The 2015 Emmy nominations were announced yesterday, which means all those billboards scattered around Hollywood proclaiming themselves “for our consideration” have served their purpose—or failed to. The nominating voters have considered, and their choices are, for the most part, unsurprising.
We’ve got Mad Men in its valedictory season. We’ve got Homeland, which was great again this season; and Downton Abbey, which gets my vote for “most improved,”although it’s still silly. (But isn’t that sort of the point?) We’ve got the usual HBO/streaming service gang of suspects: your Game of Thrones, your House of Cards. Network television, operating under a totally different set of constraints, both fiscal and artistic—I’ll save my rant on how premium cable and network should really have two sets of awards for another time—was underrepresented as usual, with new mega-hits like Empire and How To Get Away With Murder receiving acting nods for their starry casts but little else. And the fact that Broad City was not nominated is completely ridiculous.
But c’est la vie. Let’s focus on what did happen. The Emmys board—and the shows they choose to honor—tend to reflect the zeitgeist in a way that the Oscars, with their hurried flurry of Very Serious Christmas Movies that hardly anyone actually bothers to go see, haven’t in decades. By looking at the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series (arguably the biggest ticket prize of the night), it’s fascinating to me how many of their current seasons revolved around the question of faith: House of Cards, as dismal and cynical as ever, explores a world in which the question of belief in something larger than the self is impossible; Game of Thrones, with its High Sparrow subplot, in which a gang of empowered religious fanatics burn, whip, and murder their way through King’s Landing; and Homeland, forever enmeshed in the once again horrifying world of Islamist terrorism (what’s terrible for Syria is great for television; I hate to say it but it’s true). These are all tales of faith gone wrong.
Yet the darkness of these shows feels like an old hat. They’re sophomorically sterile compared with the newer, warmer winds of television, in which better, freer, more communitarian instinct prevails. For example, Downton Abbey imagined a wholly fictional past in which a Jewish man would be welcomed wholeheartedly into a 1920’s aristocratic British family, who themselves seem to have suffered little social repercussion for their own Jew(ish) background. Even Don Draper, Mad Men‘s ultimate loner, went on a journey of spiritual discovery at an Esalen-like retreat, where he meditated himself into the Zen state required to write the most famous jingle of all time.
However, the ultimate faith-based transformation of the year came from the drama series debutante Orange Is the New Black. What started as a gag—raucous inmate Black Cindy decides to convert to Judaism in order to access the kosher priosn meals, which include a particularly delicious side of broccoli forbidden to Gentiles—turns into a genuine, and deeply moving spiritual journey. Adrienne C. Moore’s gorgeous profession of faith to a visiting rabbi, her realization that in Judaism, she has finally found her people, her right to question, her true identity, was the most tear-jerking moment of television this year for me, and when she completes her ecstatic yet deeply conversion in the makeshift mikvah of the lake just outside the gate of Litchfield Prison, I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing a gradual, but unmistakable transformation in the landscape of prestige television.
The stern, patriarchal anti-heros of the past have had their day. And finally, warm and complex Jewish matriarchs—the Black Cindys, the Maura Pfeffermans, and yes, even the Cora Granthams—are taking over the small screen. Dog-eat-dog has turned into we’re-all-in-this together. The small screen was a kinder, gentler place this year. Let’s hope it carries over to the larger world beyond.