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Television Critics Assn. Awards Celebrate Emmy Underdogs

When BBC America launched its flagship series “Orphan Black” in 2013, it wasn’t the Emmys or the Golden Globes that recognized series star Tatiana Maslany and her portrayal of several complex clone characters — it was the critics.

The Canadian actress walked away with the Television Critics Assn. Award for individual achievement in drama that year, but she wasn’t nominated for an Emmy until two years later. Eventually she won the trophy in 2016, three years after “Orphan Black’s” debut.

The TCA Awards have a long history of celebrating Emmy wildcards or long shots well before Emmy voters catch up. FX’s “The Americans” and its stars have been a yearly staple with TCA voters since the show won the award for new program in 2013, but neither the show nor Keri Russell or Matthew Rhys cracked the Emmy ballot until three years later. Over the course of its three-season run, HBO’s “The Leftovers” racked up three TCA Awards nominations (and a win for lead Carrie Coon), but the series was largely absent from Emmy ballots with only one nomination last year for guest actress Ann Dowd, who also made headlines for her role on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Other critically acclaimed series that have been nominated for TCA Awards, from WGN’s “Underground” and FX’s “You’re the Worst,” to Amazon’s “Fleabag” and Showtime’s “The Circus,” have yet to make an impression with Emmy voters.

The 34th TCA Awards, which takes place Aug. 4 at the Beverly Hilton, are no exception. While critics embraced such series as NBC’s “The Good Place,” BBC America’s “Killing Eve” and Starz’s “Counterpart” with its nominations, Emmy voters restricted their accolades to individual acting nominations for longtime favorites Ted Danson and Sandra Oh. That penchant for familiarity is an issue some feel separate the two bodies when it comes to the nomination process in general, and is certainly reflected in this year’s overall TCA nominations.

Obvious shows, including network tearjerker “This Is Us” and streaming frontrunners “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown” were nominated for multiple awards, but the non-profit organization also heavily recognized a show on a network that isn’t traditionally an awards player, in a genre that isn’t always Emmy friendly, in BBC America’s espionage/hitman drama “Killing Eve.” Both female leads — Emmy favorite Oh and the relative newcomer Jodie Comer — also each got a nomination.

“It’s the group you really want to impress,” says BBC America president and general manager Sarah Barnett of the TCA. “Everybody is trying to get a breakout critical hit because it then fuels conversation. It fuels engagement and that fuels the business line.”
In the increasingly expansive landscape of network, broadcast and streaming series, cutting through the noise to land viewers is as important as ever — especially with streaming providers refusing to divulge ratings. Having critics bang the drum for an underdog series is sometimes the push a show needs to succeed, or in some cases remain on air past its inaugural season.

“Critical acclaim is essential in today’s crowded marketplace — it’s the difference between being noticed and being lost in the noise,” says “Counterpart” creator Justin Marks. “Shows have such precious little opportunity to find an audience, if you don’t have critical support it becomes very difficult to rise above the crowd. We’re entering the era where nominations and awards are almost everything when it comes to a show’s longevity in the peak TV era. When there’s so much content, and so much of the content is so good, audiences are going to need help knowing which shows are worth their time. They’re the ultimate word-of-mouth in a medium that depends on word-of-mouth.”

“Critical acclaim is essential in today’s crowded marketplace — it’s the difference between being noticed and being lost in the noise.”
Justin Marks

Alec Berg, showrunner of HBO’s “Barry,” which scored with both the TCA and the Television Academy this year, adds that “being perceived as good by a group of individuals who watch every single program on TV can only be helpful to your profile as a show.”

“In a world where more and more content is being shown on subscriber-based platforms, one of the most important ways you can stand out is by being perceived as good,” he says. “Subscriber-based platforms care less about numbers of viewers, and more about who is willing to pay the subscription fee. One thing they can use to sell their platform is critical acclaim.”

Of course there are times when the critical notebook and mainstream awards match up, as proven by recent winning streaks for such series as “Breaking Bad,” “Atlanta,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” The TCA Awards and the Emmys have the same basic goal — to celebrate the best in television — so it’s an obvious overlap, especially since Emmy voters are casting their ballots for winners around the same time the TCA Awards take place.

“It’s really fortuitous timing; it drives awareness for your show when it looks like a critical winner,” says Barnett. “The influence may be a little more subliminal than overt, but with so many shows circling around in any of our brains, to be put in a visible spot to remind Emmy voters is a great thing. It’s all a part of the marketing and the overall awareness surrounding your show.”

According to Marks, that deviation or delay could also be due to the overall timing of the TCA and Emmy nominations. While Emmy voters may be swayed in terms of picking a winner following the TCA Awards, there isn’t much time between the two bodies’ first votes for a real cause and effect leading up to the nominations.

“The TCA Awards’ proximity to the Emmy deadline is a little tough,” he says. “Given how late the nominations come out, it’s not as ideal a tool for identifying which shows Emmy voters should be watching.”

Perhaps the main issue separating TCA voters from Emmy voters comes down to the job itself. While Emmys are nominated by a group of peers in any given category, the TCA Awards are doled out by a group of critics who are paid to watch every program, and specifically find outstanding TV — no matter in what form. In turn, when the ballots are cast for the TCA Awards nominations, it sometimes feels as though there are very few rules in terms of what can and cannot be recognized. So while a group of critics celebrating a show such as “The Good Place” or FX’s “The Americans” may seem niche or random at the time, a few years down the road as the landscape evolves it makes sense that audiences could see the same titles popping up with Emmy voters.

“It used to be that you could predict [the winners], because there were fewer shows,” says BBC America’s Barnett. “Shows were divided more easily into the most prestigious to least prestigious, but these days there are so many different ways of coming at creating and admiring and critiquing shows. It is always fascinating to see where the critics are going to land.”

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