For the second year in a row, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences can laugh at movies’ #OscarsSoWhite problem. Actors of color nabbed 18 of the major 73 acting nominations in the categories of lead and supporting performers in drama, comedy, and limited series. That’s just shy of 25%, and even an improvement over last year’s historic Emmys, where 16 actors of color were among the 75 nominees.
Every category for a lead actor featured a nominee of color: First-time nominee Rami Malek, who is Egyptian-American, broke into the club for lead actor in a drama, which last year was entirely white. Similarly, “black-ish”’s Tracee Ellis Ross broke the color barrier in lead actress for a comedy, which was also an all-white slate last year.
This year’s nominees were also more diverse behind the camera. Aziz Ansari, nominated for lead actor in a comedy for “Master Of None,” was also nominated for writing and directing; so was that show’s head writer, Alan Yang, for the episode they wrote together, “Parents.” Sam Esmail, the Egyptian-American writer/director behind Malek’s “Mr. Robot,” nabbed a writing nomination for drama. Both categories were entirely white in 2015.
And just to sweeten the deal, spotted in the directing nominees for a variety special: Beyoncé Knowles Carter, for her HBO special “Lemonade,” alongside co-director Kahlil Joseph and fellow nominee Chris Rock, nominated for “Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo.”
The Emmy nominations still don’t quite look like America’s population—but this year they’re closer than ever. Compared to two back-to-back years of all-white acting nominations at the Academy Awards, today’s nominations indicate that Emmy voters are seeking out and intrigued by stories that include creatives from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. In the category of lead actor in a limited series, fully half of the nominated actors are black men: Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Courtney B. Vance. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of demographic acrobatics the Oscars would have to attempt to come even close to that kind of representation in a single category, considering that the film awards have nominated exactly three black male performers, total, since 2012.
At the same time, the distribution of awards indicate some interesting trends and biases about diversity in television — in other words, there is always more work to be done. Latino actors were almost completely shut out this year, with a nomination in outstanding narration for “Jane The Virgin”’s narrator Anthony Mendez and a nod in the easily overlooked short-form performances “Crossroads of History” actor Oscar Nuñez.
And aside from Malek and Esmail’s work in “Mr. Robot,” television drama nominees — perhaps the most prestigious category at the Emmys — were overwhelmingly white. The regular cast in “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Downton Abbey,” “Game Of Thrones,” “Homeland,” and “House Of Cards” were almost entirely white this season. There are a couple of exceptions (notably, Michael Mando in “Better Call Saul,” Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson in “Game Of Thrones,” and Annet Mahendru in “The Americans,” though her character was written out of the show this season), but the demographics of the cast cannot but reflect the concerns of the narratives, too.
For example, “House Of Cards’” two major black characters, played by Mahershala Ali and Reg E. Cathey, used to be part of the show’s regular cast — and were both nominated for Emmys this year — but as guest actors, after their roles were significantly limited. Similarly, “Homeland,” a show that once prominently featured talent like Nazanin Boniadi, David Harewood, Morena Baccarin, and Sarita Choudhury, had a fully white regular cast this year, with the exception of series fixture (and criminally underused) F. Murray Abraham.
And though “The Americans” engaged with race this season more than it has since the first season, its one regular cast member of color (Mahendru) played a white character; similarly, Malek’s Elliot Alderson is of indeterminate race on “Mr. Robot”; it’s never discussed, and white actor Christian Slater plays his father. And “Downton Abbey” and “Game of Thrones”’s racial representation issues are legendary. In their separate ways, each show is creating a white fantasy.
Yes, perhaps I am splitting hairs. But it is fascinating to see what Emmy voters overlooked in order to get to these nominees: the well-regarded Netflix series “Narcos,” which is so invested in this history of Colombia that it is partly in Spanish; “Orange Is The New Black,” with one of the most diverse casts on television, and which was nominated last year; “Scandal,” which could have followed the mold of “The Good Wife” by nabbing a fifth-season nomination for, arguably, its best season since the second; “Underground,” WGN’s revolutionary slave narrative; and even Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” which focused on race with a brilliant intensity in Season 2 that made up for its ignorance of race in Season 1.
In contrast, both the comedy and limited series categories were stacked with shows that thoughtfully engaged with race; in comedy, there’s ABC’s “black-ish,” Netflix’s “Master Of None,” and even the convoluted self-recognition of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”; in limited series, we have both the self-conscious moralizing of “American Crime” and the ever-so-slightly campy thrills of “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” to tackle race relations, as well as History’s remake of “Roots.”
The lack of diversity in drama can be witnessed in its nominees, too; while 2015 winner Viola Davis and “Empire”’s Taraji P. Henson are nominated in lead actress, there are no actors of color nominated for either supporting actor and actress. The guest acting category features Ali and Cathey, the aforementioned actors from “House Of Cards”; but for guest actress in a drama, none of the six nominees are women of color.
It’s possible that this is just how the cookie crumbled this year. Last year, Uzo Aduba was nominated — and won — for “Orange Is The New Black”; this year, she was “snubbed.” But it could also be an indication of what types of stories voters expect from different formats. Comedies and limited series might be the venues for mixing up the audience’s expectations for television shows, but the drama nominees are almost all firmly in the definition of prestige drama, with all the positives and negatives that implies. In our era of multitudinous and experimental Peak TV, the dramas — which are each, in their own way, not just prestige dramas but antihero-driven prestige dramas — seem to be lagging behind.