Whether you lean toward calling it the new golden age of television, peak TV or another catchy phrase, there is no doubt that we are living in an era when the amount of high-quality programming is vast and deep.
But a smaller subset of fine shows are those that also serve to educate about socially important issues and to inspire the audience.
Those are the kind of programs that the Television Academy awards in its Honors ceremony, the ninth annual edition of which took place June 8.
The event, held at the Montage Hotel, recognized six programs that aired during the 2015 calendar year, culled from more than 150 entries received by the Academy. The programs address difficult and timely subject matter with honesty, creativity and clarity.
This year’s honorees represented shows seen on basic cable, premium/pay cable and streaming, with subject matter ranging from the lives of young adults with Down syndrome, little-known elements of the American civil rights movement, a political upheaval to oust a corrupt regime and an exploration of addiction from a century ago.
Showtime’s “Homeland,” Cinemax’s “The Knick”, HBO’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Smithsonian Channel’s “Mississippi Inferno,” Netflix’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” and A&E’s “Born This Way” received accolades at the ceremony.
“By its very nature, television has a special ability to touch the hearts and minds of viewers and move the needle on social change,” said Bruce Rosenblum, the Academy’s chairman and CEO. “Each of this year’s honorees makes artful use of television’s distinct power to raise awareness, expand understanding and promote meaningful discussion of issues of importance.”
Emmy Award-winning actress Dana Delany hosted the event for the eighth year running — she has emceed for each but the first year of Honors— and introduced each team of recipients as they accepted their trophies, handed to them by “black-ish” cast member Yara Shahidi, whose show was one of last year’s recipients.
“The theme of all these shows is bucking the system,” Delany noted.
“Born This Way” is the first reality series to shed light on the issue of Down syndrome as it follows a group of seven young adults pursuing their passions and lifelong dreams. Along the way, friendships, romances and work relationships are explored– and what stands out is the courage of the subjects to openly share their lives through a lens not often seen on television.
“It was Newton Minow who said that television was a vast wasteland. Well, not anymore,” said executive producer Jonathan Murray, who noted that it took seven years of talking to different networks in order to get “Born This Way” on the air.
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” from acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney, delves into the experiences of another brave group of people – ex-Scientologists who blew the whistle on the organization. Among them is screenwriter Paul Haggis, who describes the systematic abuse and betrayal by Church of Scientology officials.
Fascist tactics, blackmail and intimidation were the least of it, according to others interviewed. “HBO was unwavering in its support, especially the legal department,” said producer Kristen Vaurio.
The fifth season of “Homeland” saw three-time Emmy winner Claire Danes leading the charge in tackling issues including surveillance, hacking and a high-level government security breach and subsequent leaking reminiscent of Edward Snowden’s disclosures of government documents, a case of art imitating life–and shining additional light on headline-making subject matter.
In his acceptance speech, creator and show runner Alex Gansa mentioned all of the other honorees and said he doesn’t get to watch a lot of television but that he binge- watched “The Knick.”
“I thought we were the only show that had an abrasive and unpleasant personality,” he said, jokingly, before turning to more serious matters. “’Born This Way’ got me thinking about the responsibility to the truth, and how world events like the massacres in Brussels and Paris caught up to us. But we can’t further spread xenophobia—and we won’t,” Gansa promised about the next season, which will take place in New York.
Season two of “The Knick,” set in 1901, opens with Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery returning from an unsuccessful stay at a hospital for addicts and alcohol abusers. Determined to use his vaunted skills as a doctor and the resources of his hospital staff in a futile quest to find a definitive cure for addiction, the series reflects today’s ongoing struggle with it and the continuing search for solutions.
“We have come leaps and bounds in how we treat addicts,” said co-creator (with Michael Begler) and writer Jack Amiel, who said that hospital staff at the beginning of the 20th century was just realizing that addiction is both a psychological and a physical problem.
“Mississippi Inferno” looked at the little-known yet critical role of black landowners and farmers who stood up to white supremacy and segregation in the most repressive states of the South and wound up changing the course of history. The documentary, narrated by Danny Glover, features first-person accounts of those who participated in the civil rights movement.
“We wanted to shine a light on black landowners who played a pivotal but unheralded role in the civil rights movement,” said producer David Royle, while writer/producer/director David Shulman noted that the voting rights and state’s rights are at center stage again, half a century later.
Another documentary, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” used 28 cameras to document the formation of a new civil rights movement in Ukraine in 2014 as nearly 1,000,000 citizens across the country mobilized to protest the corrupt regime running the country. Even in the face of relentless violence and extreme force unleashed against the protesters, the sense of hope for a better future permeates the production.
“This is only the first chapter of their fight for freedom,” said producer/director Evgeny Afineesvky, who is currently filming a documentary about Syrian refugees and had just returned from that country to accept the award about his work in another troubled region.