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06: Why TV’s “Fringe” will never win an Emmy

June 28, 2011

First off, J.J. Abrams deserves a round of applause for “Lost.” Let’s put aside the one season that wasn’t very good and the finale that left much to be desired. Let’s instead applaud J.J. Abrams for successfully setting up a dramatic, well-written TV show that earned critical acclaim in its first few seasons before he completely pulled the rug from under the Academy’s feet; all along, they’d been watching science fiction.

In recent years, geekdom has become more and more accepted as the norm on television. Long gone are days when all a genre show needed were spaceships and spandex. Today we have quirky, gritty shows like “Firefly,” epic character dramas like “Battlestar Galactica,” and gripping thrillers like “Fringe.” But despite the popularity of speculative fiction, genre shows seldom receive accolades or even acknowledgement from the shadowed figures at the Academy.

“Fringe” has been likened to a mash-up of “The X-Files” and “The Twilight Zone,” following FBI agents assigned to the “freaky cases” that have no scientific explanation. With “Fringe,” Abrams learned from mistakes made in “Lost.” Gone are the mysteries that go unanswered for years on end, as are the vague explanations that leave only more questions. This show weaves a compelling arc while retaining episodic coherence and has plenty of “Whoa! Did they just do that?” moments.

Even the acting is fantastic, with Anna Torv as lead FBI agent Olivia Dunham. And also as Olivia Dunham with a completely different personality from an alternate universe. And as Olivia Dunham as possessed by William Bell (Leonard Nimoy). Audiences will also recognize John Noble from his role as Denethor in “The Lord of the Rings”, but now playing a loveable but slightly mad scientist in one of the show’s stand-out performances.

Yet over the course of its three seasons – the show becoming more refined as it went on – the series received no substantial Emmy nods. What’s more disturbing is the pattern this paints for the genre.

The Academy recognizes genre shows (by which I mean any show that falls into a sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative fiction category) most often, and often exclusively, for their technological achievements. In 2009 and 2010, “Fringe” received nominations for outstanding special effects and outstanding sound editing, respectively. Similarly, “Battlestar Galactica,” a show more commonly referred to as a “character drama but on a spaceship,” received both aforementioned awards as well as a creative Emmy award  for one of its featurettes.

“Lost” is a curious case of sci-fi. In fact, some fans cheekily call it “sly-fi” for its sneaky foray into science fiction. The first season received two big Emmys for both outstanding directing and outstanding drama. But as the years went on and the story catered to a more genre audience, the number of nominations dwindled (until the final season), as did the awards (of which the final season received none).  Some argued the show went downhill, or there were legitimately better contenders, which could very well be the case in some categories. However, the record shows most speculative television programming is simply passed over for major nominations.

Discrimination against genre doesn’t end at TV awards. Fans were outraged by the Academy’s snub of Christopher Nolan for Best Director on “Dark Knight” as well as “Inception.” A glance at the awards list continues the troubling pattern – wins only in sound editing and visual effects.

This isn’t to say those awards weren’t well-deserved. Often, speculative fiction relies heavily on visual effects in order to sell a story, whether it’s set on a spaceship, in a bizarre dreamscape, or an alternate universe. It’s like how awards for Best Costume only go to period pieces and stuff directed by Tim Burton. Difference is, the Academy loves to give awards to period pieces and stuff directed by Tim Burton. Nevermind that it’s the same quirky movie with the same quirky actors all over again.

The Academy needs to realize genre shows and movies no longer have a niche audience. Some of the most anticipated recent movies have been “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” and yes, even “Harry Potter.” This isn’t to say the Academy Awards should be a popularity contest, even though – well – they kind of already are. But sometimes, I just think the Academy is confused – they don’t nominate science fiction for categories because they’re not sure yet if an “Outstanding Drama” can also be science fiction.

The other day, I went into a Blockbuster, looking specifically for the sci-fi section. The guy behind the counter told me they’d gotten rid of it and filed the movies into Drama, Comedy, and Family. I take this as a good sign – one that means the genre is being taken more seriously. That someday “Star Wars” and “Schindler’s List” will stand beside one another and be looked upon as equals. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but my point remains.

As for “Fringe,” there may be hope on the horizon. John Noble, famously snubbed for an Emmy last year, has received very vocal support from “Fringe” fans that have called for his nomination for “Outstanding Supporting Actor” in 2011. With announcements for Emmy nominations looming in July, genre fans can only cross their fingers and hope that good writing, acting, and directing does not go unnoticed again.

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