Television has never looked quite like this before, with so many conversation-starting, cultural narrative-altering stories that incite, invite, or ignite something in viewers. Telling tales of grounded, often tough, topics through heightened worlds is frequently a way to soften the blow of such hard-to-watch material. Viewers may be enticed by the spectacle of gimmick (as in Hulu’s “Pen15” in which adults play teenage versions of themselves); the allure of a simpler time (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from Amazon Prime Video), the desire to re-experience something with hindsight (Netflix’s “When They See Us”) or even the flash of fantasy (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”). While it can be challenging to balance serious material matter in a larger-than-life setting, the key for many of this year’s Emmy nominees in the writing and directing categories is authenticity and care in creation.
Ava DuVernay wrote and directed all four episodes of “When They See Us,” the streaming limited series that pulls back the curtain on the five African American boys who came to be known as the Central Park Five before, during, and after their wrongful convictions. DuVernay didn’t grow up in New York in the late-1980s when they were arrested; she hails from Compton, Calif. What she saw at the time was media coverage that painted them in a narrow light, just as the rest of the world did. Her journey with the project began when one of the boys, now a man, Raymond Santana, reached out to her on social media. Intrigued, she “delved into the research” and spent four years gathering information not only from court documents but also personal interviews with the men and their families.
“To tell the story of men who had been accused, convicted, punished, jailed, forgotten, re-entered into society as sexual predators — to finally give them a voice, it had to be all about them,” DuVernay previously told Variety. “So I had to know them, meet them, trust them, have them trust me.”
To further ensure she was capturing their hearts and personalities, not just their narratives, she allowed the men to read scripts, come to set and offer opinions on direction. From working with the men, DuVernay realized she had “too much to put into a two-hour film,” which led her to television and a few more Emmy nominations, including limited series overall, as well as limited series directing and limited series writing (for “Part Four,” the finale, which she co-wrote with Michael Starrbury).
Ben Stiller, who is nominated in the limited series/TV movie directing category for helming the full seven-part Showtime limited series “Escape at Dannemora,” had the opposite experience from DuVernay. He initially felt there was not enough information on the real-life Clinton Correctional escape in upstate New York in 2015. However, after he received Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin’s original spec script, New York’s inspector general happened to release some new information on the crime. The added source material shone more light on the story and gave Stiller what he needed to feel comfortable to take on the complicated tale. (Johnson and Tolkin are nominated in limited series/TV movie writing for both “Episode 6,” a nod they share with Jerry Stahl, and “Episode 7” of the project.)
Stiller says that ultimately the draw was in the sheer implausibility of the heightened elements, despite the story weaving a very complex psychological tale.
For him, it was surprising that two men would use such old-fashioned methods — hand-saws and secretly moving through drains — in the 21st century, causing him to think of the show’s setting as being in a time-warp of sorts.
“You could be in there and it could be 50 years ago, it could be 20 years ago,” Stiller says. “Our style was spurred by that timelessness, trying to capture the mood of [Dannemora].”
In some ways Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” also may feel timeless to many viewers, despite being technically set in a dystopian future: After all, its themes of patriarchal oppression and caste systems are certainly ones that have existed throughout history, and have not fully dissipated today.
“We have lots of people coming from different religious backgrounds,” says writer and co-executive producer Kira Snyder, “which I think has been fascinating and helpful to really spell out the difference between religion and faith in our [show’s] world because we talk a lot about how June has a great deal of faith, but how religion has been co-opted by the power structure in our world.”
This year, Snyder is on the drama writing ballot alongside the show’s creator and showrunner, Bruce Miller, for the 11th episode of the second season, entitled “Holly.” It was an episode that streamed too late to be considered for last year’s Emmy eligibility, and the Academy determined it could count for this year. The episode centered on the titular character June (Elisabeth Moss) giving birth alone in Gilead, while flooded with memories of her fraught relationship with her mother in the world before the new regime.
Snyder says the “Handmaid’s Tale” writers’ room is inclusive in many ways and that lends itself to infusing truth and meticulous detail in such stories. “When you have more than just ‘the one’ — one person of color, one woman, if you have a number of people from a given group, it allows you to be not-generic, it allows you to be specific,” she says. “We have debates about things.”
Such specificity has also been essential for Emmy-nominated writers including Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (on the comedy writing ballot this year alongside Stacy Osei-Kuffour), who deeply mined their own adolescent fears and insecurities, awkward experiences with crushes, getting their periods and coming-of-age sexually on “Pen15.” Erskine also naturally infused her character’s home life with elements from her mother’s Japanese culture.
Meanwhile, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” co-creators Dan Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino, who are both nominated individually for comedy directing, draw on their own Jewish heritage and familial experiences to inform and deepen the lives of the up-and-coming standup titular comedian, her ex-husband and their respective parents.
The abundance of such carefully crafted projects certainly means an overcrowded race come Emmy time and not all can snag a spot on the ballot. “Pose,” for example, FX’s ballroom culture-set drama that manages to mix the harsh reality of living with HIV in the 1980s with pops of aspiration and fantasy, scored a drama series nom, but not awards attention in the Television Academy’s writing and directing fields.
But for Janet Mock, writer, director and now co-executive producer on the show, what is perhaps most important is that they are telling stories for people who have spent decades being marginalized in the real world, as well as the reel one.
‘What does it look like to grab the camera that is so often with our characters on the edges of it [but] instead they’re center stage in it?” she says. “For us, we’ve always taken very seriously that we leave our audience — specifically our core audience that cares about these characters so much — with a sense of hope.”