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Emmys 2017: Noms Span Extreme Edges of Drama Spectrum

With five debut series cracking what is arguably the most venerated category at the Emmys, the Television Academy signaled a willingness to expand its definition of what makes an Emmy-worthy drama. By the numbers, it was an intriguing year: 180 series submitted for the category, the highest number ever. Four of the seven nominees are on streaming services; three of the seven are science-fiction shows; and three are led by ensembles anchored by women. Statistically, this is a magnificent array of shows — indicative of the changing nature of Hollywood and the breadth of options now available to viewers.

It’s baffling that voters overlooked “The Americans” just one year after ushering it into the drama series nominees — and it’s really disappointing, if not surprising, that “The Leftovers” failed to impress the Academy. There are a few other worthy shows floating around — “Halt and Catch Fire,” also on AMC, is one of my personal favorites, and Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” has been totally underrated by the Emmys. And as the Academy is often politically minded — “Veep’s” long-running winning streak speaks to Emmy voters’ feelings on Washington, and Alec Baldwin this year has a nom for his performance as the president — it seems significant that of the seven nominated shows, only two are in the present day. One of those, “This Is Us,” is so warm it’s gooey. The other is the reliably chilly “House of Cards.” Perhaps, in the tumultuous landscape of 2017, only extreme optimism or extreme pessimism can be tolerated.

In a way, that’s the story of the five shows that aren’t set in the present-day, too. “Stranger Things,” a sleeper hit for Netflix, is also comfortable, with a nostalgic narrative arc that references a whole decade of filmmaking and stars a whole crew of charming kids. “The Crown,” a masterfully rendered period piece about the young Queen Elizabeth II, presents geopolitics as a world run by dignified, self-sacrificing adults. On the other hand, “Better Call Saul” depicts a character inching closer toward being a villain, in a denouement we already know is pretty pathetic; and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is, well, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“Perhaps, in the tumultuous landscape of 2017, only extreme optimism or pessimism can be tolerated.”

With so many new shows, it feels especially difficult to try to name a favorite. “Better Call Saul” certainly has a shot at the statue because it’s been nominated so many times. “Game of Thrones’” win last year could signify a warmth toward genre shows that lays the groundwork for “Westworld,” a daring and adventurous show with a sprawling range of thematic implications about consciousness, creation, and storytelling. (That it plays with and tweaks the Hollywood standard of the Western in its production design surely can’t hurt it.) But at the same time, that political spirit could rally around “The Handmaid’s Tale” or even longtime nominee “House of Cards.” If the message is for pure escapism, maybe the sumptuous drama “The Crown,” which lays out civilized British nobility with refined flair, will seize the Academy’s fancy.

Whatever the Academy’s choice, it’s almost a guarantee that it will be a provocative one. Voters have an opportunity to cast ballots for dystopia, spinoffs, history and science-fiction; each nominated show is so wildly different from the others that whatever the Academy coalesces on will be an interesting snapshot into the industry’s psyche. What does a “Stranger Things” drama series win look like? Even choosing “House of Cards,” which is probably the least interesting show here, would be a shocking and fascinating statement.

Drama is in a little bit of a soul-searching moment in a general sense, beyond just this Emmy category. So much of the innovation in television has decamped from dramas to half-hours and anthology series that dramas seem to be degrading from one season to the next faster than ever. To wit, “UnReal” and “Mr. Robot,” two exciting shows from the 2016 race, dropped off dramatically in quality — and the nominations reflected that. The Academy likes to set off a debut show on a reign of glory, as it did with “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” That requires envisioning where these shows are going — a second season that will have the seal of the Academy’s honor branded on it.

It feels very 2017 for the Academy to be sifting through several different possible visions for how to move forward — whether that is outright dystopia, a paralyzing slide into obsolescence, a leaf from the British handbook, the comfortable citadel of cynicism, or something else entirely. These candidates for Academy honors have a lot of new blood in the mix, making for a surprising array of intriguing options.

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