The fact that “Game of Thrones” is not only a ratings juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon but also dominates at the Emmys is nothing short of remarkable. Television Academy voters have rarely recognized genre series, be they sci-fi, fantasy, horror or superheroes, for its top prize. But that’s changing — with some caveats.
In the 1990s, “Quantum Leap,” “The X-Files” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” earned drama series nominations, but they were the exception (and never won). “Lost” finally broke through to win the category in 2005, perhaps foreshadowing the mainstreaming of such entertainment.
Now, over the past five years, genre has dominated the drama race: HBO won with “Game of Thrones” in 2015, 2016 and 2018, while Hulu’s dystopia, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was victorious in 2017.
You can debate whether “Handmaid’s Tale” should be considered genre — and yes, I get the jokes that it should be considered a documentary. But it is a dark look at a scary, futuristic society, and that’s absolutely the stuff of sci-fi.
Those shows are in increasing company, too. Last year, HBO’s “Westworld” and Netflix’s “Stranger Things” also were nominated for drama series — almost turning the category into a Comic-Con convention. (The same goes for TV movie, where various editions of Netflix’s tech-centric anthology “Black Mirror” keep winning.)
In some ways, that means the system is working: If a show is considered the best show in the land, it should be nominated for, and/or win, the Emmy, regardless of what it’s about.
That could be good news to many of this year’s genre contenders, such as Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” and FX’s “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” (as it moves from limited series to the more competitive drama category). Other shows in the hunt include “American Gods,” “Doctor Who,” “Star Trek Discovery,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Hanna.”
But there’s a caveat to all of this: Only some genre shows have been allowed in by Emmy voters. Certain programs, such as superhero shows, are still overlooked. That’s perhaps because many air on broadcast, which doesn’t get much Emmy love these days overall. Meanwhile, the aforementioned nominees and winners all hail from premium cable and streaming services, which somehow gives them a patina of honor in the eyes of voters.
“I always figured it was a neighborhood where I’m not allowed,” “Supernatural” creator Eric Kripke tells me. “I always thought it was a gated community, that I could never get over that gate, so it never occurred to me. That said, speaking as a guy who makes genre television, I think the most interesting shit out there is in genre.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of course, has similarly struggled in how to honor such movies, as some of the biggest films in the world are of the comic book/superhero variety. The Oscars’ rule allowing up to 10 best picture nominees was meant to finally bring in more fan favorites to the mix, and this year, “Black Panther” landed a best picture nom. But the year before that, “Wonder Woman” was shut out.
It was those mixed results that led the film academy to come up with the most popular Oscar idea. The plan was quickly scrapped, but would that idea work for TV? And would it bring in fan favorite TV genre series such as “Supernatural” or the upcoming “Batwoman”?
Kripke doesn’t think that’s the solution: “It’s a tiny bit condescending for me,” he says. “It’s like, ‘You’re not quite good enough to be in our fancy category.’ I think it’s kind of disrespectful.”
It’s also not necessary right now, as “Game of Thrones” is the most popular show on TV. But next year, as “Thrones” departs, it’s unclear whether Emmy voters will still feel as drawn to genre — or if they’ll leave it behind for the Saturn Awards to honor.