Emmys 2017: Embracing Genre Through ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Westworld’

Stranger Things Emmy Race
Curtis Baker/Netflix

Reaching for the crown from “Game of Thrones” when it comes to Emmy contenders in the sci-fi or fantasy genre this year are Netflix’s breakout “Stranger Things” and HBO’s high-concept “Westworld.” While such genre shows do not typically break through in the awards race, both are major contenders, having nabbed 18 and 22 nominations, respectively.

Matt and Ross Duffer, the brothers who co-created “Stranger Things,” credit the HBO epic that topped the list of Emmy noms just last year with helping shows like theirs get recognition from the creative community. “‘Game of Thrones’ really opened the door,” Ross says. “It let people see that genre shows are worthy.”

In fact, the desire to show just how strong storytelling could be in the television genre space is what led the Duffers to work in that medium. “We love genre, but in film if you make a genre film it has to all be about the genre,” Ross says. “We were excited to be able to tell more complex stories on television.”

While Matt acknowledges that it did take “Game of Thrones” a few years to break through, he and his brother were luckier to get the acclaim for their freshman season. “I’m sure we wouldn’t be here without ‘Game of Thrones,’” Matt says. “But I think it always goes back to our cast [too]. I think people fell in love with those kids and the characters in the show. And I like to think it was because there wasn’t anything like it on television, which I know because it was difficult to sell — because we had kids in lead roles, but it wasn’t a show for kids.”

According to “Westworld” co-creator and co-showrunner Lisa Joy, shows such as hers are now getting greater awards recognition because they are finally getting budgets on par with the level of stories being told.

“In genre, it’s actually a very ambitious landscape these types of movies and shows deal in because you’re creating worlds,” Joy says. “It’s not a small office drama or a procedural. You’re literally creating universes and times and places. That demands an ambition and scope to the production that previously people weren’t given.”

Good storytelling and strong characters will rise to the top regardless of the genre of the project being produced, she says. “I think [‘Westworld’] is resonant on a level that is, of course rooted in the genre, but I think is really relevant to a lot of people. All literature, TV and drama are basically cribbing off of mythology — these epic stories of man against the gods, [where] here our man just happens to be a robot, and the gods are humans, but the idea is the same. It’s ‘How do you survive in a world that is sometimes hostile and often unfair? And how do you do that with your moral code intact?’ I think the timelessness of those questions is what appeals.”

Though both “Stranger Things” and “Westworld” received critical acclaim during their runs, they face stiff competition in the drama series category in the form of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” NBC’s “This Is Us,” AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” and Netflix’s “The Crown” and “House of Cards.” Any one of them has the potential to win the category, but one thing is certain: genre shows such as “Westworld” and “Stranger Things” are proving to be forces to be reckoned with.

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