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How the HFPA Played It Safe With 2019 Golden Globe Nominees (Column)

At a time of unprecedented richness and depth across TV programming, an awards show already known for its brazen willingness to follow its own instincts could have gone just about anywhere. But the biggest surprise of the Golden Globes’ nominations for television may have been just how safe they were.

To wit: A broadcast that often unsentimentally dumps its previous year’s winners — and that’s perpetually loath to follow the Emmys’ lead — nominated “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and its star Rachel Brosnahan again. A voting body for whom novelty is the coin of the realm gave out nominations to “The Americans” and stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys after that drama had left the air. And a group that’s previously minted stars out of performers brand new to the scene nominated not one but two stars from 1990s revivals in a single category.

None of these nominations are unworthy, exactly. But they all add up to a portrait of a voting body in much the same situation as every TV fan — overloaded with choice and defaulting to a certain sensibility, even if it doesn’t completely map on to what’s really best about TV right now. While Globe noms are often scattershot and almost random, this year’s add up to a clear sensibility — that of a person glutted with choice and falling back on the familiar. That means that new series to break through will match the Globes’ taste for international intrigue (“Bodyguard” and “Killing Eve” add global flair to the drama series field) or for entertainment-industry satire (“Barry,” “Kidding” and “The Kominsky Method” in comedy series all check this box to varying degrees).

And the acting fields bear out a similar sense of returning to the familiar. For the lead comedy actress — a category that, in recent years, has ushered Rachel Bloom, Gina Rodriguez, Tracee Ellis Ross and Rachel Brosnahan to national repute — is 40% given over to stars reprising very familiar characters: Candice Bergen of “Murphy Brown” and Debra Messing of “Will & Grace.” The presence of big stars among the nominees overall — including Julia Roberts (“Homecoming”), Sacha Baron Cohen (“Who Is America?”), Jim Carrey (“Kidding”), Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin (“The Kominsky Method”), and Hugh Grant (“A Very English Scandal”) — feels less, this year, like Globe-y quirkiness and more like a manner of at least distinguishing some shows from others. The most surprising acting nomination may be that of “Outlander” star Caitriona Balfe, simply because it’s her fourth consecutive mention at a ceremony that tends to cherish the new. If she were going to fall out, it wouldn’t be in a year when the volume of other potential contenders is so vast that it may seem to some voters simply like noise.

The Globes’ biggest swings came not in their inclusions but their exclusions. Though all the drama and comedy series nominees are critically well-regarded and have fans, few have truly become hits with audiences stateside (as it’s on Netflix, we can’t know if “Bodyguard’s” mega-success in the U.K. has been repeated). The Emmys tend to make room for at least one, if not several, zeitgeist smashes in the top fields; the Globes, at least, find themselves unconstrained from that duty, and followed their own arrow away from bringing back past nominees including “Atlanta,” “Westworld” or “This Is Us.” And “Maniac” — a high-profile Netflix limited series, and one whose star, Emma Stone, was already to attend the ceremony for her film work — couldn’t find its way into a weaker-than-usual limited series field.

The lesson from “Maniac’s” exclusion might be that one can’t watch everything. And the shows that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. prioritized watching this year tended to be intimate, carefully made dramas and melancholy comedies that don’t center around huge laughs. The 10 top nominees tend not to be grandiose — they’re built around character-defining moments that create ripples, not big waves. (It takes nothing away from the comedy series nominees to acknowledge that none of them had a moment quite as culture-shaking this year as, say, “Atlanta’s” episode “Teddy Perkins.”) They’re shows of this moment — and perhaps why the nominations feel quite so safe this year is that the Golden Globes, by following their own quirky instincts through the vastness of the TV landscape, stumbled upon a suite of nominees that actually reflected the state of the industry: Shows existing just outside whatever is the mainstream, targeting a clearly defined sliver of the audience. That sliver, this year, just happens to include an awards voting body.

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