Dissecting the Big Picture of Emmy Nominees (Column)

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Courtesy of FX/HBO/

The 2018 Emmy nominations feature many familiar faces, but also some welcome new changes to categories in long need of a shakeup. Most notably, Netflix officially established its programming dominance by overtaking Emmy darling HBO in overall noms. So what does that mean for an ever-ballooning industry — and what should win come September? Variety’s TV critics came together to talk it out.

Daniel D’Addario: The story of the Emmy nominations seems to be Netflix pulling ahead of HBO in the number count — a victory for a strategy of producing mass quantities of content that, had it not happened this year, would have eventually.

The shift in dominance, from a longtime titan to a relative upstart, suits an Emmys that seemed, in some ways, to be particularly excited about what was most fresh. Shows from the earlier part of the eligibility period — among them “The Deuce,” “Mindhunter,” “Ozark” and “Insecure” — all underperformed. Both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Westworld,” which were airing new episodes during the voting period, fared better than I’d have expected, while “Game of Thrones,” which aired last summer, led the nominations but missed out on much-hoped-for recognition for stars Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington. And while the best drama field was hostile to newcomers, new comedies from “GLOW” (a rare contender from last summer) to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to “Barry” made their mark.

While HBO’s 17-year run as king of the Emmy nominations was admirable (and, in being shattered, suggests larger changes afoot in the industry), I have to say I’m impressed by just how broad Netflix’s nominations are. They have mega-performers like “The Crown,” sure, but also fully three of the five best children’s program nominees as well as nominations for “Wild Wild Country” and, maybe most thrillingly, the jubilant and often complex “Queer Eye.” That’s a service that, for now, at least, is succeeding at providing something for everyone. Which of their nominations — or the nominations in general — were you most excited about?

Caroline Framke: It’s a tie between “Glow’s” fantastic Betty Gilpin, “American Vandal” landing a limited series writing nom and “Big Mouth” getting recognized for its original song “Am I Gay?” — which is about as on-brand for me as it gets.
More seriously: Yes, Netflix beating HBO at its own game is huge, especially in light of recent reports that AT&T wants HBO to model itself more after Netflix going forward. But a few things to keep in mind is that 108 nominations would be staggering in any other context, and Netflix had to outspend HBO on vastly more programming in order to beat it. HBO is overall still getting the most bang for its buck. I respect the sheer breadth of what Netflix has tackled in such a short period, but I’d hate for HBO to chase its success too literally. Not every network can — or should — be Netflix.

As for the most exciting nominations, I’m thrilled to be torn among many! I’m glad Kari Skogland and Amy Sherman-Palladino got directing noms for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” respectively, though I’m beyond disappointed they’re the only women in their categories. I’m surprised that Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Killing Eve”) just got her first writing nomination given how good “Fleabag” was, and floored that the prolific Amy Sedaris only has a nomination now that the wonderfully bizarre “At Home With Amy Sedaris” has squeezed into variety sketch. Ted Danson finally getting in for “The Good Place” rectified last year’s wrong. Issa Rae’s first acting nomination for “Insecure” is overdue, as is “Killing Eve’s” Sandra Oh becoming the first actor of Asian descent to land a drama actress nomination.

But from where I’m sitting, some of the best noms are in the supporting acting categories. From “Atlanta’s” Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry, to “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Yvonne Strahovski, to Kenan Thompson getting his first nom after 15 years on “Saturday Night Live,” the Emmys just honored a whole bunch of new and richly deserving nominees.

Anyway, enough gushing: What are your top snubs?

D’Addario: I can’t complain too much about the packed lead actress in a drama category, but I’d have traded past winner Tatiana Maslany’s nomination with recognition for Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Deuce.” Netflix’s “Alias Grace” was a huge oversight in the limited series races and its otherworldly star Sarah Gadon really was robbed. And I’d have liked to have seen Seth Meyers’ sharp, shrewdly political “Late Night” get recognition.

Were any of these truly snubs? Hard to say, unless we’re defining “snub” to mean “unrecognized personal favorite.” I don’t think anyone really expected, say, Gadon, the largely unheralded star of a smaller Netflix project, to get a nomination. Here and elsewhere, we saw Emmy’s fondness for big star power rear its head; There probably wasn’t a full category’s worth of credible lead actress in a limited series nominees in this “Feud”-less, “Big Little Lies”-less year, so voters defaulted to big names like Edie Falco from the little-watched “Law & Order True Crime” and Sarah Paulson, as good as ever on a less-than-worthy “American Horror Story” season. Given just how much TV there is each year, it’s easy to break through with a big name, be you Larry David (invited back for an off-peak season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Jason Bateman (now an Emmy-nominated actor and director for “Ozark,” bless him) or John Legend (whose chances at an “EGOT” seem vastly more interesting to most commentators than his role in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” had been). I wouldn’t say I’m broken up about it — he’s been honored plenty — but I am surprised Al Pacino’s sheer name recognition didn’t carry him across the line for “Paterno,” in which he was as nervily present as he’s been in a while. (In his absence, I’m rooting for Benedict Cumberbatch, speaking of familiar names.)

Is it too early to start thinking about who should win? (Rhetorical question: Of course it’s not.) “Atlanta” is among the most purely interesting and well-executed shows out there of any genre — I’d hoped it would win last year, but in the intervening time it’s only grown more fearlessly itself. And in the best drama lineup, I find myself rooting for “Westworld,” whose strong showing — five acting nominations! — has me newly convinced it has the potential to go all the way, particularly given how tepidly received the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was.

Framke: I’m firmly on “The Americans” train for an overall win, though I acknowledge it’s a long shot given how excited I was for it to get nominated at all. Maybe more likely is its star Keri Russell, whose work in the final season was truly jaw-dropping. It’s Claire Foy’s last chance for “The Crown,” but that came out all the way back in December — or does that even matter? I tend to think recency bias plays a fairly large role in nominations; shows like “Barry” and “Killing Eve,” for instance, definitely benefited from airing close to the nomination window. But then again, things like Maslany’s nomination for “Orphan Black” (which concluded last August) and multiple noms for “GLOW” (which dropped last June) makes me second-guess that theory.

D’Addario: I wonder if it isn’t the waning-but-still-extant influence of reviews, or, to put it more nebulously, “buzz.” Some shows that aired early in the eligibility period, like my beloved “Mindhunter,” seemed to fade in the public imagination long before the Emmys vote happened, but “GLOW” had fans banging the drum for it all year. (And it dropped a new season at the right time!) The new shows that did best, including “Barry,” “Glow” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” tended to have already been the beneficiaries of huge press support — after all, how else can a show stick out in a more-crowded-than-ever marketplace? It’s nice to know that reviews, at least in aggregate, might still matter.