Do The 2020 Emmys Have An ‘Outstanding Drama’ Problem?

The 2020 Emmys are going to look a bit different this year. Sure, our country is on fire, and a pandemic has forced people across the world to stay indoors — both robbing us of the pageantry of awards seasons past, and simultaneously saving us viewers from suffering through cringe-inducing red-carpet interviews. And the show, which last year boldly chose to go sans emcee, is once again tapping Jimmy Kimmel to host, this time virtually. But no, the most important change to the Emmys this year, one that might end up influencing future nominations and winners to come, has to do with the very bones of this decades-old trophy contest.

We’re talking about the Outstanding Drama category. Earlier this year, the Television Academy announced they were lifting a long-standing rule that once limited the drama and comedy series categories to just five nominees, regardless of submissions. That meant that a more diverse lineup of worthy stories should, theoretically, populate those categories moving forward.

It worked, sort of. Currently, eight series are nominated in the Outstanding Drama list, and yes, they cover the entire spectrum of what the genre can do. They’re stories about businessmen descending into madness and dragging the people they care about off the metaphorical moral cliff with them. They’re high-brow soap operas about the complicated, toxic bonds of the one percent, complete with sausage parties and white-boy raps. They’re dystopias imagining the subjugation of women and the rise of radical theocracies; neon-drenched nostalgic odes to the ’80s with Demogorgons as villains; ancient monarchies trying to adapt to more modern times; money-laundering enterprises on lakefront casino boats; on-the-run road trips in space… you get it.

None of the Outstanding Drama nominees this year fit easily into their designated box, but what’s even more confusing for fans, voters, and critics cursing each other on their shared slack channels when one excitedly champions Ozark or questions the cuteness of Baby Yoda* is how disparate, and how immeasurably different, these nominees are from each other.

Even as someone who’s spent years tuning into these kinds of awards contests with a carefully curated ballot in hand, I’m questioning how reasonable it is to pit this current crop of nominees against each other. How does a voter look at The Mandalorian and find anything comparable to qualify with a show like Succession or Better Call Saul? How do we watch The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist sci-fi series trading in heavy themes of fanatical religious oppression and climate change and bodily autonomy and hold Stranger Things, a fun ’80s romp about a group of kids fighting off fantasy-inspired monsters, as its mirror? And where in the hell does a show like The Crown, a stuffy-yet-beautifully-wrought chronicle of British history, get off fighting for a top spot against a dimly-lit crime saga like Ozark and the queer romantic espionage thriller, Killing Eve?

We’ve had this problem before of course. In 2015, the Television Academy outraged voters when it named Orange Is The New Black a drama instead of a comedy, crafting a completely inane rule that limited comedies to a 30-minute run time. And it’s not like the Outstanding Drama category hasn’t been diverse in the past, with shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones popping up over the years. But what’s puzzling now is how interested the Emmys seem to be in crowding its major awards categories in the name of “inclusion” without making the effort to actually honor the distinct, unique storytelling those shows are doing.

Is The Mandalorian a drama? Sometimes, but it’s mostly an action-packed odyssey with sci-fi roots. Is Stranger Things a drama? Sometimes, but it’s also a coming-of-age comedy wrapped up in a fantasy-adventure. The third season of The Handmaid’s Tale felt more like a thriller than anything else, as did the most recent installment of Killing Eve, but even then, it’s hard to compare the two. Of all the nominees, Succession (which should and probably will come out on top), Ozark, Better Call Saul, and The Crown feel like they share similar genomes, grounding their stories in reality, focusing their seasons on complicated, nuanced relationships. That’s not all a drama can be, but if we’re going to start vetting and validating the art form, it’s a helpful common denominator.

By opening up its drama race, the Emmys hoped to include critically approved, fan-favorite shows that would attract more viewers to counteract dwindling ratings over the past few years. When a show like The Mandalorian gets that kind of recognition, it brings with it a large fanbase that might tune in to see it take home hardware, which is fine. The Mandalorian was terrific even if its main draw was the adorable meme-generator that was Baby Yoda. But that means shows like Pose and Euphoria don’t make the cut, shows that might better face off against a Succession or Ozark because of their shared DNA.

This was always going to be an issue during the Age of Peak TV — the sheer amount of quality TV means we’ll continue to have genre-defying series appreciated and lauded by critics and academy voters. But if we’re going to start changing things, if we’re going to really embrace stories that aren’t traditionally honored during awards seasons (which I hope we do) can’t we simply take the extra step to create new categories or different scoring methods that give these shows their rightful due? Can we have races decided by fans, can we find ways to include specific sub-genres, can we appreciate what these shows do well with labels that match the stories they’re telling? I’d like to believe we can.

I’d like to believe one day we’ll have a sci-fi series category which might finally force older voters to watch and appreciate the merits of that genre. Or one that gives the many creative horror/thriller sagas on TV their deserved time in the awards show spotlight. We do it for other categories — the Creative Arts Emmys recognize everything from set design to costuming by separating them into contemporary, fantasy, and half-hour narrative programming — so there’s precedent. And even with the current pandemic halting production on dozens of shows, there’s no reason to believe that storytelling on TV is going to reign things in or slow down anytime soon.

So, shouldn’t the Emmys start trying to keep up?

* The events described above are purely hypothetical. Uproxx writers don’t use dark magic unless they’re forming a summoning circle for more seasons of What We Do In The Shadows.