The Big Problem With This Year’s Emmy Nominations

Netflix had initially intended to campaign Beef as a comedy for this year’s Emmy Awards, before ultimately submitting its Steven YeunAli Wong critical darling in the limited-series races. Why? The competition in comedy was not stronger, per se, but it was more popular. The streamer’s own Wednesday, which was nominated for the best-comedy-series Emmy this morning, overwhelmed Beef in viewership numbers. Former champs Ted Lasso and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel still chart on Nielsen; FX/Hulu’s The Bear became a bona fide phenomenon for season two just as voting on season one got going. On the limited-series side, meanwhile, the only show that would come close to Beef in terms of awareness was, again, internal competition: Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

As we discuss on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen below), the strategy paid off, with Beef leading all limited contenders with 13 nominations, in a tie with Dahmer. That would not have happened if it competed in its original space. But this also points to a dispiriting reality for the state of the Emmy Awards, even after a cycle in which the Television Academy tried to fix its voting system. The Emmys have always had an issue with advocating for smaller, better shows (recall The Wire’s track record). But right now, size matters above all else—even quality.

While the Oscars, over the last few years, have settled on a good balance of honoring movies huge (Top Gun: Maverick; Avatar: The Way of Water) and tiny (Women Talking; CODA), the Emmys are turning increasingly audience-heavy, focusing their attention on shows with the right kind of significant audience. (By “right kind,” I mean the record-breaking Taylor Sheridan shows Yellowstone and 1923 can still get blanked, while the relatively niche Succession gets treated like a blockbuster.) This year’s comedy race is not made for the Beefs of the world—and good on Netflix for realizing that. Lasso and Wednesday and even Jury Duty were hardly the toast of critics, but were widely seen. Peacock still doesn’t have enough of a footprint, so Poker Face—buzzy, starry, critically adored—couldn’t join them in the comedy-series race. Abbott Elementary stalled in nominations when it should have exploded. Critics’ favorites like Reservation Dogs, Somebody Somewhere, and The Other Two had virtually no way in; it’s basically a miracle the latter managed a writing nod, and unsurprising that the rest couldn’t even get that.

In the drama-supporting-acting categories, The White Lotus and Succession combine for 14 of the 16 total nominations; The Crown and Better Call Saul snagged the remaining pair of spots. In other words: Hundreds of drama series were in contention, and yet only four supporting casts were recognized at all, and within them, not a single Black or Latino actor. With no disrespect to these terrific ensembles, that’s a frankly extraordinary failure on the part of this voting body, and a sad result under a restricted ballot, wherein it is expected that more discerning and varied choices will emerge. Under a similar system a decade ago, for instance, you’d have twice as many shows represented in the supporting categories despite four fewer nomination slots; heavyweights like Mad Men and Breaking Bad would only occupy a handful of them at best.

Succession, The White Lotus, and The Last of Us each amassed 20-plus total nominations on the backs of their hugely successful seasons, and the shape of the top drama-series category is such that Andor, a generously budgeted Star Wars spin-off, and Better Call Saul, a spin-off of one of TV’s most successful dramas ever, look like the indie-spirited underdogs of the group. Yellowjackets and The Crown are not as popular as they once were, as evidenced by the falling in nomination totals, but their continued presence in the top race over fresher choices like The Diplomat and Bad Sisters speaks to tired habits. At least voters finally moved on from The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mandalorian in best drama; the former’s lead, Elisabeth Moss, and the latter’s below-the-line elements were appropriately still nominated.

Which brings me to the limited-series races. A lack of blockbuster hits yielded a greater range of choices, and in turn a more representative portrait of great work on TV over the past season. You may not have seen or heard much about Tiny Beautiful Things, but Kathryn Hahn and Merritt Wever did beautiful, subtle work on the Hulu drama; ditto Welcome to Chippendales, a flawed true-crime saga that is now four-time nominated for four worthy performances from Kumail Nanjiani, Murray Bartlett, Annaleigh Ashford, and Juliette Lewis. Dominique Fishback was, fortunately, too good in Swarm to be denied. Fleishman Is in Trouble was a modestly viewed series for FX/Hulu, but rightly, was also great enough to make its way into best limited series, along with recognition for writing, directing, acting, and more. Even a few TV movies found unexpected love, like Fire Island and Weird in the writing field, and Prey in both writing and directing.

Popularity still, wrongly, won out often here. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not a better show than A Small Light or Black Bird, but it did find more eyeballs, so it’s a best-limited-series nominee and they are not. Daisy Jones & the Six was not the Prime Video series that should’ve been nominated in that category (see The English, Swarm, Dead Ringers, and on), but it was cited because it was more broadly seen; Rachel Weisz really should not have been snubbed for her career-best work in Dead Ringers, and well, the same logic applies. Why is it that, in this fragmented media landscape, even if you’re a movie star giving maybe the richest and boldest screen performance of your life, it’s no longer enough for an Emmy nomination? It’s a question the Television Academy has started to look at, admittedly, but judging by this year’s lack of progress, ought to address far more urgently.

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