Bold Freshman Dramas Shake Up Emmy Writing Race

Fierce competition for nominations has showrunners breaking conventions

Jessica Jones Emmy Race
Courtesy of Netflix

For television writers striving for Emmy attention, our age of peak TV adds a new level of trial and tribulation to an already gladiatorial environment.

Nevertheless, a number of freshman contenders could make this year’s writing category a particularly interesting race with their takes on subjects that, in previous seasons, may never have made it out of the pitch phase.

Series such as “Underground,” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” “UnReal,” “Mr. Robot,” “Billions,” and others all have strong shots at Emmy noms. Different though they all may be, many of the ideas guiding their showrunners come from similar motivations.

Melissa Rosenberg, showrunner for Netflix’s widely acclaimed “Jessica Jones,” made a point of urging her staff to go against standard operating procedure when writing the Peabody Award-winning series.

“There’s always that mark where we say, ‘Oh well, it works,’ ” she says. “ ‘It works’ is what you would do on network. … If it wasn’t something we loved and that all of us were excited to write, we would say, ‘Let’s just explore. Can we do better?’ ”

The result: a comic book-inspired drama that defies the superhero label, featuring a flawed heroine whose backstory placed struggling with PTSD, the aftermath of rape and abortion — issues network television has vehemently shunned — at the center of its first season’s narrative.

The 2015-16 season also saw WGN America launch its slavery thriller “Underground,” which took a subject usually handled with absolute solemnity and instead set scenes to a modern soundtrack featuring hip-hop and pop music tracks, injecting subplots with soap- opera elements.

“We said we wanted to be bold storytelling-wise, visually, and with the music,” says Misha Green, who co-created the series with writing partner Joe Pokaski. “We also had the advantage, when we started researching the Underground Railroad, that this amazing story had never been told.”

“‘It works’ is what you would do on network. … If it wasn’t something we loved and that all of us were excited to write, we would say, ‘Let’s just explore. Can we do better?’ ”
Melissa Rosenberg

Pokaski and Green previously worked together on NBC’s “Heroes,” an experience they credit for informing the tone of “Underground,” given their mutual love for comic books.

An admiration for genre’s style of storytelling also guided Brian Koppelman and David Levien in executing the first season of Showtime’s “Billions.”

“People talk about world-creation a lot when they’re talking about sci-fi movies,” says Koppelman, who, with Levien, came to TV after writing a number of film scripts starting with 1998’s “Rounders.” “But for us … the world of hedge funds and the world of United States attorneys are each worlds that lend themselves to that kind of cinematic treatment, because you’re dealing with people who consider themselves larger than life.”

USA Network also bet on the story of an outsized character who may not be all that he appears — and landed a serious awards contender in doing so. To date, “Mr. Robot,” a mind-warping tale of hacker culture, has already won a Golden Globe for best TV drama, as well as a Peabody.

Series creator Sam Esmail credits part of “Mr. Robot’s” success to it having been initially conceived as a film; the show’s first season mirrors the plan for his movie’s first act. His writers’ room reflects that. “It’s mostly feature [film] writers and not television writers, and we’re looking at it as, how do we efficiently and economically get to that satisfying conclusion,” Esmail says.

Jessica Goldberg, creator of “The Path”, approached her Hulu series from her experience as a playwright. “What people are compelled to do comes from whatever their emotional life happens to be,” she says.

Marti Noxon, showrunner for Lifetime’s “UnReal,” believes her show’s exploration of the psychology of reality television was key to connecting with the audience for her dark drama that goes behind the scenes of a fictional romantic competition series.

“This show is just trying to be a mirror, not only of why the characters are the way they are, but of why our culture is the way it is now,” Noxon says. “What does it do to us, when we try to have our cake and eat it too? I think in the end, everyone ends up hungry and sad.”