The reign of buzzy audience favorites is so pronounced in this year’s Emmy nominations that it’s almost a convincing imitation of the Golden Globes. With a few bright exceptions, the 2017 Emmy nods are a testament to the familiar, the chattered-about, and the already seen, at the expense of critical favorites. Of course, this is not new for the Television Academy, which has always tended to reward the known over what’s risky. But for an Academy that introduced five new shows into its drama category, risk-taking comes with a hefty side of audience satisfaction. The nominees are mostly Hollywood comfort food: A-list names, established brands, and the meme-worthy. Especially on the comedy side, this left several brilliant shows in the dust.
Consider the drama race as a litmus test: The category had more submissions than ever — 180 series, for just seven or so slots. So as encouraging as it is for the Academy to be taking chances on genre shows, including the brilliant debut nominee “The Handmaid’s Tale” and nostalgic Netflix series “Stranger Things,” the Academy also settled for the familiar in “House of Cards,” Netflix’s long-running bleak take of Washington politics — which just delivered a pretty lackluster fifth season. Edged out in its place were far more worthies like last year’s first-time nominee “The Americans,” cult gem “Penny Dreadful,” and one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the year, “The Leftovers.”
It’s not exactly bad that the Emmys is rewarding audience engagement, whether that’s through Netflix’s successful dramas (including debut “The Crown”) or “This Is Us”’ ratings success. The TV business needs those big breakout successes, and “This Is Us” and “Stranger Things” in particular are shows that exceeded expectations to net a broad audience. But in this era of more television than ever, the Academy could and arguably should be focusing more on highlighting those shows that do extraordinary work, instead of rewarding where the audience already is.
If it’s a noticeable handicap in drama, it’s maddening in comedy, where only one new show broke into the category. “Atlanta” is a worthy show that deserves all the recognition the Academy has to give it. But otherwise the slate feels a little blind to how many new comedies surprised us this year, and how familiar favorites have fallen off. “Modern Family,” bless it, has been awarded enough for two lifetimes. But Academy voters clung to it over critically lauded “Catastrophe,” “Insecure,” “Fleabag,” “The Good Place,” “One Day at a Time,” and “BoJack Horseman,” which was also snubbed in the animated programming categories. Even the final season of “Girls” was overlooked. It’s disappointing to see all of them overlooked, all the way through to performances; Rita Moreno, from “One Day at a Time,” should have been a shoo-in.
For Emmy observers, it’s an especially odd state of affairs given that just last year, “The Americans” broke through the pack to get Academy attention; ditto “Transparent” two years ago. We’re witnessing the effect of a deluge of television — more than 450 scripted series, as we know all too well — on a voting body that may well reflect the struggle that most audiences are facing.
But it seems as if when the viewing public needs the Emmys’ discernment more than ever, the Academy is opting to favor those that do not need the extra cachet of an award to get recognized. It would do the Television Academy well to remember that Emmys don’t have to chase glory — just like the Oscars, the Emmys can grant glory, too. But in order to do that, the Academy will need to widen its lens just a bit more, to see what gems are languishing outside the spotlight.