I always wondered why the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program was never part of the televised awards ceremony. Obviously there are time constraints, but in this golden age of television where the genres of shows are becoming more fluid in their definitions, animation thrives as much or more than others. What was once easily defined as typical kid-friendly fare that adults could watch is now much more complex.
Looking back two years ago, Rick and Morty‘s win for such a clever episode felt just in line with the some of the newer developments in animation. However, last year’s winner, The Simpsons, threw a puzzling retro vibe into the animation race. Don’t get me wrong. I loved The Simpsons for years and still enjoy watching many older seasons but is anyone really talking about the show anymore? Even looking at reviews for the episode submitted, it seemed to never elevate higher than average. This came in a year when Big Mouth received a nomination along with, for the first time in its five years, Bojack Horseman, a show that is arguably one of the most critically acclaimed shows to emerge over the last few years.
So why did The Simpsons win? With the Emmys, being a previous winner is of course the best way to win another Emmy. The Simpsons, South Park and, in recent years, Bob’s Burgers have been the most consistent animation nominees at the Emmys. They have made some great seasons of television, but their time seems to be fading in terms of cultural and critical notice, yet they stay in competition. Name recognition and ease of watching these straight up comedies contributed to the wins over their deeper competition: Rick and Morty with its off the wall very dark humor about existence, Bojack Horseman with its heavy melancholy, or Big Mouth with its discussions of teenagers dealing with their hormones in such a realistic way that many could find uncomfortable.
As well as turning some people off, the edgier, darker content causes division in those that want to award more “innovative” animation. Which show do you pick? Last year two new shows, Undone and Tuca & Birdie, did very well with the critics and could get nominations. I can say that I would not personally nominate either, finding Undone slow and really disappointing in its ending. With Tuca & Birdie, I found the character of Tuca a barrier to completing the first episode. I’m not the only one – Netflix dumped it after a single season. When so many “high art” shows try to do something different, it causes extensive divisiveness, and that can hurt a show’s chances over something that exists just to make you laugh.
Another problem is that many animated shows are now starting to become serialized. You can watch The Simpsons, South Park, or Bob’s Burgers at any point and immediately understand the content. Shows like Archer, Rick and Morty, and Big Mouth can still be watched at any point, but there are major character or continuing storylines that may not make as much sense if you haven’t watched previous seasons. Then there are shows like Bojack Horseman or Undone where, if you watch episodes out of order, it will be almost impossible to understand everything that is happening. It makes sense that Bojack Horseman‘s first nomination comes from a “bottle episode” where, even without knowing the history of the character, his speech gives a lot of his emotions.
So can more experimental animation get in and win?
There is some hope as Rick and Morty did win two years ago, and even though they didn’t win, Big Mouth and Bojack Horseman did get nominated. If anything, the main point is that animation must be part of the broader awards conversation. Animation must be considered not just great genre material but also great television period. There is a lot of great TV out there, so it is hard to give any one thing the focus. Yet, as we saw with Fleabag, enough praise bring something really different success at the Emmys.