Television has been there for us during the Great Pandemic Shut-In. Now it’s time to honor the shows that saved us from ourselves and the plague outside our front door. Nominations for the 72nd Emmy Awards, scheduled to air Sept. 20 on ABC, were announced this morning, and there’s plenty to celebrate, bemoan, debate and quietly overthink as we wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. Here are five takeaways to get things started:
The academy misses the fantasy of 'Game of Thrones'
Who can blame voters for wanting to escape? The last year has been a wrecked clown car inside a dumpster fire that’s riddled with the plague. Series that deal with today's ugly reality through a sci-fi or comic-book lens are a fine way of working through tough issues without subjecting oneself to the here and now. “Watchmen” tackles the deadly implications of racism by revisiting the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, with the benefit of superhero courage and otherworldly powers. Plus, avenger Angela Abar (Regina King, who’s also nominated for her role) looks phenomenal in a mask, and that means a lot right now.
And yes, “Stranger Things” deserves to be here. Not many shows get stronger with each season or grow with their cast. This one did. The lifestyles of the rich fantasy “Succession”? It also provides an escape hatch, though I'd rather avoid it altogether and watch another satire about how power corrupts, Amazon's"The Boys" — which was not nominated, but damn well should have been.
Black representation grabs the spotlight in the major categories
The absence of HBO awards hogs “Game of Thrones” and “Veep,” both juggernaut hits that ended last year, opened up more slots for newish series, and many of those series reflect the public's hunger for stories told from fresh perspectives. The change we’re seeing among the 2020 Emmy nominees is also the result of pressure from talent and audiences on social media and beyond to make television more representative of the population at large. The fragmentation of the TV landscape — as basic and premium cable have been joined by Netflix, Hulu, Apple+ and now Quibi — has created space for shows and talent that might have otherwise been overlooked by an old network system that saw non-white stories as too risky for prime time. The recent flood of original programming has made television a more daring and creative place than film. Let’s see if that dynamic carries through to when the winners are announced in September.
Don’t raise your glass yet. Narratives about other American shades of color, especially the immigrant experience, were overlooked
Hulu’s “Ramy,” arguably one of the sharpest half-hour series on television, was also locked out of the comedy series category even though it had all the markings of a show primed to make the cut: Its creator won a comedy acting Golden Globe and the show itself won a Peabody. Adding to the slight, the snubs come in a year when the comedy series category was expanded to eight frontrunners! What gives? Still, “Ramy” did make history as the first Muslim American sitcom to earn an Emmy nomination — three, in fact, with co-creator/star Ramy Youssef for comedy actor and director and Mahershala Ali was nominated for his supporting role in the series.
But it's not enough. Apple+’s fantastic collection of immigrant tales “Little America,” and TV series about the Latino experience fared even worse, with worthies like Starz’s East L.A.-set drama “Vida” and Pop TV's "One Day at a Time" left out in the cold. Even the documentary categories snubbed a myriad of productions about the immigrant experience, such as Netflix's “Living Undocumented,” for the salacious “Tiger King.” Grrrr.
When forced to choose new shows, the academy does well
But when it comes to limited series, there are no previous-year winners or runners-up to choose from, so voters are forced to do the unthinkable: try something new. The limited series nominees represent some of the more daring programming of 2019 and 2020. And they all happen to revolve around female leads: “Watchmen,” “Mrs. America,” "Unbelievable,” “Unorthodox,” “Little Fires Everywhere.”
Each of these productions offers a fresh take on topics that television traditionally had a hard time wrapping its antennae around in a meaningful way. From state-sponsored racism and violence against Black communities to the women’s right’s movement and patriarchal strains of religion, 2020's limited series nominees are evidence that voters must venture outside the safety of what they know. And now that the dragons have flown, HBO's attempting to corner that market too. God, "Chernobyl" was good!
It's not streaming that rules. It's Netflix
Netflix's Emmy abundance is doubly impressive given that Disney and Apple arrived this season with subscription services that threatened to disrupt Netflix's disruptive winning streak. If the academy's choices are any indication, the former upstart/current king is in no immediate danger: Amazon Prime Video was second of the older guard of streamers, with 30 — 20 of them for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Disney+ amassed 19 nominations, most for "The Mandalorian," and Apple TV+, home to "The Morning Show," got 18.
But never underestimate the power of Baby Yoda, Jennifer Aniston, or the countless other services that have launched in the last year. If their names were used in new cognitive tests, we'd all fail: Peacock, HBO Max, Quibi, person, toaster, television.