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In This Awards Season, What Showbiz Chooses to Anoint Can Send a Big Message

Variety logo Variety 12/16/2016 Maureen Ryan
© Provided by Variety

Here’s an idea worth pondering: Awards are politically important.

Yes, there is plenty of campaigning during awards season. There are armies of consultants, image gurus, and a calendar packed with events at which glad-handing and white lies are the norm. Key contacts in the press are a must. But industry campaigning isn’t the kind of politics I’m referring to.

Receiving a nomination or an award can be a career-stepping stone, of course. But who wins matters in the wider world. What the entertainment community chooses to reward matters. The roster of winners can send a message that is ultimately louder and clearer than the biggest “For Your Consideration” billboard on Sunset Boulevard.

If you doubt that statement, just look at the most recent list of Emmy winners. Among the actors honored were Sterling K. Brown, Rami Malek, Courtney B. Vance, Tatiana Maslany, Jeffrey Tambor, Louie Anderson, and Regina King.

“Key & Peele” won an Emmy, as did “Master of None.” One of the big TV surprises of the year was the re-evaluation of ’90s trial icon Marcia Clark — and writer-producer D.V. DeVincentis and Sarah Paulson rightfully won awards for sensitively and spectacularly telling that story in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

The message of that ceremony wasn’t just that these artists did vital and exceptional work. One of the big takeaways was that the stories of these characters have something to tell us. These people and their worlds are important to our culture.

For a long time, TV mostly told the story of white people — and far too many characters were well-to-do white people on the coasts. Anyone who wasn’t white and heterosexual could be a supporting character — but not much more than that, and not all that often.

These days, TV is doing much more to open the door to a far more varied array of stories: from men and women of color, trans people, LGBTQ individuals, people from the American South, immigrants, people who grew up poor. Of course, the industry has always made room for strivers, iconoclasts, and outsiders, but the television industry, as it expands at a very rapid clip, has finally begun to change. There is much more recognition of how much further the industry has to go if it wants to truly reflect the American experience. Maybe we’re not where we need to be, but we’re not where we were a decade ago.

This evolution has not only made TV more exciting and entertaining, but also has, in the aggregate, functioned as a political statement. The modes of storytelling we’re seeing now are political acts, given the viewpoints they examine and the colliding worldviews they intelligently observe. New voices are emerging: From Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” to Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody’s “One Mississippi” to Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” to topical and timely sitcoms such as Justin Spitzer’s “Superstore,” Scott Silveri’s “Speechless,” and Kenya Barris’ “Black-ish.” It’s the heyday of half-hours that are topical, compassionate, and consistently funny, too.

Veteran David E. Kelley unleashed “Goliath,” an entertaining meditation on the huge flaws in our legal system, and newcomer Issa Rae exploded on to the scene with “Insecure,” an assured and hilarious look at what it’s like to be a modern woman whose aspirations don’t line up with her reality. All these shows deserve consideration not just because they’re entertaining, but also because there is a freshness and originality to their approaches, characters, and premises. These shows take stands and plant flags without being didactic; you know where they stand, but they can surprise you, too. They’re not weak or dithering, and they don’t timidly stick to the middle of the road, and that’s worth remembering when casting your ballots.

Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s meaningless and it doesn’t matter. Who the creative community honors matters this year matters more than ever. Make your vote count.

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