The Emmys Play It Safe Again (Except When They Don’t)

We live in one of the most thrilling, most experimental eras in TV history, but the sheer tonnage and variety of quality shows out there has made things tough on Emmy voters. Academy members have always struggled with inertia about past nominees and winners, and with how hard it is to watch all the nominees — even in less-busy eras, the dirty not-so-secret of the Emmys was that people who work in TV have very little time to actually watch TV — so it’s not surprising when they miss the boat on things.

A year ago, miraculously, the Academy got it much more right than wrong, bestowing deserved noms on both exciting new shows like Master of None and on long-overlooked veterans like The Americans. It wasn’t perfect, because it’s impossible to get everything right, but there was much more good than bad to the nominations.

With this year’s nominations, that ratio unfortunately flipped. Despite a lot of new blood — some of it owing to Emmy juggernauts Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey not being eligible (the former because its upcoming season airs in next year’s eligibility window, the latter because it ended) — including some brilliant freshman shows like Atlanta and The Handmaid’s Tale, the overall list felt depressingly bland and safe.

Some of this is just my agitation over the nearly-complete snubbing of one of the all-time best seasons TV drama has ever seen: The Leftovers farewell tour, and particularly for the knockout work Carrie Coon has done on that show(*). When a series gets ignored for its first two years, and is low-rated, and isn’t the highest priority of its channel’s awards campaign efforts, odds are long on it somehow breaking through at the end, but with Thrones and Downton gone, I at least allowed myself to hope. But other than a guest star nod for esteemed character actress Ann Dowd, nothing, putting Leftovers in good company with The Wire and other classics not fully appreciated in their time by either viewers or Emmy voters.

(*) Coon at least was nominated for Fargo, where her only shot at winning is a whole lot of vote splitting among her more famous competitors who worked together.

The drama categories actually let in a ton of fresh blood, since voters finally stopped reflexively checking off Homeland for best drama (it’s also Claire Danes’ first non-nomination), and punished The Americans and Mr. Robot(*) for disappointing seasons, in a rare mass culling of the herd that somehow spared House of Cards. In place of those five absent nominees came Handmaid’s Tale, The Crown, Stranger Things, This Is Us, and Westworld. Handmaid’s and Crown are genuinely great shows. The other three? Well, all have things worth commending and/or nominating — Stranger Things is fun in a way drama nominees rarely get to be these days, This Is Us has several excellent performances, and Westworld is technically brilliant while also having some strong performances — but all seemed to get nominated well past their quality because of what they each represented.

(*) Both of last year’s drama lead acting winners weren’t nominated this year, but Tatiana Maslany was left off for the same eligibility reason Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks were: the current season of Orphan Black is eligible next year. Rami Malek was just dropped, which is a rarity for an Emmy winner the year after that win.

Stranger Things is the buzziest Netflix show (and Netflix had a very good day, as the first outlet in years to have three series nominees in the same category) and one that hits the Gen X sweet spot of a lot of TV’s current decisionmakers. This Is Us is that most endangered of species: a well-reviewed broadcast network drama — albeit one where the praise for everything but a few performances (nominees Sterling K. Brown and Ron Cephas Jones) carries some kind of “great for a network show” qualifier — that’s also a huge hit. And with Thrones on the bench, and also nearing its end, Westworld was a clear priority for HBO, which has the most power, in terms of both dollars and voters, of any real Emmy player. They wanted Westworld nominations, and they got them by the truckload, whether deserving (various technical nods, Evan Rachel Wood), or less so (writing, Sir Anthony Hopkins for a role in which he barely did anything for 10 episodes but smile cryptically).

It does at least create a pretty wide-open field for the actual awards ceremony. Westworld is probably the frontrunner just because of the size of HBO’s voting bloc. (It’s one of the reasons Thrones and Veep have dominated so thoroughly since rule changes a couple of years ago opened up voting to the entire membership, rather than blue-ribbon panelists.) But I could just as easily see This Is Us winning thanks to my friend Rich Heldenfels’ Chamber of Commerce Awards theory, which says, “People don’t vote for what’s best, but what’s best for the business.” The broadcast networks still employ a lot of people — and most of the retirees still eligible to vote primarily worked in network television — and it sends a good message if a broadcast show wins a category it hasn’t since 24 over a decade ago. But I could also see The Crown doing very well with older voters (a huge Emmy demographic), or Handmaid’s doing well (beyond what I’m assuming is a guaranteed win for Elisabeth Moss) because Hulu will throw everything it has behind it, whereas Netflix has to divide its resources.

If the drama categories were novel but often frustrating, the comedy categories were largely more of the same, with a few exceptions. Donald Glover’s Atlanta — the rare show that (a bit like Stranger Things last summer) everybody I know who works in the business kept asking me about — had a big day, but the other comedy series nominees were exactly the same. (Transparent got bumped for a good-but-not-great year, but still did well in acting categories.) But there were pleasant surprises sprinkled throughout that side of things: Better Things co-creator/star Pamela Adlon getting a lead actress nomination, and Zach Galifianakis joining Baskets co-star (and last year’s most delightful winner) Louie Anderson with a nom. But even though most of Modern Family‘s automatic nominations have vanished over the years, it’s still there, season after season, for outstanding comedy series. (Like William H. Macy for Shameless, it will keep being nominated until it goes off the air, most likely.)

I try not to get too worked up about the Emmys. Some of the greatest shows and performances in TV history never won Emmys. Jackie Gleason never did for Ralph Kramden, or Jason Alexander for George Costanza, Martin Sheen for President Bartlet, Amy Poehler for Leslie Knope, or The Wire for anything. But the Emmys are also the closest thing TV has to a historical record, and if some TV fan decades from now (assuming TV still exists in a recognizable form by then) looks back to the nominees and winners of any particular year or decade, it would be nice for them to see what was truly great about TV at that time, rather than what was picked because voters weren’t paying attention, or were voting in a bloc, or were occasionally distracted by shiny new things.

And other than Dowd, nobody involved in this will be part of that historical record:

Other Emmy thoughts:

* Emmy inertia in action: Jonathan Banks was nominated again for Better Call Saul, because he always has been (and was at the end for Breaking Bad) — and was very good, albeit primarily silent and stoic — even though most viewers of this season would say the clear supporting actor standout was Michael McKean.

* Perhaps the best episode of TV in 2016 was the nearly-silent BoJack Horseman episode “Fish Out of Water.” It was submitted, but not nominated, for the animated program category. (Kristen Schaal got a voice acting nomination for a different BoJack episode.)

* Dowd actually got two nominations (also supporting actress for Handmaid’s Tale), which for the moment gives her the character actress championship belt over Margo Martindale, un-nominated for either The Americans or Sneaky Pete.

* One of the reasons CBS ordered a Good Wife spinoff for its All Access subscription service was the hope that The Good Fight could continue its parent show’s strong showing among Academy voters. Instead, it only got one nomination, for theme music.

* Look, I enjoyed the hell out of both Stranger Things itself and the internet going nuts with the #JusticeForBarb meme, but Shannon Purser had about as much to do on that show as Martindale did a year ago on The Americans, when she was basically in one scene at a diner to help explain the plot. Then again, Martindale won for that scene, so maybe Purser’s your frontrunner.

What did everybody else think? Were there particular nominations that thrilled or annoyed you? Snubs that elevated your blood pressure?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at