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Forget Netflix: The Real Problem With This Year's Emmy Nominations

After much hubbub over the potential for Netflix to further shake up the television landscape with Emmy nods for its original programming, the dust has settled and “House of Cards” reliably prevailed. The series picked up nine nominations in big-ticket categories such as outstanding drama series, lead actor in a drama series for Kevin Spacey, and lead actress for Robin Wright. Already the headlines have proclaimed the onset of a new cultural era. “Upstart Roils Nerves in a Packed TV Race,” announced Bill Carter’s headline in yesterday’s Times. “House of Cards Makes History,” said CBS News this morning.

But despite all the commotion over the new platform, “House of Cards” looks resolutely conventional alongside the other nominees, similarly glossy, epic tales with complicated antiheroes and dense plots: “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” “Homeland.” After the nominations were announced this morning, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Brian Stelter: “In a way, it solidifies that television is television, no matter what pipe brings it to the screen.” Sure, television is television, but the divide between the drama and the comedy categories has become the Emmys’ biggest glitch.

The debate about the creative freedom afforded by cable vs. the limitations imposed by network TV has raged for years around the drama category. When the Emmys first began including cable shows in 1988, and cable began its ascent to Emmy dominance with "The Sopranos" at the helm, executives for network dramas complained that they were at a disadvantage. Bill Carter points out in his Times story that one executive for “NYPD Blue” argued in the early ’90s that he dealt with limitations far more oppressive than what the “The Sopranos” ever had to face. But now network drama has clearly lapsed from the Emmy radar; a network show hasn’t won best drama since “24” in 2006. In the comedy division, meanwhile, which "Modern Family" has dominated in recent years, network and cable shows still jostle for recognition. Even with Netflix in the mix, the drama category actually affords a relatively level playing field: the elaborately produced “House of Cards” looks no different from an HBO or AMC series, and Netflix similarly imposes very few creative strictures. So comedy, not drama, is the category where we see the tension between creative freedom and limitations play out most concretely.

In this year’s “best comedy” bracket, the inclusion of “Louie” is perhaps the biggest surprise. Shows like “Louie” and “Girls” sit uneasily alongside the flashier, jokier “Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family,” “30 Rock,” and “Veep.” The comedy category has long been frustratingly miscellaneous. Edie Falco was nominated four times in a row—and won once—for “Nurse Jackie,” a raw and intense dramatic performance. Shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Ugly Betty,” and “Ally McBeal” have picked up Emmy nominations, but their hour-long dramedy structure is a totally different species than the half-hour network sitcom. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been nominated for 38 Emmys and won only one, for best direction of a single episode, in a field that also included “Sex and the City” and “Will and Grace.” It is hard to overstate how unequal all these shows are, and how fruitless it feels to compare them. Laura Dern’s nomination as best actress in a comedy series for “Enlightened” was a pleasant surprise. But Dern’s Amy looks particularly sharp-edged and unfunny against golden retrievers like Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon.

Despite an Emmy campaign from Netflix that included planting promotional posters in lawns, “Arrested Development” didn’t get a nod for best comedy. (It did get nominations for Jason Bateman as lead actor in a comedy series, along with music composition and single-camera picture editing.) But its absence from the category is a good thing. How to judge its strange, knotty humor alongside the bubblegum yuks of “Big Bang Theory” and the dire cringe-comedy of “Girls”? At least if “House of Cards” beats “Mad Men,” it'll feel like a fair match.