The Emmys are a battle between network, cable and Netflix
Fifteen Oscar winners are nominated for Emmys this year - an indication that prestige television is where the action is
The number of categories and awards associated with the Emmy Awards (Sunday, CBS and CTV, 8 p.m.) can seem bewildering. But here's an interesting figure: 15 – the number of Oscar winners nominated for Emmys this year. That tells you that prestige television is where the action is.
Those 15 range from actors Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Kevin Spacey and Jessica Lange to documentary filmmaker Ezra Edelman and veteran director and producer Ron Howard. Maybe the lustre that Oscar winners add to TV will be part of the comedy delivered by the host, Stephen Colbert. But that's not guaranteed. Colbert is likely to keep his anti-Trump mockery going full tilt to an audience very much on his side.
If Colbert finds comedy in the awards shindig itself, it's likely to be derived from the battle between network and cable for the status of taking home an Emmy. Throw in Netflix and you've got a very interesting contest. For all that Netflix attempts to offer cable-level content, most of its programs fall into the category of popular fare, not artistic significance.
That makes the event fascinating. First, an Emmy is not necessarily the mark of true greatness, any more than an Oscar win is. What the Emmys reflect is the taste of the voters who work in the TV industry. Not all will be familiar with nominated series on FX, National Geographic or PBS. But you can bet they all have access to Netflix and all the networks.
The nominees for best drama – the most prestigious award of the year – offer an insight into what is going on. They are This Is Us (NBC), The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu), Stranger Things (Netflix), The Crown (Netflix), Westworld (HBO), Better Call Saul (AMC) and House of Cards (Netflix).
This Is Us is a fine show and it rescued NBC from near-total failure. Also, for Emmy voters, the show is emblematic: It represents old-school network TV, which provides so many jobs in the industry. The Handmaid's Tale may be the most chilling, thought-provoking and talked-about series this year, but it represents something else: an excursion into the culture wars that flourish in the Trump era. Stranger Things is the twist on the list. An enormously popular show from late last summer, it had the kind of impact that is significant in a very fragmented TV landscape. But compared with Westworld it has nothing like the gravity of tone and serious purpose.
A thing to remember is that the first round of 2017 Emmy Awards have officially been handed out. The Creative Arts Emmys were held last weekend, and while they primarily honour technical achievements, they also include several acting awards. Stranger Things and Westworld each won five. This could mean that both are voter favourites and, come Sunday, the big battle will be between those two shows. And it's interesting that Netflix's The Crown, an enormously expensive and praised show, didn't pick up much at the Creative awards.
The best limited series category is probably the most emphatic picture of just how good TV drama is right now: Big Little Lies (HBO), Feud: Bette and Joan (FX), The Night Of (HBO), Fargo (FX) and Genius (National Geographic). You can expect Big Little Lies to win, but it's worth noting that a rare National Geographic foray into drama managed to attract Geoffrey Rush in the cast and Ron Howard behind the scenes.
In the acting categories, the popular-versus-prestige also plays out. For best actor in a drama series it is Sterling K. Brown ( This is Us), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Anthony Hopkins (Westworld), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Milo Ventimiglia (This Is Us), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) and Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan). Rhys should win it, but Brown is very likely to take it for what is good but grandstanding work on a network series.
For best actress in a drama series it is Elisabeth Moss ( The Handmaid's Tale), Claire Foy (The Crown), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder), Keri Russell (The Americans) and Robin Wright (House of Cards). Here Moss has to be the clear favourite – as Offred she was an everywoman in a series that has a powerfully dark view of the status women in a fictional world where the culture war has been won by the misogynist side.
Other outcomes seem pretty certain, too. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) will win best variety talk series, and Saturday Night Live will win best variety sketch series. Alec Baldwin will win best supporting actor in a comedy series for his outrageously florid portrayal of Donald Trump, while Kate McKinnon, also of Saturday Night Live, will win the best supporting actress in a comedy series.
What will get lost in the shuffle are a number of shows and performances that deserve better: Master of None (Netflix) and the work of its creator, Aziz Ansari, will probably lose out, even if the series transcends the comedy category to reach for another plane entirely.
This Is Us will probably take away a surprising number of Emmys. Chrissy Metz is almost certain to win for best supporting actress, while Thandie Newton (Westworld) and Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) deserve it more.
And if anyone ends up arguing about the Emmy Awards, the argument will really be about Stranger Things and the merits of a popular series that charms while others provoke angst of the serious or sentimental kind.
Then, after Sunday's broadcast, the new Emmy race starts all over again.