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Sci-Fi / Fantasy and the Emmy Awards

The Academy's troubled relationship with genre shows

By

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hates sci-fi and fantasy. There, I said it.

This statement might seem unfair to some, and self-evident to others. It’s worth looking at just how far the Emmys have gone in failing to recognize science fiction and fantasy, and whether there’s been any change.

The three main dramatic categories – best drama and lead actor/actress – set the scene, and it’s not pretty. Over the last forty years the closest thing we get to a best-drama win for a show with anything close to a sci-fi or fantasy pedigree is Lost, which won in 2005 for drama and directing, and Lost is more of a psychological thriller than an actual genre drama.

In acting, Gillian Anderson’s 1997 win for X-Files stands almost alone; before that we have to go back to 1977 when Lindsay Wagner won for (the original) The Bionic Woman. It’s been so long, they’ve doing the reboot.

In forty years, no guys have won the best acting nod at all.

Few Wins in Other Categories

Science fiction and fantasy don’t make it to the summit very often. Perhaps they’re better represented in the less visible categories? Not really.

Emmy awards for writing and directing are as rare as acting wins. The X-Files, one of the best written shows on television regardless of genre, managed one writing Emmy in 1996; its equally provocative directing was ignored. Does Six Feet Under (which won for directing in 2002) count because the dead father hung around? In that case, half of all literature counts too, starting with Hamlet.

It turns out that genre dramas’ most reliable recognition is for guest starring roles. And by reliable, I mean it happens once a decade. Peter Boyle won for X-Files in 1996; before that it was John Lithgow for Amazing Stories in 1986. And Mariette Hartley won for guesting in The Incredible Hulk in 1979. Here we are in the renaissance of supernatural TV, and it was better recognized in the 1970s.

But visual effects always go to genre shows, right? It’s true that when the field is all sci-fi, one of them has to win. If there’s an intruder, though, watch out. The last visual effects Emmy went to Rome. The very first visual effects Emmy field, in 1998, included Stargate SG-1, Enterprise, and Voyager, and the winner was Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach.

Nominations, Please

Emmy nominations for sci-fi and fantasy are hardly more prevalent than the wins.

In the top categories, what stands out are the 2004 nominations for best drama and actress for Joan of Arcadia. True, it’s pretty nonthreatening – like Early Edition, the hero had no powers of her own, but got divine promptings. Still Joan’s nomination indicates that occasionally the Academy notices a show not in the Nielson winner’s circle. Or maybe they just liked the theme song.

The notable nomination in writing is Joss Whedon’s, for Buffy in 2000. Fans will guess it was for “Hush,” the episode in which no one can speak – a brilliant example of the often-forgotten truism that screenwriting is not even primarily about dialog. To be honest it's still weird to see the words Buffy The Vampire Slayer on the Emmy list – but then “Hush” was such as singular achievement that it had to receive notice. Not a win, mind you. But noticed.

For directing, the pickings are thin. How often do you see Steven Spielberg lose for directing? (He was beat out an Amazing Stories directing nod in 1986 by Cagney & Lacey.)

A directing nomination for Lois and Clark in 1994 is a head-scratcher: Lois and Clark was a fun show, and I’m normally one of its defenders against those who want to blot it from Superman canon. But even I admit it was not generally up to the level of quality achieved by earlier or later superhero dramas, and the directing in particular was often downright perfunctory. Robert Butler’s nod here was for the pilot, though, which was superior to some of what came after.

Beyond that, the nominations mostly amount to the times Gillian Anderson and Chris Carter didn’t win for X-Files, and a handful of nominations for Touched by an Angel.

Quantum Trip

It’s forgotten now that Quantum Leap is also in the select group of perennial supernatural/sci-fi Emmy also-rans: Scott Bakula was nominated in 1990 and 1991, and Dean Stockwell got supporting actor nods in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. The show itself was up for best drama in 1990, 1991, and 1992 in tough fields that included shows like China Beach, Twin Peaks, thirtysomething, Northern Exposure, and the winner each time, Emmy favorite L.A. Law. In the end, Quantum took home six creative Emmys (for cinematography, editing, makeup, and hairstyling[!]), but nothing for acting, directing, or writing.

Before Quantum is a two-decade gulf before we reach, in 1967 and 1968, an occurrence that would seem strange today: best drama nominations for a show that was both low-rated and flat-out science fiction, Star Trek. It lost both times to Mission: Impossible, which I can reconcile myself to easily enough (the two shows were born and raised together on the Desilu lot).

The Emmys So Far

I think it’s clear that the Emmy nominations and wins demonstrate a longstanding antipathy for science fiction and fantasy. We’re ten years into a new era in science fiction and fantasy television. But so far the Emmy Awards have been resolutely looking the other way, storing their sci-fi DVDs in a drawer marked “ignore.” The perception that genre shows are poorly written and acted, which is as dated as Captain Video, is circularly reinforced by the Emmy shut-out.

What do I think should have been at least nominated? Battlestar Galactica, for one – writing, directing, acting, and effects are all outstanding, but it’s been nominated only for effects and costume and has lost every time. John Schneider and John Glover deserved at least supporting actor nominations for Smallville. Stargate SG-1 has had some remarkable episodes, and all of Firefly was remarkable (Firefly did at least win for effects in 2003). There’s more genre television out there, of higher quality, than ever before. But so far the Emmy voters have been off in their own world.

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