For the past three years, the comedy series Emmy category has been dominated by a single winner: premium cable political satire “Veep.” But this year, HBO’s incumbent winner is sitting out the race since it did not air a new season within the eligibility window. This leaves the category open to wide field of nominees, including Netflix’s the long-running “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and ABC’s “Black-ish,” as well as FX’s sophomore standout “Atlanta.” But this year’s crop of diverse freshman contenders — HBO’s “Barry,” Netflix’s “GLOW” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — each finds a unique way to sidestep the usual beats of traditional comedy, and in triggering additional sets of emotions, has an edge to break ahead of the pack.
For the makers of 1980s-set women’s pro wrestling comedy “GLOW,” which received 10 Emmy nominations, the idea was to explore a specific kind of female-inhabited space, say executive producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. Since both women at the helm of the series come from a theater background, Mensch says they “consciously picked a place where we had a stage in the middle of our set [because it] feels like a really interesting place to explore stories in a different way.”
The streaming show, which stars Alison Brie and Emmy-nominee Betty Gilpin, chronicles the production of a women’s pro wrestling show-within-the-show and is inspired by the real-life 1980s female wrestling series of the same name. What became key for the team was to play with the colors, clothes and technology of the time to enhance the world and fully immerse the audience within it.
“The way we shoot the show, the way we color the show,” Mensch points out, is period-accurate, sometimes filmed on a jerry-rigged VHS camera to capture footage of the wrestling matches as they would have appeared on television three decades ago.
Beyond just that attention to detail, the producers of “GLOW” are particularly proud that “all of our executive producers are women, the majority of our directors are women, a lot of our crew is female,” Mensch says. “The show being made now about the way the show was being made then” also adds to its authenticity on-screen, as well as speaks to a very important parity conversation being had today.
“I think right now it’s really nice to see 14 women in a frame. It still feels weirdly revolutionary,” says Flahive. “It’s something that isn’t common, and something we really delight in, writing for this huge ensemble of women.”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the other period piece nominated this year. The hourlong streaming comedy from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino is propelled by the fast-paced, profanity-laced patter of unlikely feminist hero Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, also nominated for lead comedy actress).
The 1950s-set story of an Upper West Side housewife who discovers a knack for standup comedy relies upon rich production design, impeccable costumes and a lived-in sense of uptown and downtown midcentury Manhattan, but avoids easy nostalgia in favor of a gimlet-eyed reckoning with the trap of gender roles. It also performs the complicated task of making a show about comedy funny.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and its star Brosnahan took home the trophies for comedy series and comedy actress at the Golden Globes in January. In addition to its hyper-specific characters and world, such accolades certainly propel the project’s Emmy momentum.
“it’s really nice to see 14 women in a frame.”
“Barry,” which stars “Saturday Night Live” veteran Bill Hader (who also co-created, writes and sometimes directs the Hollywood-set black comedy), mixes a darker, more tragic kind of character humor with the sometimes silly or otherwise surreal. The premium cable series centers on Hader as the titular hitman who wants to leave contract killing behind him and embark on a career as an actor.
While the logline sounds larger than life, “Barry” executive producer Alec Berg says he believes the show has an everyman appeal that grounds its storytelling and attracts the audience that wants to relate to comedy, not just laugh at it.
“It [is] a story about a guy living a sad life who instinctively knows there is something more for him out there and decides he’s willing to essentially call in an airstrike on his own position to strive for that better way of life,” he says.
The show’s unpredictable and slightly surreal comic approach includes fantastical dream sequences and moments of extreme violence. Berg, who has written and produced for “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Silicon Valley” (the latter two HBO shows also landed nominations in the comedy series category this year) says he and Hader felt free to experiment with the half-hour comedy form. “I’ve given up trying to figure out what audiences want,” he says.
Berg admits that balancing darkness with the usual prerogatives of comedy can be challenging. “That balance was a constant process — in the writing, in the shooting and in the edit,” he says. “I always say Bill and I were like two idiots standing at a piano trying to find the next note by hitting key after key until we both thought it sounded right. There was a lot of adjusting on the fly.”
But capturing that reality was a risk both Berg and Hader knew they had to take to make the show cinematic and be able to deliver the right emotions to “play both these worlds and the people as people,” Hader says.
What they ultimately created was “the guy from ‘Unforgiven’ [finding] emotional fulfillment in therapy with the people from ‘Waiting for Guffman,’” Hader says. Such specificity set the bar for the show right from the top.
“It’s a world he wants to get out of,” he says about Barry’s hitman life, “so you want to make that world seem not enticing. … It’s not like a fun-and-games type thing, but it does have a kind of sardonic feel to it.”