Why ‘Game of Thrones’ Is Poised to Make an Emmy Comeback (Column)

Look out, handmaids: The dragons are back. While nominations haven’t yet been released, no one should be surprised if HBO’s “Game of Thrones” rules over Emmy season yet again.

While “Thrones” sat out last season due to its production and release schedule, new dramas leapt to the forefront to fill the void. Last year, several new series, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Westworld,” “Stranger Things,” “The Crown,” and “This Is Us,” had clearer paths to awards attention without the most-discussed show in the world to contend with. “Handmaid’s” took prizes for writing, directing, and best drama, while craft prizes for makeup, sound mixing, and special visual effects went to HBO’s “Westworld.” All of those prizes had gone to “Game of Thrones” the two previous ceremonies; indeed, “Thrones” had won the previous five visual effects trophies on its path to becoming the most Emmy-decorated primetime scripted show in history in just six seasons.

To many — including, surely, the nominees and winners — the break from “Thrones” was a pleasant one. 

But there’s a way in which the return of “Thrones” to the awards stage, if it should happen, is something to cheer. Even its critics can acknowledge that the show has become something unparalleled in the 2018 TV landscape: a show that, unlike just about any other, unites viewers. It’s certainly not the only thing television can do, or the only function of television that deserves to be celebrated. But at a particularly unsettled moment, a show that knits together so many divergent corners of the TV-watching populace seems less like a monolithic threat to other nominees and more like a natural contender for awards attention.

It’s impossible to compare ratings, given how little is publicly known about streaming viewership. (Perhaps the second season of “Stranger Things” measured up favorably, or at least competitively, with last summer’s “Game of Thrones.”) But it’s hard to deny that when “Thrones” is on the air, every other conversation dies down. Plenty of shows engender heated debate, but only “Thrones” seems to have its particular eclipsing power.

Which is, of course, not an indicator of quality. I have my quibbles with the show’s seventh season, including a bit of ebbing-away of narrative momentum even as the endgame looms ahead. (“The Americans,” which also announced its final two seasons in advance, had a bit of the same problem.) The show’s networkmate “Westworld,” though more alienating than “Thrones” to the casual viewer, is for those under its spell every bit as compelling; it would certainly be a more exciting winner, as would a valedictory win for the cultishly loved “The Americans.” But a world in which “Thrones” picked up drama, directing, and writing prizes this year (as well as, perhaps, a long-deferred acting prize for Lena Headey) wouldn’t be an entirely unjust one. In an era in which so much of television is microtargeted at the passionate niche, there’s something inspiring about a show whose ambitions are quite so broad.

Unlike the Oscars — at which many lower-grossing nominees are accessible only to viewers in certain markets — Emmy-nominated shows can conceivably be seen by anyone with the right subscription, be it HBO Now or Netflix. What makes many of them less accessible is design: Most shows operating at the peak of their artistic abilities nowadays are targeting a slice of the potential audience. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with its punishing violence and hairpin tonal shifts, is meant to be the favorite show of that fraction of the audience that can roll with it, not a well-liked show of many.

Which is not to say that “Thrones” appeals to everyone. “Thrones” has gone through major growing pains as regards to its depiction of violence against women — a quality that rightly turned off many midway through its run. But, having largely course-corrected and having finally moved decisively towards its last days, the show manages to do a funny thing: It fills the gap left behind by popular network TV. As viewers fall away from the traditional broadcast networks, HBO has created through visual splendor and violently vivid emotional stakes a show that’s comprehensible and appealing to viewers of every sort. It’s a formula that’s not easily replicable into today’s fractured viewing landscape.

An Emmys at which “Thrones” sweeps is one during which the TV establishment acknowledges the uniting power of TV’s signature hit. This may sound a bit like the populist arguments that surface every Oscars season, about how installments in the “Star Wars” series or the Marvel Cinematic Universe really ought to win best picture instead of “The Shape of Water” or “Moonlight.” But core movie fans will have opinions about the year’s handful of acknowledged art-house darlings before the Oscars roll around; given just how much TV there is, many viewers may not watch broadly outside their niche. (Just not interested in the royals? You likely haven’t checked out “The Crown,” Emmy nominations or no.) 

If “Game of Thrones” sweeps at its two final Emmy ceremonies, it will have won four Best Drama trophies, tying a record shared by “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “Mad Men,” and “The West Wing.” With those shows, it shares the sense of having been not merely a good show but a defining show of its time, inspiring imitators and shaping viewer expectations.

“Thrones” may not be the best artistic achievement among the final list of Emmy nominees, but it will almost certainly be the most accomplished at achieving the function of drama — catalyzing genuine response from an engaged audience.

If this sounds like a small achievement, consider the only other show this past season that catalyzed mass discussion and attention on par with “Thrones”: ABC’s “Roseanne.” That series, surely out of serious Emmy contention now, was as startling as “Thrones” for how it sparked near-obsessive conversation; it used that attention in unworthy ways that were pointless at best and actively harmful to our national discourse at worst. “Thrones” is, now, once again the only show on the air that boasts a field-clearing obsessive following; it uses that following to showcase craftspeople at the top of their game and ideas that remain piquantly fun to discuss even months after the show wraps up.

While monotony at awards shows isn’t necessarily fun, it is exciting to think that an awards show whose viewership has been dwindling can usher back to the stage a show that every viewer recognizes. Consensus, a fleetingly rare thing on TV and elsewhere in 2018, can be a powerful thing. Welcome back to the Emmys, citizens of Westeros.

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