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2020 Emmy Nominations Yield Pleasant Surprises, Overdue Recognition (Column)

A broad array of programs is recognized — but will the winners list hew to the past?

Zendaya Euphoria HBO
Courtesy of HBO

This year’s Emmy Awards nominations saw Netflix claim a decisive lead with 160 overall nominations, while HBO’s “Watchmen” was the most-nominated series overall and several surprise newcomers entered the fray. Variety’s chief TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss this year’s especially promising nominees, and those they wish had made the shortlist.

Daniel D’Addario: The narrative I’m struck by this year may be… a distinct lack of narrative. It’s very difficult to divine an overarching mood from this lineup. Perhaps the past always seems clearer by comparison, but last year’s final laurel for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and insurgent run by Amazon’s “Fleabag” provided a throughline to Emmy season that’s less apparent in this collection of well-made, well-liked shows.

What got much of my attention here was the unexpected: FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” for comedy series, Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” for drama series. In both cases, these shows made it in over past category winners (there was to be no victory lap in comedy for ABC’s “Modern Family” or in drama for Showtime’s “Homeland”); both seem something other than built for the affections of a traditional voting body.

And yet Emmy seems more oddball, and more genre-friendly, than ever. (The fact that the shows in question are crossover hits tends to overshadow that the past five years have seen the drama series trophy go to two different shows set in fantasy or dystopian universes.) The continued diminishment of broadcast TV at the Emmys — with no representation at all in the drama category this year — is more than a business reality: It also means that the Emmys is increasingly pulling its nominees from distinct niches, or fandoms. That makes the show more representative — with, for instance, a first-ever comedy-series nomination for HBO’s “Insecure,” a fitting and overdue reward. It also makes it, perhaps, all the more fitting that the dominant show, with 26 nominations, is HBO’s “Watchmen”: A chewy, challenging series that plays with tropes ripped from comic-book pages.

I was slow to warm to “Watchmen,” but it’s hard to deny it was the event of the past TV season — and one that I’m glad the Academy embraced so warmly, in a list of nominees it’s hard to quibble with. What did you make of the nominees list?

Caroline Framke: It’s not surprising to see Netflix pull so far ahead of HBO in overall nominations this year given its ever-ballooning slate of content, but I’m thrilled to see “Watchmen” make it to the top of the nominated shows list nonetheless. I’d love to believe that such an ambitious, intensely cerebral series would be recognized in this way no matter when it was released. But its 2019 debut made its examination of race, white liberalism and the history of policing in America breathtakingly prescient. Limited series is an especially stacked category this time; any other year, “Mrs. America” or “Unbelievable” might justifiably cakewalk to a win. But for so many reasons, 2020 should be “Watchmen”’s year.

Poring over the nominees list, I was happy to see so many “Succession” actors (just about everyone but Alan Ruck’s “first pancake” Connor and J. Smith-Cameron’s Gerri — justice for Gerri!), and most especially, so many deserving first nominations. The supporting comedy actor and actress categories, for example, welcomed a murderer’s row of worthy talent, including Yvonne Orji (“Insecure”), William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”), and D’Arcy Carden (“The Good Place”). And while it’s not exactly a shock to see “Schitt’s Creek” stars Dan Levy and Annie Murphy snag nods in those categories given the upward trajectory of that show these last couple years, they absolutely deserve the recognition alongside their more established TV parents Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

Of course, as with any year, there are plenty of disappointing snubs. As aforementioned, limited series is especially tough this year, but it’s wildly disappointing to see the Emmys shut out “Unbelievable” stars Merritt Weaver and Kaitlyn Dever. The variety talk series list is the same as it ever was, and it doesn’t have to be! (I don’t know what else “Late Night with Seth Meyers” has to do to get a nod outside of writing, and while I didn’t exactly expect Showtime’s “Desus and Mero” to make the shortlist, it would’ve been welcome.) And FX’s “Pose” failed to get a drama series nod even as the category expanded to eight nominees — and the only actor the Academy recognized, from a show that explicitly centers stories about Black trans women, is cis actor Billy Porter.

As you said, though: this unusually strange year has, overall, yielded a rich list of nominations — and, not for nothing, a far less white list than usual. My question, however, is if the actual winners will reflect the broad swath of television talent and genre that the nomination list does. Do you think there’s any chance of that, or do you think we’re looking at a more straightforward “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” meets “Succession” sweep?

D’Addario: “Succession” has the heat — its nominated season aired last summer and still feels like the freshest in memory of its field. In comedy, though, it feels as though the energy is behind “Schitt’s Creek,” which built in acclaim in its second run on Netflix over its run to the degree that its wins almost feel like wins for the streamer. If there’s to be an awards show in the midst of Everything Going On, it makes a certain intuitive sense that the most affirmingly cuddly entity would pick up some hardware. (My own preferred pandemic watch in the category was the more barbed “Insecure,” but I acknowledge the surging flood of the “Creek.”)

Which doesn’t really answer the question! I think “Watchmen” provides a path for voters to allow talent of color to the podium, or at least to the Zoom acceptance speech, and I also think there’s a chance they might stop there — but it’s worth noting that in terms of both nominees and, eventually, winners, the Emmys have in the past several years been notably wider-ranging than other top awards-giving bodies. Even in a world where “Succession” and “Schitt’s Creek” or “Maisel” win the top prizes, it’s possible to see Zendaya (“Euphoria”) or Rae or Orji sneaking in. That may be wishful thinking, as Zendaya and the “Insecure” stars are my favorite of the nominees this year, but the fact of their being in the mix is, already, a huge step in the right direction, and an awards show this willing to mix it up can perhaps be trusted not to stick with the same old way of doing business.

Framke: I hope so! We’ve been burned so many times before that I’m hesitant to ever say that one round of nominations has solved Hollywood’s systemic problems, but I am hopeful, as you are, that it’s indicative of even more promising nominations to come. And if not, well, mazel tov to “Mrs. Maisel”!

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