You may not have realized it, but last month's Emmy nomination announcement was a near full-circle moment for the TV Academy.
For the first time in a very long time, the Emmys didn't shortlist the usual suspects or appear embarrassingly out of touch. For once, the Emmys answered our prayers. They were aware and welcoming to a slew of new and never-before-nominated deserving players, specifically The Americans. The critical favorite's three major nominations — drama series, lead actor for Matthew Rhys and lead actress for Keri Russell — were fittingly co-announced by Lauren Graham, the last underdog who was so championed by critics and fans that the Emmys once changed its whole voting process just for her.
OK, not just for her. But she was a very big reason why. The so-called, short-lived "Lauren Graham Rule" was a misguided, if well-intentioned, attempt by the Academy to appear relevant. With it. Harbingers of great taste and great TV. And it backfired in a huge way.
In February 2006, the Academy added an extra wrinkle to its nominating procedure. A popular vote, which had previously determined the nominees, would now determine a slate of finalists — 15 for acting and 10 for series. Those finalists would then submit an episode to be judged by select blue ribbon panels. Said panels would then whittle down the lists to the five nominees to be read aloud nomination morning.
This whole to-do was in response to the outcry at the staid, repetitive shortlists of names and mainstream nominees, and the perpetual snubbing of worthy new or little-seen contenders for the top prizes (sound familiar?). This system was designed to quell the rage and to help folks like Gilmore Girls goddess Graham and shows like The Shield, which struggled to get anything going after Michael Chiklis' win in 2002 (its first season) and barely a handful of acting nominations afterward. This was supposed to invite David to the fight to have a shot against Goliath.
"This new voting initiative hits the issue of a narrow nominations process head-on and significantly increases the potential for the widest and most diverse selection of nominees possible," then-TV Academy Chairman Dick Askin said at the time.
The result? Graham wasn't nominated. Neither was The Shield. Or Veronica Mars. Or Battlestar Galactica. There were new faces, all right, but the whole experiment proved to be an exercise in regression than progression. The fresh blood came in the form of Law & Order: SVU's Christopher Meloni, The King of Queens' Kevin James and Two and a Half Men's Charlie Sheen — all fine, enjoyable actors, sure, but the best of the best? They were also all from older, popular shows who in theory should've gotten nominations under the previous solely popular vote system. (Meloni and James were never nominated again, but Sheen received three more nods, and Two and a Half Men, which made the comedy series cut for the first time in '06, received two more.)
The mayhem didn't end there. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who would win comedy lead actress for The New Adventures of Old Christine, competed against four people from canceled shows. Former champ Debra Messing (Will & Grace) and perennial nominee Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) made sense, and Lisa Kudrow getting in for The Comeback was just one of those unicorn-esque Great Emmy Decisions, but Stockard Channing on Out of Practice? Because the two Emmys in one night she won in 2002 weren't enough?
And then there was everyone the Emmys dropped like a bad habit. Three reigning champs — James Spader (Boston Legal), Patricia Arquette (Medium) and Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) — were gone (all would return in the future, with Spader winning again), but most inexplicable were the absences of House's Hugh Laurie and former Sopranos champs James Gandolfini and Edie Falco. Desperate Housewives was rightfully snubbed for its awful second season, but the omission of defending drama series champ Lost was a total WTF. Host Conan O'Brien mined it for laughs with Hurley (Jorge Garcia) in his opening bit at the ceremony, which took place 10 years ago Saturday.
The backlash was swift, and the Academy adopted a 50-50 system based on popular votes and panel votes the next year. Graham didn't get nominated again, in her final year of Gilmore Girls, and because the Emmys have a great sense of humor, there was more new blood in 2007, including Ugly Betty and all things 30 Rock.
Even more ironic: By 2008, the rise of those niche, fringe, low-rated shows and networks the "Lauren Graham Rule" was created to help, was beginning. Mad Men became the first basic cable show to win drama series, Bryan Cranston shocked in drama actor for a little show called Breaking Bad, and the Emmys made a tweak to its rulebook that wouldn't really be notable for another five years: online series were eligible. Now, streaming and cable dominate the Emmys — the drama series race hasn't seen a broadcast nominee since 2011.
Why didn't any of that start under the "Lauren Graham Rule"? In hindsight, the rule was less of an improvement and more of an over-correction to the outrage. It was conceived to produce a desired effect and tried to force the issue with an extremely narrow focus — culling from a list of 10 or 15 is a lot different than checking off a couple of names out of hundreds and tallying those votes. Panelists will still vote for who they want, and who they want might just be Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, and not Lauren Graham on Gilmore Girls. And, who knows? Maybe some people revolted, knowing the purpose of the rule.
Now, it goes without saying that we'd all be worshipping at the altar of the Academy had Graham gotten a nomination. It's easy to forget, though, that it was always an uphill battle for her, since Academy has a notorious bias against the WB/UPN/CW. To this day, no performer from that network has ever been nominated.
The Academy has made plenty of rule changes in the past year, but there was no such "Americans Rule" to boost its or others of its ilk's chances. So how did so many underdogs break through this year? Maybe voters actually paid attention. Maybe we all guilt-tripped them enough. The Emmys will never completely get it right, but sometimes they get enough right. Sometimes they never get on board (The Wire) and sometimes they eventually see the light (Friday Night Lights). And sometimes "fixes" do more harm than good. If the "Lauren Graham Rule" never existed, we would've been spared one of the most head-scratching years in Emmy history.
Graham has still yet to be nominated for an Emmy. But she'll have another chance next year with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life on Netflix, which ironically would be her best shot yet.
The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, will air Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.