And the award goes to…

As Homeland wins a record six Emmy awards, we ask what such an award means if it isn’t actually about the relative quality of the competing TV shows.

What do the Emmys tell us about anything? This year, Homeland was the big winner, scooping a record-equalling six prizes, including best actress for Claire Danes, best actor for Damian Lewis and outstanding series. At the same time, Mad Men not only missed out on winning its fifth outstanding series award in a row, but also failed to convert one of its 17 nominations into a win. From this evidence, one might be tempted to imagine that Mad Men has entered its terminal decline, while Homeland represents some creatively inspired bolt from the blue. For someone who has enjoyed Mad Men’s rejuvenated fifth season while slogging through Homeland’s uninspired and overly twisty-turny first season, this interpretation is patently wrongheaded.

It is safe to say that the Emmys are no useful guarantee of quality, and never have been. During its five-season run, The Wire—now frequently described as the best TV series ever—did not win a single Emmy. In fact, it never even made the shortlist of nominees for outstanding series. It took five nominations before The Sopranos—another contender for the increasingly debased title of “best TV series ever”—finally won: In the meantime, it had lost four times to The West Wing. In 2005, Lost beat Deadwood offering definitive proof that standards of excellence were not the metrics being applied in this contest. One could ask then, if the Emmys are no mark of quality, what function do they serve?

Quite practically, the most significant measure that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences responds to is commercial success. In 2006, 24—almost past its use-by date with critics, but still a ratings juggernaut—won the top award, beating the Sopranos. The Emmys won by Homeland this week are a similar ratification of that show’s popular appeal: By the end of its first season, it had amassed just under twice the number of viewers as Mad Men had secured by the end of its fifth, and highest-rated, season. Giving the top award to a ratings success puts an official stamp of approval on an anointing already carried out by the viewing public. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is not in the business of alienating its base by making ivory tower gestures to unfashionable and frequently inscrutable works of TV drama. Awards made to shows such as Homeland offer a retroactive assurance that to be a viewer is to be someone with an effortless, unstudied and  instinctual grasp of quality.

Like the Oscars before them, the Emmys were created to bestow a legitimising gloss of respectability on a suspect industry and product, born into an oppressive environment of political witch-hunts and moral crusades. Just as Hollywood instituted self-censorship through the Hays Code and created its own measure of quality via the Oscars as inoculation against the more frightening disapproval of outside forces, television also took institutional measures to affirm its decency and capacity to take care of its own affairs. Part of this initiative involved staging an event that could generate pictures of TV people in evening dress, comporting themselves respectably while receiving shiny statuettes.

Television has long overcome its initial existential insecurity and the Emmys now have a momentum of their own, but these awards stay true to their origins by continuing to publicly proclaim American TV’s opinion of itself. For one thing, the whole event wafts a sanitising air, perfuming some less confounding genre hits, but leaving the irredeemable outlying genre reaches of TV untouched. Game of Thrones can be nominated and is fit to dominate in technical categories, but there is a suspicion that its fantasy-fiction origins eliminate it from serious consideration—or at least until it has an assured audience and has reached its lap-of-honour final season.  The actors of Breaking Bad are also awards-worthy, but Academy voters haven’t chosen to acclaim the show itself, perhaps put off by its subject matter.

Another way in which the awards still speak to the medium’s current anxieties is the impulse to celebrate popular shows that actually draw viewers at a moment when there is fierce competition from alternative broadcasting streams (the Internet) and alternative uses of TVs (gaming).  Homeland’s Emmy could be read as a pronouncement: “Look, here is exciting, popular, quality TV drama. Please continue to tune in!” Perhaps next year—by which time Homeland’s fundamental resemblance to 24 should be even more apparent—this series will no longer serve as a suitable vehicle to advertise television’s implacable currency. A faltering second season, or a ratings success that is confirmed in its predictability may not be able to adequately respond to whatever anxiety will be troubling TV’s digestive system 12 months hence.

Just don’t expect the prize to be awarded to something truly outstanding.


‘Long and Wasted Years’ – Some First Impressions of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’

Let’s run this review in reverse. Bob Dylan’s latest album, ‘Tempest’, is not a masterpiece. Worse than that, although it unquestionably offers much to enjoy, admire, and even celebrate, its flaws are sufficiently serious to disqualify it from any claims to greatness. In fact, if we were still inhabiting the olden days of vinyl, we’d be saying that this is an ill-balanced ‘record’ of two halves, with ‘side one’ of the album being by far the strongest. Overall, this is a very good set of songs, with some frustratingly grievous shortcomings. It’s not quite as good as the very best of his late period work, but it is, overall, a lot better than his last couple of studio albums. It’s lyrically rich, if musically uninspiring, and its best tracks should stand the test of time as well as anything he’s done since, say, 1990.

