shows, it might make sense to give some prizes for a body of directing work in a single year. This year, I would single out Michelle MacLaren for her work on both “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.” Cable television has a license to be exceptionally violent, but MacLaren is the rare director with a real sense of flare for executing that violence on screen and for bringing out the emotions that such cataclysms occasion.
4. Best Ensemble Performance, “Orange Is the New Black”: Lead and supporting categories are frustratingly limited in their ability to truly recognize the achievements of shows that are effectively giving us interlinking short stories featuring a huge number of characters. The two best examples of these kinds of shows are “Game of Thrones” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Right now, I would give a slight edge to the latter. “Game of Thrones” has a lot of characters who never really get developed, but “Orange Is the New Black” gives all of its characters opportunities, and there is not an actor in the cast who does not jump on what is thrown at them as though it is a gourmet meal and they are starving.
5. Executives of the Year, FX’s John Landgraf and CBS’s Nina Tassler: We talk a lot about the creative visions that produce great television, and I am all for honoring them. But a changing business model, in which a smaller audience and new platforms can keep shows afloat that might have died swift deaths in previous years, is a contributor, too. Television audiences are savvier about these issues than they were in the past, and we should honor the executives who find ways to make great shows successful.
My nominees would be FX’s John Landgraf and CBS’s Nina Tassler. I do not love every show FX puts on the air, but Landgraf’s gems, including “The Americans,” “Louie,” new comedy “You’re the Worst,” and on its best days, “The Bridge,” really sparkle. Tassler’s network gets a lot of flak for attracting an old audience, but even spinoffs such as “NCIS: New Orleans,” which premieres this fall, have pop, and she dares to put out some of the best dramatic programming on network television, including “The Good Wife,” “Person of Interest” and the promising new cop show “Battle Creek.”