You know that moment when you realize something inevitable is about to happen and you just have to sit there and accept it? You're like, "Oh, sh--," and time kind of slows down for a second? It happened to me during the Emmys last year.
Yes, it's ridiculous to feel this way about an awards show, but I did. Towards the end of the night, Viola Davis came onstage to present Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. This was supposed to be Jonathan Banks' to lose for his heartbreaking performance in Better Call Saul's Mike showcase "Five-O." When Davis opened the envelope and her mouth, she started formulating a consonant that sounds nothing like a "J": "Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones." I was in the backstage press tent and a collective, audible gasp-groan filled the room. There was an additional "Oh, no" from someone nearby. The guy next to me angrily but respectfully slammed the table. Not kidding.
I was prepared for Game of Thrones' eventual and first-ever drama series win, but Dinklage's win confirmed what I was probably in subconscious denial about: Game of Thrones will now win all the Emmys until Game of Thrones is over.
By the time the ceremony ended, Game of Thrones had broken The West Wing's record of most wins in a single year with 12: eight from the previous week's Creative Arts Emmys and four of which came that night: for Drama Series, Supporting Actor, Writing and Directing. Which is great for the show and HBO, but ironic for what is universally accepted as Thrones' weakest season.
So why did this happen — and why will it continue to happen? The new voting system.
I broke down the whole voting process here, but the gist is this: Last year, the Television Academy opened up voting to allow eligible members to vote for winners in all categories in their respective peer groups (acting, writing, etc.) and all the program races. Prior to that, panels of 70 to 80 members could only vote in two selected peer group races and two program races after viewing submitted episodes from the nominees.
The expanded voting pool has basically turned the Emmys into a glorified People's Choice Awards. What's the biggest show on TV? Exactly. What was everyone talking about last summer during the voting period? Hint: Rhymes with Shmon Shmoe.
Under the new system, voters are still supposed to watch all the submitted episodes. But they probably haven't/don't. They have to acknowledge that they did, but don't have to prove it, like how you check the "Terms and Conditions" without reading it because you just want to download that app already. So what's the inclination? You vote for what you like, what you watch, what you recognize, what you hear about, and your friends. This system puts a premium on popularity instead of quality. Jon Hamm might have still won for Mad Men last year — the show's first and only acting win (its record is 1-36) — under the old system, but the branch-wide voting and cries of "he's never won before" practically guaranteed his win.
This is also not to say that Game of Thrones didn't and won't deserve all its past and future awards. Its tech wins are almost unimpeachable and David Nutter's directing victory for last season's "Mother's Mercy" is better than "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" winning. (The superbly helmed "Hardhome" was not nominated.) But Supporting Actor? Even Dinklage, who was barely in Season 5, looked sort of embarrassed and more or less said in his speech that it should've gone to Banks. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' writing win for "Mother's Mercy"? That finale was a collection of OMG scenes threaded by lazy storytelling. And it beat out cohesive, arguably better-written episodes from The Americans, Better Call Saul and Mad Men x 2. And the series win? It was coming after the rule change, but any true fan knows the first four seasons were better and more deserving. (It should be noted that Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey, the latter of whom would've been a worthy Supporting Actress winner, lost to the most popular character in the category, Crazy Eyes herself, Uzo Aduba.)
The old system was by no means perfect, and I'm not suggesting that people didn't vote for their friends or based on buzz or name recognition then (Emmy voter laziness is second only to Screen Actors Guild Awards voter laziness). But the limited pool tape system required due diligence and gave the underdog a fighting chance if and when voters truly judged the submitted work in front of them.
That's how Felicity Huffman upset Teri Hatcher's comeback coronation the first year of Desperate Housewives. And how Bryan Cranston surprised way back in 2008 when Breaking Bad was just a really good show on AMC that nobody was watching. And how character actors like Zeljko Ivanek (Damages) and Margo Martindale (Justified) could safely prevail over bigger names and former winners like Ted Danson and Christine Baranski. Ironically, Martindale, now established after her terrifyingly awesome turn as Mags Bennett on Justified, has benefited from the new system, because there is no other reason to explain how she won Best Guest Actress in a Drama last year for her two-minute cameo on The Americans other than a name-check reflex. (Who doesn't love Margo Martindale?)
Earlier this year, the TV Academy tweaked its voting guidelines again. Instead of ranking choices 1 through however-many-nominees-there-are-in-the-category, voters now just have to vote for their preferred winner. That'll make it even easier for mindless name-checking and populist favorites to win regardless of quality... unless members start to take their voting privileges seriously.
Otherwise the Emmys will just be a popularity contest from here on out, and that'll be a real shame.
Emmy nominations will be announced Thursday, July 14 at 11:30 a.m. ET / 8:30 a.m. PT. The ceremony airs Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.