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June 14, 2016

A Night of Honors

Ninth Annual Academy Honors celebrates inspiring, enlightening television.

Libby Slate
  • Invision/AP

At the conclusion of the ninth annual Television Academy Honors ceremony, Alex Gansa, cocreator-executive producer of Showtime's CIA drama Homeland – who'd just accepted a statuette for the show's fifth season – had a mission of his own.

He wanted to find and meet the cast of fellow honoree Born This Way, the A&E reality series documenting the lives and dreams of seven young adults with Down syndrome. When he did, there were smiles and hugs and photos all around.

It's hard to imagine two shows more disparate than an edge-of-your-seat spy-terrorist drama and a gentle series about people with disabilities – except, that is, at the Television Academy Honors.

After all, the event was created to recognize programming that makes a difference in society by enlightening viewers as well as entertaining them, and in so doing, sparks action and change. This year's ceremony took place June 8 on the terrace of the Montage Beverly Hills and celebrated six programs, hosted by Dana Delany for the eighth consecutive year.

And indeed, Born This Way had inspired Gansa in a particularly profound way, after he'd spent much of the previous weekend watching all the winning shows, as he noted in his acceptance speech. The docuseries was honored for its demonstration that people with Down syndrome are capable of living rich and meaningful lives; Homeland was selected for capturing the issues of concern today, such as hacked and leaked security breaches and terrorist attacks.

The other four shows were "extraordinary" and "beyond belief," Gansa said, but Born This Way "hit me from a different angle altogether.

"It got me thinking about this series that we make at Homeland. And not to sound too pretentious, it got me thinking about responsibility – that is, the responsibility to truth a show like Homeland has, a show about terrorism and about American foreign policy, among other things. What message are we putting out into the world? What message should we be putting out into the world?"

The show has been filming and taking place overseas, but next season is set in New York City.

And while the Homeland advisors have said there are no coordinated terror cells in the United States as there are in Europe, "For me, this makes a very difficult question: What's a thriller like Homeland to do?" Gansa said. "One thing we can't do is dramatize threats that don't actually exist, or further stoke the wildfire of fear and xenophobia that's spread across our country.

"So that's my pledge here to you tonight," he announced to the Honors audience. "We won't. We'll find another way to tell the story. Thank you, guys."

The Born This Way cast members, attending with their parents – who also appear in the show – were the most vocal participants of the evening, cheering for their show and calling, "We love you!" to creator-executive producer Jonathan Murray when he accepted his statuette.

"Newton Minow, the FCC Commissioner back in the '60's, once called television a 'vast wasteland,'" Murray said. "That may have been true then, but it's certainly not true now, as evidenced by the programs the Television Academy is honoring here tonight. For too long, people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, have been placed on the sidelines of life. and the margins of primetime. With Born This Way airing on A&E, that is no longer the case.

"Each year, more than 300,000 people with disabilities reach the age to enter into the workforce," he added. "However, they often hit a brick wall because of stigmas. So it is wonderful that viewers of Born This Way see real young adults in our series contributing to their workplaces. It is also wonderful that our viewers see each of our cast as individuals, with distinct personalities and distinct dreams.

"When a woman is told she is pregnant with a child who may have Down syndrome, the doctor often presents a negative picture of what life will be like for her and her child. Now, thanks to our cast and our families, she gets a different vision, one that has challenges, but one that is also filled with love, joy and success. Thank you to the Television Academy for this wonderful honor."

Disability rights advocacy was preceded by many years by the civil rights movement and the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made racial discrimination in voting illegal.

Illuminating a little-known aspect of that movement is the Smithsonian Channel documentary Mississippi Inferno, about the  African-American landowners who fought back against the rampant white supremacy in the Mississippi Delta. They hosted hundreds of civil rights workers on their farms and put up their land as bonds to free arrested activists.

"I first want to say just how honored we are to be here," Smithsonian Channel's David Royle, an executive producer of the show, said in acceptance. "We're one of the newer channels on American television, so to be in such great company for such a wonderful event means the absolute world to all of us.

