WHY THIS MATTERS: As the ultimate stamp of approval, the Emmys help viewers weed through an overgrown TV environment.
Let’s start with the math. Peak TV continues to keep peaking, with research by FX Networks suggesting that we will soon near 600 scripted shows on the air. In 2017 alone, 487 scripted series premiered across all platforms.
Out of those nearly 500 shows, only seven will score outstanding series nominations in their respective Emmy Awards categories this year, and, obviously, only one will win. The sheer tonnage of TV shows means that awards notice is more rare and thus more valuable, making the race for the Emmys more ferocious than ever.
“Everything when it comes down to Emmys is as competitive as it’s ever been,” said Eric Schrier, president of programming for FX Networks, which has several leading contenders on offer. “In this environment, where there are so many great television shows, you have to be out there making noise because there is so much choice.”
If you live in New York or Los Angeles, that noise is all around you — on billboards as you drive to work, in the trade magazines you flip through, even on your public radio station. And if you’re a member of the TV Academy, you also have the option to attend one of literally hundreds of For Your Consideration events.
But even TV Academy members have only 24 hours in a day, so networks must also rely on critical and social-media buzz as they promote their shows during voting season, which ends June 25, with nominations coming out July 12.
“I am a cock-eyed optimist when it comes to the Emmys and I continue to believe that you can’t buy them,” said Gary Levine, president of programming at Showtime, which is pitching dramas Homeland and The Chi, comedies Shameless and SMILF and limited series Patrick Melrose and Twin Peaks. “We still think we can earn them the old-fashioned way on merit, and we think our shows have the goods.
“We try to make great series that are relevant and resonant,” Levine added. “Sometimes that’s by putting on Homeland that eerily mirrors world events and sometimes it’s putting on SMILF right at the start of the #MeToo movement. These are relevant series with something to say.”
This year feels more open in all categories than it’s felt even in recent years. For example, HBO’s Veep has been named outstanding comedy for the past three years in a row. This year, Veep did not air and thus is not eligible.
Similarly, HBO’s Big Little Lies last year swept the limited series categories across all of the TV awards shows. This year, HBO doesn’t even have a limited-series contender, leaving that category wide open to newcomers.
Drama also feels more open than it has in recent years, but it’s still a category stocked with heavyweights, including last year’s winner, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which marked the first time a streaming service took home a series Emmy; and HBO’s Game of Thrones, which won in 2015 and 2016 and then was not in contention in 2017.
Also back for season two are several shows that were nominated last year: Netflix’s The Crown and Stranger Things; HBO’s West-world; and NBC’s This Is Us. Meanwhile, two perennial nominees — AMC’s Better Call Saul and Netflix’s House of Cards — are not in contention this year.
If all of those big dramas are nominated again, that only leaves one slot left for a newcomer and plenty of shows hoping to be coronated. FX’s The Americans just concluded its series run, and while the Peabody winner never attracted much attention from Emmy voters, critics simply adore it and both of its stars — Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys — are expected to be nominated as lead actress and actor in a drama.
“The Americans is not a highly rated show, but it’s considered one of the best shows on television,” Schrier said. “The people that watch that show love it. It’s built tremendous brand value for us.”
Other networks are hoping to sneak in with some new entries, such as Starz’s Counterpart, starring Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, or Vida, which offers a Latina point of view from creator Tanya Saracho and is set on Los Angeles’ East Side.
“The drama category is always super-competitive,” Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik said. “The work across the board is great and continues to raise the bar.” Zlotnik is looking for nominations for Counterpart, Vida and Outlander, as well as limited series Howard’s End and for those shows’ stars, including Simmons and Outlander’s Caitriona Belfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies.
“We just don’t have resources to waste,” Zlotnik said. “We’re going to try to punch above our weight with the resources we have, but we realize that we’re up against behemoths that are just hosing down the awards with money.”
Other worthy contenders include CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight.
“In so many ways, Emmy wins and nominations are such a fluke,” Discovery co-showrunner Aaron Harberts said. “It depends on so many things, and a lot of it is politics and what’s in the zeitgeist at the moment. Lately, the bar for shows getting nominated is so high. The quality of work being done is so great. It’s just an incredible time to be in television.”
For ‘Discovery,’ the Future Is Now
While Star Trek: Discovery is science fiction set in the far future, it still holds to the Star Trek franchise edict of reflecting what’s currently happening in the culture, especially considering the diversity of its cast.
“Carrying on that tradition really has to start from the top,” Harberts said. “We are really blessed because we’ve got gender representation and sexual orientation representation, as well as racial diversity. We’ve also got diverse voices in the writers’ room, in production and behind the camera with the directors.
