The challenging goal of the Emmy Awards is to reflect who we are in this moment, to single out those shows that represent the best of what’s being created across all platforms. This year’s list of Emmy nominees succeeded in some ways — highlighting risk-taking freshmen shows such as FX’s “Atlanta” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” and exceptional performances from Sterling K. Brown, Nicole Kidman, Riz Ahmed and many others.
But frustratingly, the voters also showed a stubborn reluctance to let go of the past, with nods for legacy shows long past their prime. The result is an uneven lineup, scattered with bright spots but plagued by too many noteworthy omissions.
To be fair, their job isn’t easy — sifting through the nearly 500 scripted shows produced in the past year that fed into 117 categories and a record-breaking 9,000 submissions. No one reasonably has time to watch them all. (Those of us who cover TV barely do.)
Nominations for a veteran show such as “Better Call Saul,” which is at the top of its game in its third season, as well as for fresh and engaging newcomers from “Better Things” to “Big Little Lies,” demonstrate that many Academy members are doing their best to pay attention to the vital and varied TV landscape. Multiple noms for accomplished actors including Ann Dowd, Donald Glover, Matthew Rhys and Ahmed demonstrate voters’ willingness to dig deep through their ballots.
Yet they also refuse to relinquish their death grip on their most infamous and tiresome habits: Gravitating to star power — despite the debatable worthiness of the project the talent takes on — and clinging to the familiar, returning again and again to past nominees, even though these programs and performances may not be at their peaks.
Consider the limited series race. Too many nominations for “Genius” — a middling vehicle not quite worthy of Geoffrey Rush’s talent — meant that there was less room for “American Crime,” “Shots Fired” and “The Young Pope,” all of which garnered far more critical acclaim. The heap of nominations for “The Wizard of Lies” was to be expected, but that film was less potent than it could have been.
|Freshmen series and fresh faces make the cut, but loyalty to legacy nominees take away from worthy candidates
Mike McQuade for Variety
Admittedly, not all the high-wattage actors in contention made the final list: Standout performances from Jude Law in “The Young Pope” and Oprah Winfrey in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” — which would have been locks in years past — were ignored by Emmy voters.
But a blind and increasingly indefensible loyalty to star power pervades the rest of the list. Legacy noms are taking up slots that could have gone to more worthy fare and performers. In an era in which a few dozen excellent shows are airing at any given time, it’s long past due time to stop automatically giving Emmy nominations to “Modern Family,” “Ray Donovan” and “House of Cards.” William H. Macy of “Shameless” and “Homeland’s” Mandy Patinkin are wonderful actors, but their yearly nominations might as well be an automated reflex at this point.
On the drama side, “House of Cards” — which limped through its fifth season — took a slot that might otherwise have gone to “The Leftovers” or “The Americans,” a show the Academy recognized last year but somehow snubbed this time out. Aside from the great Ann Dowd, the outstanding casts of the “The Leftovers,” “Rectify,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Billions” and “Legion” were ignored as well.
And on the comedy side, “Atlanta” was on the only new series to break into the race — yet this year has been characterized by a slew of fresh, funny, poignant half-hours. It’s hard to argue that “Catastrophe,” “Insecure,” “Fleabag” and “One Day at a Time” deserved to be shut out of all of the core comedy categories. At least Pamela Adlon got recognized for “Better Things.”
One of the great things about TV right now is that fans could easily have a vociferous debate about what the best shows are — and everyone would be right. Viewers are spoiled for choice. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is very different from “Stranger Things”; both are nothing like “Atlanta” or “Black-ish.” The tightly wound, British propriety of “The Crown” is a far cry from the California cool of “Big Little Lies.”
The good news is that the ceremony should be widely watched, given how many crowd-pleasing shows were nominated. And when they get their final ballots, Emmy voters will have a chance to reward those deserving shows. They can move on from the past — this September, and well after that.