Given the hype that comes as standard these days with any Dylan release, and the hopes of the faithful that the Great Man may yet produce one more all-time classic – before the mortality that’s been a key lyrical theme of his late period finally claims him, sealing up the living discography and bringing the never-ending tour to a halt – this assessment might seem disappointingly bleak. That would be a false impression, however: for one thing, Dylan’s greatness is such that even his mediocre works tower forbiddingly over the best of the rest of contemporary popular music; more importantly, perhaps the most apposite way of summing up this album’s place in the canon would be to say that it lays a much better claim to an affinity with ‘Time Out of Mind’ and ‘Love & Theft’ than Dylan’s wildly overrated 2006 album, ‘Modern Times’, which is often cited as part three in a glorious ‘comeback’ trilogy.

Timing is everything. After the underrated and misunderstood ‘Under the Red Sky’ album in 1990, Dylan didn’t release another set of original material until ‘Time Out of Mind’ in 1997, meaning he basically spent the 1990s in a critical blackout. During those years, and contrary to received wisdom at the time, he gave some of his best post-60s concert performances, and released two albums of folk and blues covers (‘Good as I Been to You ‘ and ‘World Gone Wrong’) that garnered little fanfare but which, were they issued today, would be hailed as masterpieces. ‘Modern Times’, on the other hand, was released during the full flush of what we might call Bob Dylan’s ‘second critical honeymoon’, a period when mainstream critics, still reeling from the revelation – brought about by ‘Time Out of Mind’ – that Dylan had never been the has-been they’d long taken him for, had become swooningly incapable of discerning any gradations of greatness in Dylan’s works.

That Dylan followed his 1997 return from the wilderness with 2001′s exuberant, multifaceted ‘Love & Theft’ – an album whose relative merits, vis-à-vis its predecessor, critics and fans are still debating today – only served to seal his newfound critical sanctification. Thus ‘Modern Times’, an album that contained a few decent tracks but which generally wallowed in bloated, blues-by-numbers monotony, was declared to be a classic. ‘Together Through Life’, released to an unsuspecting world in 2009, doubtless benefited from both this blind critical fervour, and the fact that its lightness and relative brevity were a blessed relief after the turgidity of ‘Modern Times’; nevertheless, that album was an eminently disposable work which really ought to have seen the light in partial form only, its few worthwhile tracks maybe surfacing on a future ‘Bootleg Series’ release. Thus ‘Tempest’, Dylan’s 35th studio album, presents itself as the rightful heir to Dylan’s last truly great set of songs, ‘Love & Theft’.

Again, let’s not pussy-foot around. ‘Tempest’ can’t compete with, or in truth even be seriously compared to, ‘Love & Theft’. At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that Dylan (or anyone else, for that matter) will ever conjure anything nearly so sustainedly brilliant again. That said, the best tracks on ‘Tempest’ could sit unashamedly alongside those from ‘Love & Theft’ or ‘Time Out of Mind’. Indeed, if you were aiming to assemble some sort of ten track ‘best of’ compilation, documenting Dylan’s ‘Critical Renaissance Period’ in chronological release date order, you might – depending on taste – start your list with something along the lines of:

1. Standing in the Doorway

2. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

3. Not Dark Yet

4. Things Have Changed

5. Mississippi

6. Floater (Too Much to Ask)

7. Po’ Boy

8. Red River Shore


So, having used up 8 out of 10 tracks – mixing three parts ‘Time Out of Mind’, to one part Oscar-winning single, three parts ‘Love & Theft’, no parts ‘Modern Times’, one part ‘Bootleg Series Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs)’, and no parts ‘Together Through Life’ – this would leave two slots spare for ‘Tempest’. How to fill them?

Selecting the new album’s best tracks means first discarding those which most acutely exemplify the album’s more serious faults. These could best be summarised by lamenting the fact that Dylan has stuck so rigidly to a now wearily familiar musical template. His favoured mode, many have noted, remains a slow, listless shuffle; combine this with a tendency to let songs ramble on for ages, and you have a recipe for irresistibly attracting the listener’s finger to the ‘Skip’ button. Equally vexing is Dylan’s continued reliance on stale, reheated blues riffs; plus his seeming refusal to let his band – fiercely skilled musicians, all – deviate from such a stagnant pool of musical ideas.

Of course, selecting the new album’s best tracks also means making judgements that we know may be precipitant, since almost every Dylan album is a ‘grower’, whose full measure can never be taken at first, second, or even twentieth listen. A Dylan album must be lived with over a period of time, before it eventually settles into its rightful position in the listener’s affections. Perhaps ‘settled’ is not the right word, as over time Dylan’s albums, and the songs they contain, tend to wax and wane in both the critical consensus, and in the individual fan’s affections. First impressions are, therefore, more unreliable than usual, in Dylan’s case.

That said, a number of tracks here are so indelibly scarred by the failings mentioned above, recalling the worst, most redundant excesses of ‘Modern Times’, that they automatically exclude themselves from our putative compilation. ‘Early Roman Kings’, despite playing host to some interesting lyrics, has a central riff so insistently annoying that listening to the song’s full five minutes becomes a purgatorial experience. Other tracks just about manage to survive the imposition of dourly repetitive riffing, their positive qualities tipping the balance away from dreariness, towards lasting value. Even some of these, such as such as ‘Narrow Way’, at seven and a half minutes, could have done with some trimming.

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