Make Room for Freshman Dramas at the Emmys This Year

13 Reasons Why
Courtesy of Beth Dubber/Netflix

In the past, it’s been tough for any first-year drama series to break into the Emmy race, but this year there are two reasons for optimism.
First, there is a particularly strong lineup of freshmen, including “The Crown,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Stranger Things,” “This Is Us,” “Westworld” and “13 Reasons Why.”

Second, there are no front-runners and there are two clear openings, thanks to the absence of nominees from last year: HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is not eligible, and PBS’ “Downton Abbey” has ended its run.

But there is tough competition for those two slots and for all seven slots. The long list of hopefuls includes plenty of other first-year shows, as well as returning series that have not yet received Emmy recognition.

Some merit the attention because they’re surprisingly topical (“Handmaid’s,” “13 Reasons”), some because their storytelling is familiar yet radically different (“This Is Us,” “Westworld”) and some because they take familiar situations and characters, and make the audience see them in a new way (“Crown,” “Stranger Things”).

They have classy pedigrees and have something in common with every Emmy nominee ever, the elusive but indefinable factor of buzz. Fans, the media and industry folk are talking about these shows.

But they aren’t alone. The list includes freshmen “Sneaky Pete” (Amazon), “American Gods” (Starz), “Designated Survivor” (ABC), “Goliath”
(Amazon), “Legion” (FX), “Queen Sugar” (OWN), “Taboo” (FX) and “Victoria” (PBS).

The crop is so strong, it raises the question whether first-time nominees could sweep the July 13 announcement and take all seven slots.

It’s possible, but not likely. Emmy voters have always shown a tendency to recognize returning series. Familiarity breeds affection. Last year’s nominees included “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards” and “Mr. Robot.” If Emmy history is any indication, they could repeat again.
But life in the 21st century has given us a lot of surprises. In a year of Donald Trump’s election as president and “Moonlight” as Oscar’s best picture, it’s clear that predictions can be hollow and that “conventional wisdom” can be overturned.

Still, recent Emmy history offers plenty of clues. In the decade starting with the 2007-2008 season, the same titles recur over and over again in the race for drama series. “Mad Men” earned eight nominations. “Game of Thrones” scored six. “Breaking Bad” and “Downton Abbey” had five apiece; “Dexter,” “Homeland” and “House of Cards” nabbed four apiece during that decade. Other perennial Emmy faves in the 21st century include “Lost,” “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing,” and only occasionally did an “outsider” break in.

Unfortunately, terrific new series are usually relegated to B-team status, like players who sit on the bench waiting for someone on the A-team to drop out. But it’s a limited analogy, because these freshmen are at the A-team level.

So maybe it’s time to invent new categories to acknowledge the boom in great programming.

Why not create an Emmy category for best new series? The TV Academy could give these freshman a chance at recognition without sweating who’s going to drop out next. It would also clear the path for returning series to make it into the drama-series race, such as Netflix’s “Bloodline,” which is consistently good but has not yet earned a drama-series nod, as well as “The Leftovers” (HBO) and “Man in the High Castle” (Amazon).

And, while we’re at it, how about creating an Emmy for drama series that are reliable, but never get sufficient love? That would include fan faves “NCIS” (CBS), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC), “Bates Motel” (A&E), “Empire” (Fox), “Ray Donovan” (Showtime), “Scandal” (ABC), “Vikings” (History) and “The Walking Dead” (AMC).

In any other year, that category could include “Outlander” and “Orphan Black” (neither of which is eligible this year).

In a golden era of TV, when there are 400 scripted series every year, it takes a while for a series to imprint on voters’ minds. And the original goals of the Emmys remain the same: To recognize great work, and encourage home viewers to sample new fare. So two new Emmy categories would help fulfill both mandates.

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