“The expectation for Star Trek is that it’s going to be diverse. The beauty of the show is that it gets to be diverse without calling attention to it,” Harberts continued. “It’s an idyllic vision of the future — it doesn’t matter who you are. You are in this family because of what you bring to the party, regardless of gender, color, orientation. You are here because you are competent, intelligent and your heart wins you a spot and that’s the way it should be.”
Star Trek: Discovery is just one of many shows under Emmy consideration that offer a unique take on the current climate. The Americans told the story of Russian spies set in the late ’80s that oddly reflected many of today’s issues vis-à-vis Russia. Shows such as Showtime’s Homeland continue to mirror what’s happening on the international stage, often in eerie fashion. And The Good Fight is the TV show that’s taking on the Trump administration most directly and unapologetically.
Writing The Good Fight “has been a relief,” creators Robert and Michelle King said in an email interview. “The news has been so severe and worrisome, and the zeitgeist has changed so quickly. It’s been clarifying to see how our little fictional world and characters react to the same worries. We leave the writers’ room smiling every day. Writing this show has been an odd sort of therapy. We’re paraphrasing Walker Percy badly, but the happiest man is the one writing the most depressing story.”
No ‘Veep’ Leaves an Opening
Another show that’s been incredibly prescient about politics is HBO’s Veep — in fact, so prescient that last season, the show purposely avoided all things Trump — but it’s preparing to wrap its run next year and it’s not in contention this year, giving some other well-deserved shows a shot in the comedy category.
The two most likely contenders are two very different shows: FX’s Atlanta — created, executive produced, written and directed by and starring Donald Glover — and Amazon’s Golden Globe winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Atlanta is a subtly witty and observational series, often dealing with absurd or surreal situations, while Mrs. Maisel is a period comedy telling a straightforward story with a charismatic heroine played by Rachel Brosnahan, who also won the Golden Globe in January. Before season two has even aired, Amazon renewed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for season three.
While Atlanta has gotten a lot of attention from critics as being one of the best shows on TV, Glover himself is having a moment. Within about two weeks in May, he went from starring on Saturday Night Live, to debuting his new song and video for “This Is America” to more than 244 million views on YouTube, to starring as the young and charismatic intergalactic gambler Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
“Season two of Atlanta was as strong if not stronger than season one,” Schrier said. “Donald and the team worked really hard on that show to make it even better. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.”
Beyond Atlanta and Maisel, nominees expected to return to the category are ABC’s Black-ish, which opened this season with a musical episode, “June-teenth,” that took on slavery; HBO’s Silicon Valley, in its first season without series standout T.J. Miller; and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which returned this year for season nine after six years off. Curb has been nominated 39 times, and won twice for directing and editing.
Several newcomers also are circling, including HBO’s Barry, starring Bill Hader as a hit man who’d rather be an actor; Netflix’s GLOW, a.k.a. the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, as well as the streamer’s revival of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time as a totally different series set in a new time with new characters, and Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; NBC’s The Good Place, which features two huge stars in Ted Danson and Kristen Bell; and Showtime’s SMILF, another auteur comedy executive produced, directed and written by as well as starring Frankie Shaw.
“We are always betting on the vision of the creator of our series,” Levine said. “The fact that our creator, in this case, also directs and acts is just whipped cream. It doesn’t feel more risky. If anything, it’s less risky because there are less variables.”
Limited Choices in Limited Series
For the past two years, the outstanding limited series has been all but named long before ever getting to the Emmys ceremony in September. In 2016, FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson was the clear leader with showy performances from the likes of Sarah Paulson and a pre-This Is Us Sterling K. Brown. Last year, HBO’s Big Little Lies, featuring Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, won almost every limited series award across all of the TV awards ceremonies. And FX’s Feud also offered two Oscar-winning actresses in Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon.
This year, however, there’s no big breakout and HBO doesn’t even appear to be in the mix.
FX is back with both American Horror Story: Cult and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, starring Darren Criss as psychopathic serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Both franchises are executive produced by Ryan Murphy and his team.
“We’re somewhat torn because we’re excited about both of those shows,” Schrier said. “Ryan is formidable in this category.”
Entries that came on line later in the year — and thus can be fresher in voters’ minds — include Starz’s remake of Howard’s End; Showtime’s Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and AMC’s The Terror.
“If Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is not Emmy nominatable, nothing is,” said Levine, who also thinks David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks has a good shot at Emmy attention. “David [Lynch] directed all 18 episodes. I don’t think anyone has ever done that. It was an inspired and Herculean accomplishment.
“We just entered the limited-series arena last year,” Levine added. “We did it to tell stories that could be more finite but also to get into the game in terms of awards that limited series can yield. We’re thrilled to have two such strong contenders.”
Who Emmy voters choose won’t be known until July 12, but it’s clear there’s no shortage of shows from which to pick.
The 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards air Monday, Sept. 17 on NBC and will be hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che.