When did drama become the underdog?
Traditionally the most prestigious category at the Emmys, somewhere along the line, drama lost a bit of heat.
The culprit: Those clever folks over at Team Comedy, who stole the spotlight thanks to the emergence of new bold, risk-taking, subversive voices (“Master of None,” “Black-ish”).
Also guilty of a bit of momentum theft: Team Limited Series. It’s hard to compete with the star power lured by the promise of 10-and-out (“The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Night Manager”). No series commitment necessary.
But don’t sell drama short. Even in the post “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” era, there’s still plenty of high-quality drama being made on television. From big-budget battles to intricate spy craft to emotional wallops, the seven drama contenders offer powerful storytelling, compelling narratives, stellar acting — and yes, even a few laughs.
Witness the chorus of cheers when FX’s “The Americans” finally earned its much deserved nod — even from its competitors. “Super congratulations to them on a long-overdue Emmy nomination,” said “Homeland” executive producer Alex Gansa at the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour. “That is an unbelievable show.”
It’s more than just the makeup and costumes (though those wigs each deserve an Emmy of their own). Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg brilliantly weave an addictive spy thriller against a story about a family in the most trying of circumstances. Which we were reminded of in episode eight, when Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) reminds her daughter that skipping Bible class simply isn’t an option. She doesn’t have the time for the whims of teenagers: “Well, then you get yourself in the mood,” she snaps.
It’s a season that saw the loss of several key characters, but most of all, Paige’s innocence. And indeed, a few episodes later, she saw just how lethal her mother could be.
Perhaps no series had more buzz than USA’s freshman hacker drama “Mr. Robot.” There are those who say they saw the big twist coming, that they knew all along that Christian Slater’s character was a figment of Elliot’s imagination. But creator Sam Esmail was a magician who revealed even more secrets with subtle sleight-of-hand: that Darlene was Elliot’s sister, that Angela and Darlene are friends.
The pressure was on for “Better Call Saul” to live up to its predecessor — and it did it ever so elegantly. Showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould delivered a meticulously produced series at every level, adding complex layers (and Easter eggs!) to a character we thought we knew and have grown to love even more, despite his failings. Kim Wexler came into her own (we’ll never look at Post-Its in the same way). But it was the rivalry between the brothers that broke our hearts all over again. Who could have predicted that the manipulative Jimmy would get outplayed by his brother.
“House of Cards” had to compete with the headlines of an unprecedented political campaign. Yet even more unpredictable was Claire Underwood’s rise to the top. TV’s own Lady Macbeth proved to be even more ruthless than her husband, landing herself on the presidential ticket — and breaking through the show’s trademark fourth wall.
“Homeland’s” fifth season felt more ripped from the headlines than ever, with a terrorist plot unfolding in Berlin — and the audience more aware than the characters of a spy in their midst. Yes, we had the requisite Carrie breakdown and the unbearable Quinn torture — but it was the traitorous Allison’s scheme to execute (literally) her orders to her own benefit that proved that “Homeland” can still deliver a gutwrenching twist.
There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere in America — or the U.K., for that matter — when “Downton Abbey” wrapped its historic run. True to form, happy endings abounded for everybody — even the woebegotten Anna and Bates — and most shocking of all, Mary stopped being selfish long enough to ensure her sister Edith finally found romance.
And then there’s reigning champion “Game of Thrones.” No series may have faced more pressure going into this season. It was the gasp heard around the Internet when Jon Snow was resurrected — but EPs David Benioff and D.B. Weiss saved the true drama for when his sister Sansa stood up to him, proving herself the better war strategist. And then, of course, there was the reveal of that long-rumored secret of Jon’s true parentage — not to mention a climactic battle royale.
Still think drama is dead? I’ve got a few dragons who can settle that argument.