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Emmy Nominations Analysis: Freshmen Dramas and Auteurs Rule as Voters Do Their Homework

How wide open was the Emmy Awards nominations race this year with “Game of Thrones” sitting out this year? Five first-year series crowded into the drama series race — an unprecedented display of new-ness in what has long been the Emmy’s most competitive category.

Last year, USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” was the sole freshman entry among seven drama series nominees. This year, “Homeland” and “The Americans” were elbowed aside by Netflix’s “The Crown” and “Stranger Things,”  Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” NBC’s “This Is Us” and HBO’s “Westworld.”

The wealth spread to newbies reflects the breadth of programming that Emmy voters had to choose from and a clear desire by voters to inject fresh blood into the realm of shows considered Emmy-worthy.

In that sense, the Peak TV explosion of nearly 500 scripted series helped lower-profile entries like “The Crown” and “Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as for FX’s “Atlanta” on the comedy series side.

Voters knew they had to tackle the Herculean task of surveying the enormous field, and they did their homework. “Crown,” which its luscious period detail and British accent, was Emmy bait from the first frame. But “Handmaid’s” in another era could have easily been that great show that everyone raved about but inexplicably didn’t get any Emmy attention (see: “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Americans” until last year).

AMC’s “Better Call Saul” was expected to secure its third consecutive drama series nom. It has the benefit of the “Breaking Bad” aura but there’s no question the show stands firmly on its own two feet, with season three being its best yet in the view of many critics. To wit, there were some howls about co-star Michael McKean being left out of the supporting drama actor race, after a tour de force performance as a man struggling to retain his dignity while battling mental illness.

Netflix’s “House of Cards” made it five consecutive drama series noms, a surprise given the volume of competition and the low buzz level for the show this season. Stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright held on to their lead drama actor and actress berths as well.

Even more than “Handmaid’s Tale,” “Stranger Things” may be the biggest surprise in the drama heat. The show is a sci-fi flavored thriller about monsters living among us — with the “us” being back in the mid-1980s. It’s genre but without the gaudy spectacle of “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld.” But it was also a sleeper hit last summer that capitalized on ’80s nostalgia and was enlivened by great performances from youthful stars (like Millie Bobby Brown, who scored a nom). It’s Emmy voters’ guilty pleasure.

Emmy voters also love a comeback story, and “This Is Us” was just that this year for NBC and broadcast TV in general. The family ensembler landed the first drama series nod for a broadcast TV show since CBS’ “The Good Wife” in 2011. The show broke through the general darkness dominating the tone of contemporary dramas with an unabashedly heart-tugging story of an extended family told in a time frame-hopping style that cleverly kept viewers guessing about how and when things happen to the characters.

On the comedy side, auteurs made a big mark. “Atlanta” was Donald Glover’s perfectly-timed intimate odyssey giving a glimpse at all the contradictions of life for young African-American men in a post-Obama administration world. The show hit the creative community like an asteroid last fall, with writers and directors of all racial and ethnic backgrounds marveling at both Glover’s ability to translate his singular vision on screen and FX’s willingness to be the platform for a show that adhered to none of the standards of half-hour comedy.

Netflix’s “Master of None,” the autobiographical vehicle for Aziz Ansari, surprised last year in landing a comedy series nom, and it remains in the hunt this year. Pamela Adlon secured a comedy actress nod for her similarly personal story told in FX’s “Better Things.” In fact, FX’s quirky brand of comedy seemed to be catnip for voters this year, what with Zach Galifianakis’ unexpected nom for comedy actor for “Baskets.”

“Atlanta’s” nom for best series came as Amazon’s “Transparent” dropped off the comedy series race after two consecutive noms. That speaks volumes about the organic diversity of personal backgrounds and creative visions that Emmy voters have to choose from, in contrast to the homogeneity of nominees that sparked so much criticism of the Oscars in 2015 and 2016. Not to mention the sheer diversity of outlets delivering these stories to a multitude of screens.

Speaking of the Oscars, another high-water mark for peak TV is set in the limited series drama actress race. Four Oscar winners are facing off against one another, including co-stars in two projects: Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon for FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” Felicity Huffman, nommed for ABC’s “American Crime,” is an Oscar nominee.

And not to be counted out in that race is Carrie Coon, a rising star of enormous talent that was on display this past year in FX’s “Fargo” (for which she was nominated) and HBO’s “The Leftovers,” for which she earned a mountain of superlatives for her work across three seasons.

No matter how many nominations are handed out, there will always be some shouting about who’s in and who’s out. But Emmy voters admirably undertook a spread-the-wealth approach this year that serves the industry well and showcases the ever-expanding television universe in all its glorious diversity.

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