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John Doyle: Lessons from the Emmys – the bar is very high in TV now

Sunday's Emmy Awards was fun, an awards show that didn't sag under the weight of pretension or drag itself into interminable self-congratulation. Host Jimmy Kimmel had a big role in that.

But let us stand back and extrapolate. What did it all mean?

In this neck of the woods, Tatiana Maslany winning her first Emmy Award on her second nomination for Canadian-made Orphan Black was significant. She had also received a nomination for a Golden Globe award in 2014 for her work and won two Critics' Choice Television Awards and three Canadian Screen Awards.

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Read more: Game of Thrones, Veep take honours at Emmys

Read more: Canadian Tatiana Maslany wins Emmy for best lead actress in a drama

You should note that while the show itself has won Canadian Screen Awards, outside of Canada the series has been nominated for such things as the GLAAD Media Awards and the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.

There is a natural tendency to celebrate Maslany's triumph as a triumph for Canadian-made TV, and the win is certainly a major conquest for Temple Street Productions, which makes the show here. Yet it remains an awkward fact that Orphan Black began as a thrilling series and then stumbled into a near shambles of storytelling and, throughout, it's Maslany who was stellar.

If a Canadian-made drama is going to come near another Emmy triumph, it needs to be as great as Maslany's acting skill is great.

Orphan Black benefits from airing on BBC America in the U.S. and the channel has been exemplary in promoting it. Getting the benefit of having a major U.S. outlet is crucial in extrapolating from Maslany's win. We make a ton of TV in Canada and it is sold abroad, but very little ends up on a U.S. network or channel of any importance. Flashpoint and Rookie Blue had runs on U.S. networks, but essentially as cheap imports to fill empty summer slots.

Such shows as Killjoys and Wyonna Earp air on the Syfy channel in the United States. These are genre shows, well-positioned on specialty channels. But they are not going to make a breakthrough into Emmy-winning territory. Orphan Black made that leap thanks to Maslany. Her excellence is what defines the show, and it's her excellence that gets the attention and praise.

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A lesson to be learned from the Emmys is that the bar is high. Very, very high.

This year the Television Academy and the vast army of people who vote in such things summoned up the courage to nominate new and deserving talent and shows for Emmy awards, and then delivered – mostly. It's obvious – in diversity and excellence – the Emmy Awards have it over the Oscars already.

TV's biggest night, as they call it in L.A., was a not routine acknowledgment of the usual suspects.

The establishment won a handful of awards, but the strength, artistic superiority and strangeness of TV was on full, glaring display.

There was some expectation that many of the deserving recent performances and new nominees would be left looking on as Game of Thrones, Veep and Modern Family took home tons of awards. That didn't happen.

Instead, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story took home a ton of Emmys and deservedly so. The series and its baroque style of dramatizing a key event in recent American history won and won again, emphatically sending a message about the innovation and artistry that resides in cable TV now. It also delivered a message about the channel FX challenging HBO for superiority in programming.

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There was also an unexpected nod to the utterly new as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series went to Rami Malek for his extraordinary work anchoring the excellent Mr. Robot.

In truth, there aren't enough Emmys to reward all the excellence across network, cable and streaming platforms. Somebody has to be snubbed and that somebody might have done excellent work. There were some categories in which it was truly hard to pick a deserving winner. But the important thing is that the energy of television as a storytelling medium was on full display.

Television is now so vast and expansive in the amount of great productions.

British TV was everywhere at the Emmy Awards – there were Brit contenders in many categories, including the John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager, Luther, Sherlock, War & Peace, Downton Abbey and Catastrophe and it was a very big night for the BBC, which had 22 nominations. But the old principle that prestigious awards in acting and writing went to British productions did not hold up.

It's true that HBO's Game of Thrones and Veep repeated their wins as best drama and comedy, respectively. The two wins had been predicted, yet, there was little that was predictable about this awards show.

There were signals throughout that there is a change that is ongoing even in the stuffy traditions of the Television Academy. It was large scale and small scale, from Tatiana Maslany's win to the fact that Last Week Tonight With John Oliver won Best Variety Talk Show, a category that has almost automatically been won by The Daily Show for years.

Away from the awards won, a highlight of Sunday night was red-carpet appearances by the kids from Netflix's Stranger Things, who were cute, cool and adorable. The sizzle that surrounded them when they appeared on the red carpet and were interviewed was a testament to the continuing power of contemporary TV to seduce everyone. Stranger Things is something to extrapolate from. On the surface, it's no masterpiece of storytelling nor does it seem to embody great seriousness.

And yet it is enchanting, made with enormous skill and assuredness. It's a sterling example of mass-appeal TV punching above its weight. There's a lot of it going on and the Emmy Awards was not only fun to watch but an accurate reflection of the superbness of television as it exists now.

If you want to come near winning an Emmy, you must be truly outstanding, as outstanding as Tatiana Maslany is, and that's the lesson for everyone in the TV racket, from Canada or anywhere on the planet.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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