Emmys 2013: 'American Horror Story' and getting the maximum impact from the miniseries categories

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lily-rabe-american-horror-story-asylum-dark-cousin-fx.jpgThe names for things matter. That's why different words exist in the first place. Language is, at its essence, a common series of agreed-upon definitions for certain letters placed in certain orders. So when you hear someone talk about a "tree," you don't think of an "airplane." So far, so good. But when you talk about a "tree," you're also invoking a variety of trees in the mind's eye of the viewer. So we have other words to define certain types of trees. Things get complex, but also increasingly specific. This is how we (generally) arrive at mutual understandings.

Sadly, no one conferred this arrangement to those in the TV industry who attempt to categorize what a "miniseries" is, and as such the Emmy field involving this suddenly vague term is an outright mess.

Leading the charge to blur the lines between "miniseries" and normal series is the "American Horror Story" franchise. This year's installment, "Asylum," actually leads every show in contention this season in terms of overall nominations. "Game Of Thrones" comes close with 16, but "Asylum" garnered 17. While you could argue that the show would have been nominated for many awards were it considered part of the normal drama categories, such analysis is both academic and moot: FX found a way in the submissions process in 2012 to submit "American Horror Story" as a miniseries. Subsequently, the anthology horror series has run the table over the past two years by racking up nomination after nomination in less sexy, more sparsely occupied categories.

How is this possible? In an interview with TV Guide last year, Academy of TV Arts and Sciences chairman Bruce Rosenblum said, "The rules of the academy are pretty clear. If a show qualifies in more than one category that producer is entitled to choose which category they want to submit. The 'American Horror Story' example is unique. The way the show is designed, it's a very close-ended series this year. Our academy was convinced that this belonged in the miniseries category and voted accordingly."

To be sure, FX isn't committing any great sin by moving "American Horror Story" toward the path of least resistance. But there's every possibility that the franchise could help FX boast about Emmy nominations well into its seventh season without ever having to move into the drama category. There's very little "mini" about these series. The goal here isn't about securing specific nominations or victories, but simply securing the greatest number for both. The optics here are clear: FX gets to boast about broadcasting the show with the greatest number of nominations without having to put too fine a point on whence those nominations came.

Lest this seem like a slam on FX, let's look at another number: 26. That's the TOTAL number of nominations FX got, meaning that "Asylum" earned 65 percent of the network's presence in this year's awards show. ( "Louie" earned six of the remaining nine, with "The Americans" securing two and "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" landing one.) For a network slamming its head against the wall in order to receive larger acclaim for programs such as "Justified," "Sons Of Anarchy," "Archer," and others, it's difficult to blame any decision to push "Asylum" given the unique situation it presented the academy. If the Emmys didn't matter, articles such as this one would not be written. But the Emmys do matter, and thus nominations matter, and thus loopholes can and will be exploited if it makes for better headlines, more copy, and ultimately more eyeballs on a particular show and network.

The question boils down to this: At what point does gamesmanship reveal itself as such and ultimately hurt the network? Let's look at the nominations for outstanding miniseries or movie:

"American Horror Story: Asylum" (FX)
"Behind the Candelabra" (HBO)
"The Bible" (History)
"Phil Spector" (HBO)
"Political Animals" (USA)
"Top of the Lake" (Sundance Channel)

The conflation of movies and miniseries already puts things into disarray. How is a voter supposed to distinguish between two movies ( "Phil Spector" and "Behind The Candelabra"), two true miniseries ( "Top Of The Lake" and "The Bible"), one series only included due to cancellation rather than intent ( "Political Animals"), and a series that features a new 13-episode story each season under the same umbrella title? It's hard enough to judge vastly different performances in a drama or comedy category. But this category isn't about choosing between apples and oranges. It's about choosing between apples and shaving cream. Both are great in certain situations, but really have no business being compared in a meaningful manner.

The "Political Animals" situation underlines how the success FX has had with "American Horror Story" has seeped into the collective strategy of other networks. USA Network had high hopes for "Animals," but also gave it a six-episode run as a safeguard. It called the show a "miniseries" at the time of initial air, but also heavily hinted the show would continue if ratings were good. "Animals" underperformed and ultimately didn't continue, but the initial hedging allowed USA to submit the show for Emmy consideration all the same.

(Such a technique also explains how Ashley Judd garnered a nomination for lead actress in a miniseries/movie last year for "Missing," a show only included for consideration in the miniseries field after not enough people watched Judd's character LOOKING FOR HER SON.)

The problem with all of this doesn't ultimately come down to networks learning how to work the system to their maximum benefit. That type of action largely benefits those involved with the shows and not watching them, and the types of financial gains that can come from nominations and victories. That is largely unimportant to anyone other than those directly involved with these shows, production companies, and studios. Where it DOES become a problem, however, is when it stymies the rich narrative ecosystem of the true miniseries.

If failed shows with high-profile stars can trump a self-contained serialized show, that's a problem. When a high-profile shows can duck "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" in order to attempt to secure gold in less crowded fields, fewer networks will be emboldened to put periods on the ends of their show's single sentences and instead start replacing them with ellipses. (There's nothing wrong with ellipses. But we already have plenty of categories for those types of shows.)

"American Horror Story" deserves a ton of credit for breaking the cycle of seasons-long narrative arcs that only served to keep away new viewers and increasingly aggravate long-time fans. But such credit does not extend to placing it in a miniseries category when FX will air season after season of it so long as the show is profitable. The decision to keep each season self-contained has many merits, but it's an ongoing franchise that can have as many up-or-down seasons as ones on "The Good Wife," "Boardwalk Empire," or dozens of other shows worthy of consideration in the drama category. 

Last year, "American Horror Story" got the same number of Emmy nominations as it did this year. However, it only won two, and only Jessica Lange's victory was meaningful. (Sorry, hairstyling.) Will there be a greater groundswell if "Asylum" doubles, triples, or even quadruples that win total? Or will that just increase the creativity that networks deploy to spread its shows around as many different categories as possible in 2014? As the Emmys dance reaches a fever pitch over the next month, look to see who is leading, and who is following. When it comes to what to call a series, it really is a name game.

Photo/Video credit: FX