The Emmy Awards are always weird. Category fraud runs rampant before being, if ever, checked. Remember when American Horror Stories kept pretending it was a mini-series? The eligibility period – any show which airs from June 1 in the previous year to May 31 in the current year – was created with the traditional broadcast TV schedule in mind, that very same schedule which becomes less and less relevant with each new year in the peak TV era.
So, we end up with oddities, like the current season of Handmaid’s Tale being eligible for technical awards for episodes which aired during the eligibility period but not for acting or drama category awards since the entire season extended past the May 31st deadline. At the same time, Netflix’s When They See Us debuted in its entirety on May 31st and is now looking at 16 total nominations, third most in the Limited Series category, trailing Fosse/Verdon (17) and Chernoybl (19). That type of thing happens every year now, and it’s always confusing.
So, weird and confusing. That’s a given. What the Emmys are not, however, is boring. At least not anymore. The days of perpetually nominating the exact same people and shows in the acting and drama/comedy categories are mostly over. Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are big repeat nominees, for example, and will probably continue to be so for several more seasons, but they are joined in the comedy category this year by several wildly deserving shows – Fleabag, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek – which are each already in at least their second season and had never been nominated for Best Comedy before. Frankly, every one of them is probably equally deserving of the award.
Completely absent in the Best Comedy category are those previously nominated, long-running shows like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family which lost their luster long ago. The same happened in the Animated Program category, where an old standard like South Park was finally pushed aside by BoJack Horseman (and Big Mouth).
The acting categories are also mostly devoid of too many rubber stamp nominees. Denying Ellie Kemper and Jim Parsons their one final nomination for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Big Bang Theory respectively but giving one to Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the final season of Veep, for example, seems like a step forward for meritocracy. The first two actors, if you go by critical reviews, didn’t really do anything particularly extraordinary in their final seasons whereas Louis-Dreyfus was on her A-game. Thus, the door opened to new nominees like both Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (for Schitt’s Creek) and, my personal favorite, Christina Applegate (for Dead to Me).
However, the meritocracy argument quickly crumbles when you switch over to the drama categories, aka, the Game of Thrones sweepstakes where anyone and everyone Westeros was nominated, even the guy who played Theon! (Easy joke, I know; I actually think Alfie Allen played Theon’s final stand quite beautifully.)
The relationship between critical consensus and awards shows is always tenuous, mostly because the latter is far more susceptible to industry politics and ruthless campaigning. Still, few predicted the Emmys would completely ignore consensus and go full Oscars-Return of the King on us, clearly choosing to reward Game of Thrones for its cumulative achievement as a singularly important show in TV history even if it means nominating some of the show’s most questionable episodes and regrettable performances or, if not exactly regrettable, than probably good performances of horribly written scenes. As I saw someone on Twitter joke, Emilia Clarke deserves her nomination for pretending in interviews to actually like the finale. That GoT now holds the record for most nominations for any show in a single year feels right but not when you tell us it’s for its final season.
But this debate is actually a sign of how far we’ve come. We’re arguing over whether a show which features dragons, ancient magic, and ice zombies deserves so many Emmy nominations. Do we even still remember the days when the National Academy of Televisions Arts & Sciences was so genre-clueless that it completely ignored Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the Emmys until finally giving it a writing nomination for a predominantly silent episode (“Hush”)?
The genre bias still exists, of course. Critically beloved genre shows, like The Magicians and Legends of Tomorrow, have a better chance of sweeping The Saturn Awards than they do of ever receiving a single Emmy. But as peak TV continues to radically transform the medium and push forward with daring genre shows as well as a wide number of genre-straddling hybrid programs the Emmys have had no choice but to adapt.
Therefore some of the old ways need to die. Nobody learned that better yesterday than Julia Roberts, Emma Stone, Jonah Hill and George Clooney. There was a time when a bonafide movie star moonlighting on TV, either stunt cast as a guest star somewhere or actually leading their own series, was guaranteed at least an Emmy nomination. It’s for this reason that many naturally assumed Roberts (for Amazon’s Homecoming), Stone and/or Hill (for Netflix’s Maniac), and Clooney (for Hulu’s under-the-radar Catch-22 adaptation) were sure things. It’s not even just the “movie star=nomination” thing either. They each delivered solid work, Roberts and Stone especially. Their performances in their shows had previously put them in the running for a Golden Globe and Screen Actor Guild Award, respectively. Now they’re on everyone’s Emmys snubs list.
That seems like one of the biggest signs of the time with this year’s Emmy nominations. Yes, the arms race between HBO and Netflix continues as they continually fight over the title of “most-nominated network” – Netflix won that race last year, HBO this year – and that battle is directly related to the streaming wars which threaten to reshape the entire entertainment industry.
However, the oft-told truth of the peak TV era is that there is simply too much of a very good thing. No awards body in the world could ever hope to accurately recognize the absolute best in TV right now because for every 5-10 amazing shows and performances there are 5-10 more that are just as good, which is how FX’s What We Do in the Shadows went completely ignored and Hank Azaria’s Brockmire career-best performance continues to be snubbed.
In this environment, not even a very recent Oscar winner (Stone), America’s sweetheart (Roberts), and the most handsome man in the world (Clooney) can cut through the clutter. For peak TV, however, that sounds about right. After all, do you know anyone who watched all of Maniac (a show I had mixed feelings on but not about Stone, whose performance is on par with some of her Oscar-nominated movie roles), Homecoming and Catch-22? How many people are even aware those shows exist?
That’s peak TV in a nutshell.
Here’s a link to the list of nominees in all major categories.
Where do you stand on Maniac, Homecoming, Catch-22 and the rest of this year’s nominations/snubs? Is there simply too much TV to even bother with the Emmys anymore? Time spent thinking about the Emmys is time you could have used to catch up on HBO’s Years and Years. Or do you think they should just include a new category for “Best Old Show We All Binged” thus allowing Friends to somehow win yet more Emmys? Let me know in the comments.