Allison Janney is not Helen Hunt.
For starters, she’s simply a more talented actor. Her performances on “The West Wing” and “Juno” and (from what I hear, having never seen the show) “Masters of Sex” demonstrate far more range than I’ve ever seen in anything from Ms. Hunt. Even in small roles in movies like “The Hours” and “The Way Way Back” (neither film a particular favorite of mine) she displays a nuanced ease at inhabiting very different roles.
But man, I was mad as hell when she won an Emmy at the televised ceremony this past Monday night.
Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve heard she’s wonderful on “Masters of Sex,” where she plays the beleaguered wife of a deeply closeted man. Her win as Best Guest Actress for that show doesn’t bother me a bit. But her win for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for the drek-fest that is the TV show “Mom”? That merely proves that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has yet to recover from Helen Hunt Syndrome.
For those of you who remember the heady days of the 1990s, when a plucky young lawyer named Ally McBeal showed a delighted America that it took neither any sense of professionalism nor even basic sanity to be a successful attorney, when undiscovered ingenue Tori Spelling broke onto the scene with a combination of luck, talent, and hilariously obvious nepotism… well, you might remember a little show called “Mad About You.” It starred Ms. Hunt and Paul Reiser as a young married couple in New York City.
Like so many successful television programs, it started off well. (Or at least I thought so.) The actors made for a believable couple, with an endearing combination of quirks, foibles and charm. Ms. Hunt won an Emmy for her role.
And then she won another one. And another one. And one after that.
Of course, by statuette number two or three, the show had grown stale and maudlin. And Ms. Hunt’s performance, while relentlessly fine, wasn’t such a stunning achievement in Thalia‘s art to even remotely justify all that hardware. It was actually kind of embarrassing to see her keep winning.
Which brings us to Allison Janney and the problem with the Emmys. Ms. Janney won enough of the awards to collapse an Ikea bookshelf for her role as C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing.” Which I’m pretty much OK with, because she was easily the best thing about that show, and the writers were smart enough to keep giving her stuff to do to showcase her talent. But once the Emmy voters decide they love someone, they never bother to pay attention to anyone else.
And thus Ms. Janney wins a second Emmy in the same year for starring in a comedy show so forced the laugh track sounds like it’s being held at gunpoint. The two times I saw it I was impressed at its sheer awfulness, sufficient to swamp the talents of both Ms. Janney and her co-star Anna Faris. It’s just… really bad.
But because the Emmys [hearts] Allison Janney, up to the stage she goes to collect her trophy, winning over nominees far more deserving than she. (I was rooting for Kate Mulgrew, whose performance on “Orange is the New Black” is a standout among a truly stellar cast.) And I was stuck at home yelling at my TV.
That’s also why “The Amazing Race” has won Best Reality Show every year since the dawn of forever. And why the not-bad-but-past-its-prime “Modern Family” won Best Comedy yet again. And why Jim Parsons won again for “The Big Bang Theory,” which I’m sorry to say is for a performance that seems very mannered to me, and certainly not expansive enough to earn win after win after win.
Yes, I realize I’m getting all bent out of shape over the results of an acting awards show, slightly less relevant to the functioning of the universe than which hot new trend in nail polish is sweeping the nation. I dig that nobody really cares about the Emmys. (Debra Messing has one, for heaven’s sake, and I now find reruns of “Will & Grace” so unwatchably bad it makes me wonder how I ever liked it in the first place.) But come on! At this point, the show is becoming a parody of itself. There must be some kick-ass after parties to keep those perennial also-rans showing up year after year.
I love Allison Janney. I’m thrilled she’s having such success as a performer. I wish her nothing but the best. But she should fork that Emmy over to someone who didn’t win it just because of inertia. Acting awards may not mean much, but this trend is making it clear that these don’t mean anything at all.