The Emmys have been lost in the wilderness from day one - The Buffalo News
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The Emmys have been lost in the wilderness from day one

Call it episode 8 of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return" saga on Showtime – its actual title was "Gotta light?" But that's what we watchers are calling it. It was, three weeks ago, a historic moment in television history.

Quite a few of us scored it that way after watching it in dumbfounded awe. We gathered to talk about it in the town square we're all congregating in for instant communication: social media. A horde of dropped-jaw TV watchers did their best to convey to each other how much their gasts had been flabbered. However, then when you're as flabbergasted as we were, we weren't quite up to the immediate expressive challenge.

The best I could do was to say that it was a historic TV moment when avant-garde cinema completely overtook a major prime-time network. Episode 8, presumably, had something to do with the bomb in the '50s liberating all of the show's multi-dimensional folderol but what we saw for a full hour was non-representational, abstract art cinema that might have been created by great cinematic avant-gardists such as Stan Brakhage and Ed Emshwiller. (Artists Buffalo knows better than most cities after all those years of Gerald O'Grady's media studies empire riding high.)

Unfortunately, a lot of the claims Lynch made on our imaginations in his rebooted "Twin Peaks" are going to be shoved aside this weekend when the 900-pound canary of premium cable television returns to deliver its thunderous Sunday chirp – HBO's "Game of Thrones," the show even former President Barack Obama admitted to watching religiously.

The reason I can't get "Episode 8" out of my head is that history is where it is bound to remain, a dark obscure corner when something gloriously brave and weird had happened that only a few mind-blown people saw (and no one could have anticipated). It is now, almost literally, hallucinatory.

"Episode 8" will never be remembered by any Emmy broadcast – great moments in television often aren't. No award in our award-infested culture is more subject to getting it clubby but wrong than the Emmys.

For every huge O.J. mini-series that, quite rightly, captures both awards and America's television imagination, there are vast expanses of television that television's Emmys never heard of.

It has always been thus. The Emmy nominations always are a little ridiculous and always have been. It was that way back in the Jurassic era. And now that TV networks and new TV shows are sprouting right and left from every home appliance but your electric toothbrush, they're more out of touch than ever.

In a story our newspaper printed on Friday, a Los Angeles Times reporter matter-of-factly noted that Carrie Fisher's hilarious and harrowing one-woman show "Wishful Drinking" on HBO "was (once) nominated for outstanding variety, music or comedy but lost in its category to 'The Kennedy Special Honors.' "

We're not even talking about apples and oranges here. We're talking about apples and flagpoles.

Say what? What single category could possibly make sense including both "Wishful Drinking" and "The Kennedy Center Honors?"

But then that's the way the Emmys have always rolled. Johnny Carson was routinely beaten out by Leonard Bernstein's latest Young People's Special.

Emmy categories only make sense to a television academy trying to get everybody in. The new age of streaming and omni-television makes it about 100 times more difficult than it was when Bernstein and Barbra Streisand were making Emmy-bait specials.

A current category called Unstructured Reality Program includes "Born This Way," "Deadliest Catch," "Gaycation with Ellen Page," "Intervention," "RuPaul's Drag Race: Untucked" and "United States of America: With W. Kamau Bell." The whole thing sounds like a nightmare Mike Pence once had after having too many spicy meatballs at dinner.

We're lucky at the Emmys in one way this year. The Trump effect will provide enormous concentration and clarity in places where there usually is none. The single most stunning moment of 2016 was Kate McKinnon's cold opening of "Saturday Night Live" as Hillary Clinton sitting at the piano singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

At that moment, when two pieces of wrenching American history collided by chance – Clinton's surprise loss and Cohen's death – McKinnon reminded us all of the former genius of "Saturday Night Live," which possesses an ability to do things such as combine such disparate pieces of public life into one coherent and moving statement.

What we still don't know about that is where the idea came from. If it was all McKinnon – idea and performance –there aren't enough Emmy Awards in the world to reward her adequately.

As it is, the Trump effect caused "Saturday Night Live" to sing its own kind of Hallelujah Chorus this year. America's current political insanity gave "SNL" its most important and topical season in decades.

The other Emmy earthshaker besides our political life was the cable TV game-changer "Big Little Lies" from HBO, in which Reese Witherspoon announced conclusively to the world that major American female movie stars of a certain age – Oscar winners among them – may have told the boys in the stinking high school gym of American studio production to shove off, they'll take their best work and highest professional ambitions to TV from now on.

Playing Virginia Woolf was one kind of ambition for a younger Nicole Kidman. Playing a maritally trapped domestic abuse victim in a horrible and complex marriage in "Big Little Lies" was quite another. It was stunning in a new way.

It's the year of McKinnon and Kidman; of Emmy Awards that, when they come, may actually mean something.

If they don't, institutional irrelevance will have gained a new plateau. After those Emmys, frankly, I don't care who they give the prizes to. The television academy, after all, is an institution so in love with HBO and FX and so traditionally dismissive of Showtime that they really think "Feud" and "Westworld" were better shows than Showtime's "Billions."

At least Leonard Bernstein's ghost wasn't in that category.

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