Decoding Episode Appeal to Voters Starts With Pilots

Better Call Saul” co-creator Vince Gilligan has a theory about why he got an Emmy nomination for directing “Witness” this year. “I can make this short and sweet instead of laying a bunch of creative or artistic claptrap on you,” he says. “It’s probably name recognition.”

To Gilligan, the reasoning behind why any episode gets nominated for an Emmy has long been out of reach. “ ‘Witness’ is a perfectly competently directed episode of television, but we had better episodes of ‘Saul,’” he says. “I literally can’t sit here and say this is why it’s superior.”

The mystery of decoding just how and why specific writers and directors are singled out each year for Emmy nominations eludes virtually everyone in the industry. But on close inspection of the past seven years of nominations and wins, bearing in mind that voting procedures have changed twice, certain trends emerge. And when it comes to nominations, there’s one sort of episode that gets noticed above all: pilots.

Whether drama or comedy, writing or directing, pilots disproportionately end up with a string of nominations. This year, that was only true in dramatic categories: “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Stranger Things” pilots were both tapped for writing and directing, while comedy pilots were ignored. But considering that there is only one pilot in any series’ lifespan, submitting the inaugural episode is one of the best ways to earn that initial nomination notice.

“Pilots lend themselves more to nominations,” says Lena Waithe, whose co-written (with Aziz Ansari) “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None” made history as she became the first female African-American writer nominated for a comedy Emmy. “Voters and the Academy understand how hard it is to lay that foundation.”

Not only that, notes “Homeland” director Lesli Linka Glatter, who was nominated for “America First,” “in a pilot, you’re setting the look and the tone and the feel and casting and you’re working closely with the writers, so the fact that a pilot has an edge in the Emmy nominations, that’s warranted.”

Lena Waithe was nommed for “Master of None’s” Thanksgiving episode.

And yet, pilots tend not to win, despite being proportionately more likely to be nominated. Over the past seven years, a pilot has won just once in writing categories for comedy and drama: once for comedy directing and twice for drama directing.

“Me and Donald have a joke about how pilot episodes are terrible when you go back and look at them later,” says Stephen Glover, referring to his brother and “Atlanta” creator; both siblings earned writing nominations for different episodes (“Streets on Lock” and “B.A.N.” respectively). “You might want to give an award to a new show; it’s like a mission statement. But like in our show, the pilot is not always the best way to get people to understand the show.”
Pilots are most likely to take home an Emmy if they are nominated in drama directing categories; in the past seven years of the 10 pilots nominated, two have won so far. That means that “Handmaid’s” pilot “Offred” has a better chance of winning in the director’s category than its penultimate episode, “The Bridge,” which also earned a nomination.

Still, Kate Dennis, who directed “Bridge,” says it offers a lot to those who’ve been following the whole season. “The episode provides a much-needed release. There are these incredible action bits which we’ve been waiting for in the course of the season.”

To Dennis, whether an episode is a pilot or a bookending season premiere/finale is beside the point. “It’s about delivering an episode that is whole on every level, where you have a full dynamic range. You go from intimate moments to moments of huge scope.”

“I’m always suspicious when people put all their eggs in the pilot basket,” says Jonathan Nolan, who with wife Lisa Joy was nominated for a drama writing Emmy for “Westworld’s” finale “The Bicameral Mind.” Nolan also received a directing Emmy nomination. “Our finale is the measure of how people felt about that first season; we put our eggs in the finale basket.”

Many nominees agree, asserting that it’s about presenting the whole menu in a single taste to potential voters, who are likely overwhelmed with choices. “Better Call Saul” has a writing nomination for the midseason “Chicanery,” which nominated writer Gordon Smith says works because “we took a risk with an episode that could have been a flat courtroom scene, but having wonderful performers allowed us to swing for the fences, and do things we wouldn’t normally do.”

“I’m always suspicious when people put all their eggs in the pilot basket. Our finale is the measure of how people felt about that first season; we put our eggs in the finale basket.”
Jonathan Nolan

Those meaty midseason episodes, which get a lot of nominations, but are proportionately the bulk of any season’s content, are where the real story gets told, says Jamie Babbit, who picked up a directing nomination for “Silicon Valley’s” “Intellectual Property” episode.

“As a director who’s directed episodic TV for almost 20 years, I’m always worried when I do a season-opener or finale, because there’s an onus to have a big plot thing happen,” she says. “I feel those are the less-interesting shows.”

And yet, in order to be heard above the din of so much content, often it’s a pilot, or bookend episode that ends up shouting the loudest. “Veep” took a left turn in terms of presentation with its season finale “Groundbreaking,” which earned a writing and directing nomination for showrunner David Mandel thanks in part to a vignette and flashback-heavy script that allowed him to reframe the show’s lead and break out of its traditional documentary-style storytelling.
“It was a little more directorially interesting,” he says. “You got to see Selina at all different times in her life, and there was a tremendous amount of payoff for a single episode.”

Bringing everything to a head for “The Americans” was also the season-ending “The Soviet Division,” which earned a drama writing nomination for showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. “What appeals to me as a voter is material that goes deep, and when we wrote that script it was an opportunity to dig deep into all the characters in all the relationships,” says Weisberg.

In the end, though, it’s never obvious just what will entrance voters in any Emmy season; there are too many factors at play. “What creates a special episode, where TV magic is happening, where you just hit it. There’s no answer to that question,” says Weisberg. “All the forces that combine to make that episode great are the very factors that can just as easily trip it up.”

“There’s no gaming the system,” says “Saul’s” Gilligan. “It is what it is, and there’s a lot of luck involved. We’ve got nothing to complain about here. It really is more the best of times than the worst of times.”

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