(CNN)The 2019 Golden Globe Awards will be held Sunday night, and based on a Hollywood Reporter poll conducted last month, the favorite for Best Drama appears to be FX’s “The Americans,” which concluded its sixth and final season this year, while the favorite pick for Best Comedy appears to be Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which swept the Emmys last September.
Do the choices of these shows suggest that American audiences want an escape from our fraught, divisive present? Possibly. This theory holds up if we take into account the fact that “The Good Place” was just behind “Mrs. Maisel” in the comedy category — and that show takes place in the after-life. And then there’s the top choice for Best Television Limited Series — “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” — which is based on events that took place 20 years ago.
The escapism argument is not a novel one when speaking about American pop culture consumption. But it’s also somewhat problematic because while “Mrs. Maisel” is certainly a fun show that makes us laugh and feel good, “The Americans” is not at all escapist fare. It doesn’t depict the Reagan era with rose-colored glasses, and neither communism nor capitalism come out looking like a moral political-economic system. As I wrote last year, the show is about the death of ideology
writ large, the slow and painful realization that perhaps our (anti) heroes have sacrificed everything (namely, their children) for a system that’s rotten and corrupt.
Like many critically acclaimed dramas of the past decade — “Mad Men”, “The Leftovers,” “Halt” and “Catch Fire” — “The Americans” was never a particularly popular or widely-viewed show. Viewership steadily declined after season one, culminating in an average that fell well under 1 million viewers
in its final season. However, it had a fiercely loyal fan base and despite the meager audience, critics praised the final season, particularly the series finale
, almost unanimously. Few disagreed that writers/showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg had pulled off the near impossible feat of a completely unexpected ending (seriously, who thought this show would end with a bloodless episode?) that was also incredibly satisfying, and that gave the protagonists the conclusion they deserved.
This is all to say that for respondents to choose “The Americans” for Best Drama over all other shows is surprising. Less surprising, perhaps, when you consider that it won with just 16% of the vote. In fact, only 19% of respondents had watched part or all of the show, and 47% of them had never even heard of it. Despite the fact that more people had heard of “Bodyguard” (58% vs. 53% for “The Americans”), the Netflix show came in second in the poll.
What’s notable is that there was far less name recognition still for many of the other Best Drama contenders, like the groundbreaking FX show “Pose” (78% of respondents hadn’t heard of it), BBC America’s fabulous “Killing Eve” (66%), and Amazon’s excellent “Homecoming” (59%). It’s also worth mentioning that “The Americans” is the only nominee that is not in its first season, evidence of the Golden Globes’ penchant for nominating shiny new shows. It’s quite likely that the “The Americans” had an advantage because they didn’t recognize the names of most of the other shows.
Similarly, “Mrs. Maisel” enjoyed the name recognition accrued when it all but swept the Emmys in September, winning Best Comedy along with Best Writing, Direction, Actress, and Supporting Actress all in the comedy series categories. Nonetheless, only 13% of those polled had seen the show and over half didn’t recognize its name.
Name recognition also seemed to be relevant with respect to the actors picked to win Golden Globes: Jason Bateman, Elizabeth Moss, Jim Carrey, and Kristen Bell. All of these actors have established careers (some dating back decades) and many have had starring roles on prior shows. How else do you explain the selection of Jim Carrey despite the fact that a whopping 79% of respondents hadn’t even heard of “Kidding,” the show he’s nominated for?
In fact, the biggest surprise of the Hollywood Reporter poll is contained in the last line of each question, the “Don’t know/No opinion” option, which represents the largest number of respondents by far for most of the questions. Over 50% of those polled had never heard of most of the nominated series. This doesn’t present a portrait of a well-informed public. Of course, one of the obvious reasons for this is that we’re all drowning in content and are often paralyzed by the hundreds of options for what to watch next! The fragmentation
means that people are not watching the same show at the same time anymore.
Notwithstanding our current watching habits, the fact that over half of people polled didn’t recognize the names of nominated series also suggests a huge gap between what critics and a small number of aficionados are consuming on TV, and what the general public is watching. Thus, no matter how much I or other critics obsess about the perfection that was “START,” the series finale of “The Americans,” the reality is that very few people watched a show that is sure to go down in the top ten (I would argue top five) among TV dramas of all time.
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If it’s any indication of the current moment, the organizers of the Academy Awards were so worried about that prize’s lack of relevance among the general public that it announced its intention to create a new award: most popular film. It later backtracked
after widespread outcry and internal dissent among members, though the door was left open to re-introduce the idea in the future. Whatever the Academy ultimately decides to do, there’s no escaping the fact that awards like the Oscars and Golden Globes will likely always be seen as somewhat elitist and “out of touch” with the general public’s viewing habits.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the nominating bodies or critics should pander to what’s most popular. As we know, many great pieces of art and music weren’t fully appreciated during the era in which they were created. But even if shows like “Mad Men” and “The Americans” never gain the posthumous popularity of a Van Gogh painting — and even if most people who tune into the Golden Globes will be more interested in the stars’ outfits than the nominated shows and performances — there’s still value in recognizing and awarding their artistry. The 16% of respondents who voted for “The Americans” in this poll may not have even seen the show, but if there’s any justice, the series (and its female star, Keri Russell) will win on Sunday night.