"When [producer-director] David Shulman and his team came in, and we saw the material that he'd spent so long gathering, we felt there was something very special here. We were determined to shine a light on this largely unheralded group of people, these amazingly courageous black landowners in Mississippi that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement."

Added Shulman, "What I'm particularly heartened by [about] this honor is that it's focused around films that the Academy feels have the ability to promote social change. And it echoes my feelings at the outset, that completing the film wasn't an end in itself, and was intended to be relevant today in terms of voting rights and states' rights. [Those] rights are once again front and center in American politics, [with] the need to defend voting rights recently. Thank you all very much. It's a great honor."

The United States doesn't hold a monopoly on standing up to oppression, of course, as witness the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, which chronicles the events of the winter of 2013-14.

Beginning as a primarily student-led peaceful revolution for democracy that was turned violent by police, the protest drew nearly one million people to Kiev to try to effect a change in the country's corrupt regime. Twenty-eight cameras on the street captured the protest.

The documentary's director, Evgeny Afineevsky, who had just arrived the day before from a project in Syria, was visibly moved in acceptance. "I wish to thank the Academy for this great honor," he said. "[The protest] was something I wanted to document and bring to the world. Thanks to Netflix, today 190 countries can learn from this.

"It was a real [testament] to the filmmaking process. Nobody was thinking about police batons, or cold weather. We were all driven by one goal: to document history and to bring the human story that was happening in front of us to the entire world. The people have real power. They came to the streets, and despite a lot of people who gave their lives, they fought. So by this trophy, I want to recognize all these people. This is for them."

A different kind of oppression is examined in the Emmy-winning HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, an exposé based on the Lawrence Wright book about the rise of Scientology from a self-actualization movement to a cult religion founded by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard.

Interviews with former members and church leaders describe separation from family, beatings, imprisonment and other means of church-imposed control.

"I'd like to thank the Academy for this honor," said producer Kristen Vaurio, accepting on behalf of producer-director-writer Alex Gibney, who was working in Northern Ireland. "We are so glad to be here."

Besides thanking Wright and HBO – particularly the legal department – she said, "Above all, I'd really like to thank the brave men and women who stepped forward and shared their stories with us for this film. They came forward at incredible personal risk. It wouldn't have been possible had they not trusted us, had they not come forward. Thank you all."

The powerful grip of substance addiction was the theme of the second season of the Cinemax series The Knick, set in New York's Knickerbocker Hospital in 1901, an issue which remains all too relevant today. Cocaine-addicted surgeon Dr. John W. Thackerey (Clive Owen) returns to the Knick after spending time at a hospital for addicts and alcoholics, determined to find the cause and cure for addiction by using himself as the subject.

Said cocreator-executive producer Jack Amiel in acceptance, "What we wanted to do was tell this story about addiction. Our character John Thackerey … lives in a world where addicts, just like the impoverished or the ill, are considered lesser than. They're considered deserving of this fate because they're weak. And what Thackerey wants to do is to look at addicts without judgment, and to look for a cure and to help them."

It was only when the Knick staff began to understand that addiction was a psychological as well as physical problem that progress was made, he added.

"… We have come leaps and bounds in terms of how we treat addicts, the kindness with which we treat them, the support we give them, and honoring them as human beings rather than as this 'other' in our society. So thank you to the Academy for this award,  and thank you because it honors addicts and the people who suffer along with them."

The event was produced by Barbara Chase and Barb Held. Lucia Gervino chairs the Honors Selection committee, whose members include Bob Bergen, Ted Biaselli, Jr., Tony Carey, James Pearse Connelly, Ed Fassl, Tammy Glover, Phil Gurin, Kieran Healy, Sharon Liggins, Nigel Lythgoe, Rickey Minor, Dorenda Moore, Janet Carol Norton and Stephen Tropiano. The Television Academy Honors was founded by John Shaffner, Lynn Roth and Dick Askin.

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