Emmys 2019: Why Cultural Conversations Around Projects and Performers Boost Awards Chances

Patricia Arquette Bill Hader Jharrel Jerome Emmy Race
Courtesy of Showtime/HBO/Netflix

Visibility matters.

This is a refrain most often — and most importantly — sung about the representation of women, people of color, LGBTQ, those with disabilities and other marginalized groups within the entertainment industry. But in many ways, it is crucial for Emmy nominees, too.

After all, with more than 500 scripted series alone, the odds that the 25,000 members of the Television Academy have actually seen any part of a show, let alone all of it, get slimmer every year. Series or individuals with larger footprints have seemingly pushed forward this year. The ones that did land nominations scored accolades across the ballot.

Now that the time left on final round voting is ticking down quickly, visibility — both from a campaign perspective and a larger cultural conversation — will likely push one nominee to the front of the pack.

“It’s challenging to look back to see if there was any correlation to getting nominated twice and actually getting into the winner’s circle,” says Richard Licata, an awards consultant and founder of Licata & Co. “I think it’s the multi-pronged campaigns that do it. I think you need to be driving down Sunset Boulevard and see a billboard, but I also think those in the media have a tremendous influence on taste-making and getting the word out. As the environment becomes so much more vast, it’s much more difficult to devote time to anything, so journalists and digital marketing have become really key.”

Licata is right when he says there is not necessarily a pattern of past multi-nominees who went on to wins. For example, Cloris Leachman has had a varied history. She first got two spots on the Emmy ballot in 1973, for her supporting comedy role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and her lead turn in “A Brand New Life.” She went on to win the latter statue, her first-ever Emmy. The following year she was nominated twice, too — again for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” as well as for “The Migrants,” and this time she won the supporting comedy actress trophy for the former. In 1975, she won both awards for which she was nominated (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the “Cher” special), but in 1976 she lost both prizes for which she was nominated (lead comedy actress for “Phyllis” and supporting variety/music actress for “Telly … Who Loves Ya, Baby?”). She also lost both guest actress Emmys for which she was on the ballot in 2005.

In 1991, James Earl Jones scored nominations in the lead drama actor category (for “Gabriel’s Fire”) and in the then-dubbed supporting miniseries or special category (for “Heat Wave”), and he won both. Meanwhile, Allison Janney, nominated in both the supporting comedy actress category for her work on “Mom” and the guest drama actress category for “Masters of Sex” in 2014 and 2015 had a varied experience: She won both trophies in 2014, while the following year she took only the comedy prize. Similarly, Bill Hader was all over the ballot last year (as he is again this year) for his HBO dark comedy “Barry.” In 2018, he was nominated for lead comedy actor, comedy writing and comedy directing for the series he co-created, and he was also up in the guest comedy actor category for his stint hosting “Saturday Night Live.” The only statue he nabbed in September was the lead comedy actor one.

“Everyone says it’s an honor and all of that, but it really is,” Hader says of one nomination, let alone multiple. “There’s a ton of amazing television on right now that I can’t keep up with everything, and it feels, especially for the things that were honored this year, very artistic in a way that is very interesting. There were all of these really powerful voices in, like ‘Fleabag,’ where you’re celebrating different pieces of a person’s work. I just feel incredibly honored. At the same time it’s always weird competing in art. With sports, I watch someone earn it, even if there’s a s—–y call. Whereas with this, the work has already been done, and I just see it as one big thing.”

This year Hader is once again nominated in the same comedy categories as he was last year, for the sophomore season of “Barry.” How his show deals in such societal issues as PTSD, depression and domestic abuse aids aids awareness of the work beyond Hader’s familiar name listed multiple times on the ballot.

“We are in a very complicated society right now, and entertainment is escapist, but if you’re escaping from today it can’t be irrelevant to what’s happening today,” says Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Ent. Group. “A common way that people are finding to really connect is in dealing with what they’re dealing with: the outside world or the inner world.”

In fact, the majority of the multi-nominated series and talent on this year’s Emmy ballot have transcended beyond mere conversations about the television landscape, into larger conversations about culture.

“We’re in a great time right now. ‘Fosse/Verdon’ is just as worthy of being on air as ‘Chernobyl.’ There’s so many ways to express ourselves as filmmakers now, I just feel so lucky, so fortunate, to be able to make things at this time,” says Ava DuVernay, who co-wrote and directed all four parts of “When They See Us.” “But there’s no review, there’s no Emmy — there’s really nothing more than having Antron McCray looking at you and saying, ‘Thank you for showing me that moment in the precinct with my father.’ Or Korey Wise saying, ‘Thank you for letting people know what I went through in those cells.’ That was the best reward.”

Some shows prefer to play in important themes, such as Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” take on feminism in the late-1950s standup comedy world and FX’s “Fosse/Verdon’s” post-#MeToo look at celebrating flawed heroes, while others, including HBO’s “Veep,” dive more deeply into overt political commentary. Many mix the two: Netflix’s “When They See Us” and Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora” certainly shine lights on the criminal justice system, as well as the deep psychological issues that come from time in such a world.

“I think what’s really interesting about this particular crop of shows is that they range from what I would say are sociological investigations to psychological investigations,” Ong says. “And interestingly, ‘Game of Thrones,’ which of course got the most [noms], really started as a sociological, ‘Who are all of these different tribes, who are all of these different families, how do they interact?’ and it ended on a very psychological, ‘Why did Dany do what she did?’”

Adds Licata: “Most of the voters are either based here [in L.A.] or on the other coast, in New York, and I’ve seen a real palpable, political connection between the shows that have made it into the center ring and the nominees. You have ‘Fleabag’ and ‘Russian Doll,’ which I think really speak to the feminine, #MeToo thread that is running through this country, and ‘When They See Us’ is clearly a political take, so I do think there’s a connection between politics, as they stand now, and Emmy voting.”

The reason, Ong says, is “in a world of a lot of choice, we see people want to make more conscious choices.” When it comes to consumerism, Ong notes that the younger demographic is increasingly interested in loyalty to brands that share their values; the same principle is being reflected in the way Academy members are voting for awards.

“There’s just so much content, it’s hard to know what to watch unless you feel like there’s a reason you should be watching it,” she says. “I think what you’re seeing is the desire to understand what’s going on in the world and how it affects the people that live in it, and to celebrate the works that speak to what they feel is needed in the world.”

This carries over from subject matter of a piece of content to an individual helping make the content, too, Ong says.

Take Patricia Arquette, who is a double nominee this year, on the ballot for lead limited series/TV movie actress (for “Escape at Dannemora”) as well as supporting limited series/TV movie actress (for Hulu’s “The Act”). Both roles required her to explore complicated portraits of women who would have once deemed too “unconventional” for television.

But beyond the work itself, Arquette has spoken about the importance of seeing women of all ages and sizes reflected on screens, and she also grabbed headlines earlier this year when she testified in front of Congress on behalf of pay parity.

“Actors no longer can be just a hollow shell that puts on a part and then goes on with their lives,” says Ong. “The more prominent they become, the more we seem to care, and what they do in their off-hours and the roles they choose speaks to the culture of how they want to be perceived.”

Anna Tingley contributed to this report.