Outrage is the first reaction to this year's Emmy Award nominations. That is, industry outrage, and mine.
Look at the list of the overlooked – The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Insecure, The Good Fight, The Big Bang Theory, Mr. Robot, The Leftovers and The Young Pope. Now, pick out what seems odd. Nobody can be surprised that Jimmy Fallon failed to get recognized. In a year of intense political comedy, Fallon largely stayed away from it. But HBO's Insecure, The Leftovers and The Young Pope, along with CBS's The Good Fight clearly belong in the category of excellence.
Once again, the whole Emmy Awards thing looks like a mess. This era, usually called peak TV now, because there is so much content available across so many platforms, hasn't made the Emmys less predictable. It's made them seem weirdly mundane. This was a year in which the absence of Game of Thrones – because it didn't air in the allotted period for eligibility – was expected to open up nominations for several other very worthy series. That didn't really happen.
The numbers involved are now staggering. According to trade paper Variety, the number of submissions in the outstanding drama series category was 180. For best actor in a drama it was 140; best actress brought 113 submissions. That is a lot of drama vying for award attention and a lot of talent.
Thus it seems peculiar that a small number of shows dominate and some shows running on fumes are still getting nominated as "best" in several categories.
HBO's Westworld leads the entire pack with 22 nominations. Saturday Night Live also has 22 but that is to be expected given its large cast and writing team. It is also deserved in the case of SNL – it answered the challenge of Trump-era satire with aplomb and originality. Westworld is good but less than brilliant. Anthony Hopkins is nominated for best actor which is a bit puzzling because, as good as he is, he does very little in the series. At the same time it is appropriate that Evan Rachel Wood be nominated for the series, in which she plays an enormously complex role while simultaneously playing a robot of sorts.
In the comedy series category the list of nominations seems slightly bizarre. It's Atlanta (FX), Black-ish (ABC), Master of None (Netflix), Modern Family (ABC), Silicon Valley (HBO), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) and Veep (HBO). What stands out is Modern Family which is now repetitive and dull. There is an enormous gulf between the originality of tone in Atlanta and the antique comedy style of Modern Family.
There is an interesting perspective provided by the outstanding drama category. The Handmaid's Tale is there, as expected. But also on the list is Netflix's Stranger Things. The expansive adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel is probably the cultural event of the year and yet it is competing with Stranger Things, a show that was wildly popular, thanks to the charm of its young cast, but simply isn't at the same level of artistic achievement as Handmaid's Tale.
Perhaps the category that seems most fair is best limited series – Big Little Lies (HBO), Fargo (FX), Feud: Bette and Joan (FX), Genius (National Geographic) and The Night Of (HBO). Big Little Lies was wonderful and made with the kind of panache that is breathtaking. Feud was more nuanced than expected; a bittersweet celebration of the careers of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis rather than the one-note story of hostility that many expected. Fargo disappointed this year but retained a cleverness that excuses it. Genius was an unexpected surprise and underrated. The Night Of was a small masterpiece of intense but short-run drama.
Last year the announcement of Emmy nominations was newsworthy for one particular reason. The Academy Awards were under attack for failing to recognize non-white talent. The Emmys, on the other hand, had actors of colour nominated in all the leading actor categories. That is not repeated this year but the Emmy nominations are still considerably more reflective of diversity than the Oscars.
The overall problem with the Emmy Awards – and this will be much discussed between now and the awards broadcast on Sept. 17, hosted by Stephen Colbert – is they seem consistently preoccupied with the trivial at the expense of the significant. Meaningful discussion of this is, however, largely redundant. The Emmy nominations spread recognition wildly. One beneficiary of the absence of Game of Thrones is NBC's This Is Us, which is squeezed into the outstanding drama category along with shows from cable and streaming services.
This is Us is a notable show, not a truly serious show. And that's why outrage abounds – the Emmys are not about seriousness and are hard to take seriously.