Emmys 2017: Laying Odds on ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘This Is Us’ in Drama Race

The Crown This is us Handmaids
Courtesy of Netflix/This is Us/Hulu

The biggest drama on Emmy night will undoubtedly come from the drama race: Without the two-time returning champion in contention (“Game of Thrones” is ineligible because of its mid-July debut), it’s a fiercely competitive category, perhaps the most unpredictable of the night. Five freshman series — from across genres and platforms (finally, a broadcast nominee) — are vying against two seasoned programs (“Better Call Saul” and “House of Cards”). Emmy likes to anoint the new prestige show — and this time out, it’s spoiled for choice.

The Odds
The only safe prediction is that the winner will come from among the new series. The question is which? HBO’s “Westworld” claimed the most nominations of any scripted series (with 22) but voters may be befuddled by its plot twists. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” was the surprise hit for the streamer, and rode that wave to awards glory at the SAG Awards and PGAs. But then came Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which offers a timely political message wrapped in pristine production values. Similarly Netflix’s “The Crown” painstakingly recreates the rise of young Queen Elizabeth II, with the British imprimatur that makes voters swoon (“Downton Abbey,” anyone?). And then there’s NBC’s family drama “This Is Us” — as the lone broadcast nominee, it’s the one series they’re most likely to have watched.

The Case for “The Crown”
Netflix spent millions on this period piece — and it shows. The production sparkles with the meticulous attention to detail at every level — from the exquisite costumes to the sumptuous locations to the peerless performances, not just from its leading lady Claire Foy as the conflicted queen, but notably John Lithgow as Winston Churchill (all but guaranteed a trophy of his own). And yet it offered twists of its own: Consider the coronation episode, which brilliantly wove the ceremony with all its requisite pomp and circumstance with the Duke of Windsor’s viewing party, mourning for what might have been.

The Case for “The Handmaid’s Tale”
From the very first scene, “The Handmaid’s Tale” made it clear that this wasn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of a dusty 30-year-old novel. Finding relevance to our current times in Margaret Atwood’s prescient themes, showrunner Bruce Miller and his creative team — notably cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano — established a haunting world with a potent visual palette where every moment was infused with meaning. The color-coded costumes, the bleak production design, and Elisabeth Moss’ chilling voiceovers all combined to create a nightmarish world of Gilead, but one from which we couldn’t look away.

The Case for “This Is Us”
If there’s been one theme to the Emmys in recent years, it’s been the lack of contenders from the Big Four. Enter “This Is Us,” a soapy yet soulful family drama — reinventing the TV staple with its plot twists and time jumps. Recognizing Dan Fogelman’s series is a chance for voters to celebrate quality broadcast programming that struck a chord with millions of viewers. Yet along the drama’s famous emotionally charged path (all those weepy memes!) were some stellar side trips, like the “Memphis” episode, which served as tribute to a core character as well as a city. It’s hard not fall for “This Is Us’” charms. NBC’s feel-good family drama could well play spoiler given its record-breaking popularity.

The Competition

“Better Call Saul” (AMC): The third season of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s “Breaking Bad” prequel may well stand as its best, punctuated with a heartbreaking twist.

“House of Cards” (Netflix): A surprise nominee, perhaps, but voters have shown consistent loyalty to the political potboiler throughout its run.

“Stranger Things” (Netflix): The throwback sci-fi mystery is the cult favorite of the season — and its early awards success bodes well for its trajectory.

“Westworld” (HBO): The would-be successor to “Game of Thrones” and high-tech sci-fi thriller clearly made an impression
with voters, scoring 22 noms.