Emmy season is more than just a horse race. It’s curation. In a world of more than 1,200 scripted and unscripted entertainment television programs, being narrowed into a group of the five to seven best in a category gives a show a much-needed spotlight to help it stand out from the throng.
Thus the Emmys have become more competitive than ever. Aggressive campaigns such as those launched this year on behalf of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Big Little Lies” and “This Is Us” cost roughly $1 million apiece. The changes in the industry that have upped the Emmy stakes were reflected in Sunday night’s ceremony. Here are Variety’s five takeaways from a long and lively Emmy campaign season.
For all the billions of dollars Netflix has poured into programming, it failed to buy its way to becoming the first streaming service to win a best drama series Emmy. Hulu, formed by old-school media companies in response to Netflix, takes that title. The smallest of the three major streamers (including Amazon) won eight Emmys for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” including the top prize. The results echoed 2008, when AMC, for years a second-tier channel devoted to library films, became the first basic cabler to win for drama series, with “Mad Men.”
Despite Hulu’s short reach — 12 million U.S. subscribers compared with Netflix’s 51 million — “The Handmaid’s Tale” emerged as the right show at the right time. As Sunday’s ceremony showed, the entertainment business remains horrified by President Trump’s casual jingoism and misogyny. Based on Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” captured industry sentiment so fully that it bested a popular, well-made, feel-good drama on the broadest possible platform, NBC’s “This Is Us,” which many had predicted would win.
Women Run the Show
The 2017 Emmy season was nothing if not a glossy showcase of the wealth of female-led material that’s thriving on television. From “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Crown,” “Big Little Lies” and “Feud: Bette and Joan” to “Veep,” “Grace and Frankie” and “Better Things,” programs that are laser-focused on the intimate lives of women drove the kudos conversation this year.
Behind the scenes, the stories of how the night’s big winners — “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Big Little Lies” — came to the screen reflects the entrepreneurial producing environment that has also been a boon for women in the biz.
“Big Little Lies” was born of the frustration shared by stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman at the lack of compelling roles for women in film or TV. The two joined forces to option Liane Moriarty’s novel and worked with their reps at CAA to assemble it into a white-hot package that sparked a bidding skirmish in 2015. Having Witherspoon and Kidman attached to star would have been enough to pique plenty of interest, but they also recruited David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallee to ensure that the scripts and the direction would be in sync with their vision. In other words, Witherspoon and Kidman weren’t about to let “Big Little Lies” go through development hell.
Taking such a forceful stand in shaping a project is certainly easier when there are two Oscar-winners driving the train; “The Handmaid’s Tale” saga offers the flip side of that story.
Director Reed Morano battled long odds to land the assignment of directing Hulu’s ambitious adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s beloved novel. She was an experienced cinematographer, but had never directed a series pilot. On paper, there was nothing to suggest that Hulu and MGM TV would gamble with a show that both companies hoped would be their calling card in the premium-TV arena.
But Morano earned her way to directing not just one but the first three episodes of the series. She showed up at her initial meeting with an impressive, spiral-bound 40-page look-book outlining her visual concepts for the ominous, color-stratified world that helped make the retelling of “Handmaid’s Tale” so distinctive. She also delivered a disc of music suggestions to help tell the story of Offred’s subjugation.
A year to the month after lensing began on “Handmaid’s Tale,” Morano made her way to the Microsoft Theater stage to collect the Emmy for drama series directing. She’s the first woman to win in the category since 1995. With the prevailing winds blowing in an industry in transformation, it surely won’t take another 20-plus years for the next female helmer to walk down that aisle.
For the first time, African-American men won the top comedy and drama actor awards in the same year — Donald Glover for FX’s “Atlanta” and Sterling K. Brown for NBC’s “This Is Us.” Riz Ahmed of HBO’s “The Night Of” became only the second person of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy. Kate McKinnon, the first openly gay woman on “Saturday Night Live,” won her second straight Emmy for best comedy supporting actress. Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing.
Waithe gave a shout-out to her “LGBTQIA family” when accepting her award. Backstage, she told reporters, “There are so many other funny women of color. I hope they will now have an opportunity because this door has been opened.”
But growth in the number of roles for women and minorities in front of and behind the camera has come hand in glove with the dramatic increase in the number of scripted television series. As channels such as MTV, A&E and WGN America back away from their scripted ambitions, producers watch to see whether the number of shows being greenlit will begin to decline. If it does, the diversity of employment opportunities could as well.
‘SNL’: Rebirth of the Cool
Commanding more Emmys than any other program this year, “Saturday Night Live” further cemented its status alongside “60 Minutes,” “The Tonight Show” and “Monday Night Football” as one of television’s most enduring franchises. At 42 seasons and counting, the show’s endurance has been, in part, a happy accident. Creator Lorne Michaels has often acknowledged that the sketch franchise’ format — conceived long before the internet was in people’s homes, never mind on their phones — lends itself perfectly to the viral-video era.
Entering its fifth decade, “SNL” has done little to adapt to the new TV landscape, even as the ways in which it is consumed have changed radically. It has become an important show, particularly during tumultuous times. In the Trump era, viewers turn again and again to “SNL” to see how America’s most storied comedy machine will process America’s most unpredictable presidency.
Michaels, who has built that machine and sustained it for most of its history, is now 72 years old. At the HBO Emmy after-party Sunday night, the famously prickly “SNL” boss gamely smiled for the photos that attendees lined up to take with him and his latest Emmy for variety sketch series. Though he remains comedy’s most powerful producer, he’s also one of its elder statesmen. At NBC and Michaels’ Broadway Video banner, the resurgence of “SNL” this season has probably heightened the focus on long-range planning for the show’s next 40 years.
This Instrument Can Teach
Winner after winner at the Emmy ceremony cited their direct experience with the power of television to help open minds, touch hearts and provide comfort in troubled times.
Alec Baldwin said he gets thank-yous on the street from strangers for his Trump impersonation on “SNL.” TV neophyte Kidman said she was floored by the level of connection viewers felt to her “Big Little Lies” character and her story of domestic violence. Glover, Waithe and Ahmed spoke of doors opening because of their work and their milestone wins for people of color.
Awards season is in many respects the epitome of Hollywood’s penchant for patting itself on the back. But amid the hype and hoopla, there are moments when the industry is tearfully, breathlessly reminded that with great power comes great responsibility.