How to Come to Terms with a Showbiz Award Injustice

The Set

Entertainment award shows: On the surface, they combine the pleasure of judging fancy outfits with the thrill of rooting for unpredictable outcomes as though at a sporting event. But just as with football games, we ordinary civilians can only watch helplessly, unable to affect the winners' and losers' fortunes in any way. When you think about award shows in those terms, it's kind of remarkable that we watch them at all.

Participating in award-show pools can help mitigate fans' pain: Instead of getting overly invested in the prospects of our most beloved stars, we transfer our hopes to the ones we think are more likely to win, regardless of our feelings for them. But with last night's Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, many viewers would have picked the same person as both odds-on AND sentimental favorite: Steve Carell. The actor has been nominated for his portrayal of Michael Scott on "The Office" every year since the series premiered in 2005; having departed the series this spring, last night presented Emmy voters with their final opportunity to give Carell an award for the role. And, as my esteemed colleague Dave Nemetz noted last night, they did not take it.

Fans of Carell's Michael Scott — Carell's greatest comic creation and a character that will probably live on forever in the pantheon of television history — probably reacted to Carell's loss of the Lead Actor Emmy to Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" much as Carell's wife, Nancy Walls, did (that's her giving Parsons the death glare in the screen shot up top). But when a clear injustice like this occurs, it can be a blessing in a very good disguise, by reminding viewers at home that the Emmy awards do not matter.

I mean, okay, for continuing shows, the Emmys do probably affect shows' budgets and stars' salaries. But do they matter for the average viewer? No.

Let's take Carell's loss as a case study. Other than enraging his wife, his co-star, and one of his former producers on his behalf, how did Carell's loss affect him? In terms of his career, he probably has about as much marquee value as a seven-time nominee as he would as a one-time winner. Anyway, the days when Emmy honors carried as much weight as ratings — or more — are far behind us. If "The Office" did not have an audience, "The Office" would not be on the air, no matter how much voters fêted it.

Furthermore, consider the actors who've won the Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy over the years: It's a rogues' gallery that includes Tony Shalhoub for "Monk" (was that show funny EVER?), Ray Romano for "Everybody Loves Raymond" (sure, that's a fellow known for his acting range), and John Lithgow for "3rd Rock from the Sun" (hack-a-doodle-doo!). For Carell not to count himself in their company is maybe not the worst thing.

Furthermore, the nature of television means that the same people — deserving or not — tend to get nominated over and over again by the voting membership, who like to reward the sorts of things they've seen before and the people they're familiar with. (I would even say the "Modern Family" near-sweep is evidence of voters' herd mentality and/or heedless endorsement of a show's "ticket." I mean, did Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell really win because they were the best representatives of the show, or because their names came first on the alphabetized ballot?) The most damning proof of this tendency came a few years ago when Ellen Burstyn was nominated for her performance — if a 14-second-long cameo can really be called "a performance" — in the HBO movie "Mrs. Harris." Had voters seen the film when they nominated her? I'm going to guess no. But they sure knew Burstyn was an Oscar winner whose TV slumming shouldn't go unrecognized.

As for how this affects fans: Does Carell's having lost the Emmy last night mean you like his work on "The Office" any less? Do you require corroboration from some sexagenarian who wrote incidental music on "Kojak" to validate your TV tastes? To me, the fact that the award in Carell's category went to the star of such a middle-of-the-road show confirms the middle-of-the-road tastes of Emmy voters, in general. (Again: "Modern Family" sweep.) And I know the opposite example everyone always cites is how "Cheers" got a second season after it cleaned up at the Emmys after its so-so first, but it's been a very long time since Emmy success led to further longevity for a show on the bubble: Now those shows get canned before they air enough episodes to qualify for posthumous Emmys anyway.

I used to be a slavish fan of showbiz award shows: throwing viewing parties, stumping for my favorite nominees, and getting incensed over snubs. But then I realized that every time a "Parks & Recreation," for example, goes home empty-handed despite being the best sitcom on network television, Academy voters were doing me a favor. They freed me from the illusion that any of these award shows is meaningful or important.