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Sci-Fi Newbies Hope to Follow in ‘Game of Thrones’ Epic Emmy Footsteps

There’s no doubt HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has been a game-changer for TV. It has delivered record ratings for its network, blazed a trail for epic fantasy on the small screen and rewritten the conventional wisdom about how genre programming fares at the Emmys, breaking the record for most wins by a scripted show at last year’s ceremony.

The success of “Thrones” has spurred just about every network to jump on the fantasy/sci-fi bandwagon in some way, and it’s no surprise that many of the series that fit the trend are high-quality offerings in their own right. But what remains an open question is to what degree the TV Academy will embrace this year’s crop of freshman genre contenders.

Two presumed heavyweights had a jump start on awards season: Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and HBO’s “Westworld” premiered in 2016, making them eligible for various guild awards and the Golden Globes, at which they scored a raft of noms — and a few wins from the guilds.

“I feel like ‘Game of Thrones’ is the one that changed it. It opened the doors for all of us, especially relating to awards attention,” says “Stranger Things” co-creator Matt Duffer. “To be considered best show of the year? When there are dragons and ice zombies? Now finally that doesn’t matter. [‘Thrones’] broke down that wall and made it possible for us to even be in the conversation.”

Genre shows have a mixed Emmy track record. Several landmark series, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Battlestar Galactica,” were essentially overlooked during their runs.

“The Twilight Zone” earned a drama series nomination in 1961 and “Star Trek” nabbed back-to-back noms in 1967 and ’68, before a long drought until the overtly sci-fi “Quantum Leap” and just plain weird “Twin Peaks” both landed in the 1990 series race. “Leap” earned two more noms, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” cracked the field for its final season in 1994, and “The X-Files” kicked off a streak of four consecutive noms in 1995. But none won the top prize.

“[“Thrones”] opened the doors for all of us, especially relating to awards attention. It broke down that wall and made it possible for us to even be in the conversation.”
Matt Duffer

Another breakthrough came in 2005, when the first season of pop-culture phenomenon “Lost” took home the first-ever drama series Emmy given to a show that could be classified as sci-fi or fantasy. “Lost” went on to three more drama series noms and “Heroes” and “True Blood” subsequently earned one apiece.

“Game of Thrones” entered the scene in 2011 and has been nominated every year since, winning the past two years for seasons five and six. And while the show has already broken the record for most Emmy wins by a fictional show (it bested “Frasier” last year when it won trophy No. 38), the TV Academy still veers toward reality-based dramas including “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Homeland” for the lion’s share of nomination slots.

This year could shake up the status quo for two reasons: “Game of Thrones” is sitting the race out since it won’t return to HBO’s schedule until later this summer; and there has been an influx of acclaimed and buzzworthy genre offerings.

Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy credits “Thrones” with helping to establish “you don’t have to have a show that’s all about verisimilitude and realism to be able to forge a connection with an audience that’s very visceral. You watch a great ‘Game of Thrones’ and as a woman you’re like ‘Go Khaleesi! Kill! Slay!’ There’s something so rousing and immediate about it.

“Allowing shows like that to get recognition critically gives credence to how metaphor and allegory, from the beginning of time, have been able to create really deep and lasting connections and are an incredibly valid form of art and literature.”

For Michael Green, co-showrunner of Starz’s “American Gods” with Bryan Fuller, the show’s success in tandem with the increased demand for scripted programming “gave a lot of second chances to a lot of things that were considered not filmable, too weird or too genre.”

Even though costs are high for TV, it’s possible to produce genre tales without the luxurious budgets or production schedules of feature films.

Joy and “Westworld” partner Jonathan Nolan certainly took note of “Game of Thrones’ ” production feats. “We referred back to ‘Game of Thrones’ constantly in terms of the ambition of it,” he says. “You could shoot all of that on a soundstage in Southern California with a green screen if you wanted to. I think that’s how most networks would’ve approached it. But with HBO there was a commitment to saying ‘It makes sense to shoot it out of Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Morocco.’ They really went for it. You feel it in the ambition and the scope and the scale and the beauty of the show.”

Warren Littlefield, an exec producer on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which expands Margaret Atwood’s classic sci-fi novel into an ongoing series, credits “Thrones” with establishing a fully immersive world that passes the “bullshit” test.

“It’s difficult to build such a unique and different world,” he says.

And as more series aim for a similar level of difficulty — from FX’s Marvel universe breakout “Legion” shepherded by Noah Hawley to Netflix’s cult fave “The OA” created by indie darlings Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij — the TV Academy will be forced to take notice, or risk being left behind like a character on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which voters have snubbed for two seasons in a row.

Diane Garrett contributed to this report.

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