How Drama Series Nominated in Freshmen Seasons Fare With Future Emmys

Breaking into the drama series Emmys race is no easy feat, particularly with hundreds of scripted shows vying for viewers’ — and voters’ — attention. But a number of the shows on the ballot this year are repeat nominees that drew attention with their freshman seasons, offering merit to the notion that cracking in right from the start creates snowballing awards momentum. That, in turn, might mean there’s a greater likelihood of seeing 2019’s first-time series nominees back on the ballot again next year.

This year, three of the eight series that landed a nod for the top prize — AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and NBC’s “This Is Us” — are repeat nominees with their first accolades rooted in their freshman seasons. This year, “This Is Us” earned the honor for its third season, “Better Call Saul” for its fourth season, and “Game of Thrones” for its eighth and last.

“I think that it’s a little bit of human nature to stay in the comfort zone, and I think even when you’re a voter, whether it’s Emmys or the guild voting, there’s a loyalty to certain shows that kind of sticks,” says Richard Licata, an awards consultant and founder of Licata & Co.

Those disapproving of the eighth season of “Game of Thrones” might be eager to entertain that idea: The HBO series outdid itself with a record total of 32 nominations for its last season, even as fans and TV critics often criticized the show for supposedly rushing the plot or bending character arcs in ways that were unsatisfying to many viewers. The perhaps-last vestige of appointment TV also has the most wins in the drama series bracket for this year’s crop of nominees, taking home the prize in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

And one could argue that AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul” benefited from the name recognition of its predecessor, immediately boosting the series’ credibility in the minds of television viewers and giving the show an advantage from its very first season.

But that association is a double-edged sword, one that just as easily could’ve set up the show to underwhelm. Nabbing a drama series nomination for its 2015 debut season — and for every season since then — is not at all something that “Better Call Saul” co-creator and showrunner Peter Gould takes for granted.

“When we started this show, it was such a risk because we knew we were going to be in the shadow of ‘Breaking Bad’ — that this was always going to be the little brother of ‘Breaking Bad,’” says Gould, who wrote and executive produced both shows. “So the fact that people liked it enough to vote for it, to nominate it, and then to come back every season is extraordinary, but I think it’s really a tribute to all of the people that we work with — to Bob [Odenkirk], to Rhea [Seehorn], to the whole cast and also everyone on the crew.”

“This Is Us” is the only broadcast series to stay steady in a race for top drama in a sea of streaming and cable outlets. As with “Game of Thrones” and “Better Call Saul,” the show has earned a drama series nomination for every season it has been on the air.

“In its last season, it lost some of its luster, both ratings wise and in audience conversation, and if you had asked me a few weeks ago which shows would be a drama series casualty, I would have said ‘This Is Us,’” says Licata. “I was wrong. There’s an indelibility that is built in with this whole voting process.”

Still, even with those repeat nominees maintaining a foothold, several freshman shows — namely FX’s “Pose,” HBO’s “Succession” and Netflix’s “Bodyguard” — managed to elbow their way onto this ballot, too.

“Bodyguard,” which initially ran on the BBC, was a U.K. smash, with its series finale capturing the attention of 10.4 million viewers there — which was reportedly the second-highest-rated program behind only the soccer World Cup. Streaming in the U.S. on Netflix, the conversation around the show only continued, first with critics and then with awards academies. The Emmy nom follows a Golden Globe nomination for the series, as well as a Golden Globe win for Richard Madden.

Meanwhile, “Pose” showrunner Steven Canals says creating the first season of the ballroom-culture period piece with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk was “surreal,” as he “had a lot of executives [before teaming with Sherry Marsh and Murphy and Falchuk] telling me there was no world where this show was a success.”

The FX show, which revolves around the LGBTQ community of the late 1980s, has resonated with many viewers, critics and academies. It also saw Golden Globe noms earlier this year for both drama series and lead actor, for Billy Porter.

“I think culturally, ‘Pose’ became very important in political conversation, and also is a good show,” Licata says.

Canals, who grew up “obsessed with award shows,” says there’s a history of shows getting “grandfathered” into successive nominations. But he hopes that even if viewers don’t like the second season as much as they did the first, that Emmy voters won’t put his show in the contenders’ lot simply for the sake of diversifying the ballot.

“The reason I say that is, black and Latin people, in particular, have a history of being tokenized, and I don’t want our show to just be on a list for the sake of well-meaning folks to be able to say, ‘You see? We’re inclusive,’” he says. “I would hope that we’re there because you really feel we deserve to be there.”

Ultimately, there is the sense that none of the nominated showrunners and executive producers risk getting complacent, no matter how many times — first or eighth — their shows are nominated for Emmys.

“This continues to be the wildest ride of all of our careers, and we don’t take it for granted,” said “This Is Us” showrunner Dan Fogelman in a statement when nominations were announced.

Adds Gould: “If I’m honest, every season is scary because if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re taking big risks for the characters. But fortunately, people have followed us along, and we are going to hope they keep doing that.”

Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.

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