The 2016 Emmys are in the books, and they were a nice mix of the completely expected and the pleasantly surprising.
Yes, both winners in the two big series categories — Comedy and Drama — were repeats.
But many of the acting prizes went to first-timers, and FX, a network with a long host of Emmy travails in the past, was hot on HBO’s tail to be the biggest network of the night.
And the most significant revelation of the night was that the Emmys’ new voting system — in which everybody in the Television Academy can vote for the winners, instead of just a small blue-ribbon panel — didn’t lead to a ceremony where the shows with the most buzz won every trophy. Surprises are still very possible.
As a result, the 2017 Emmy season should be one of the most wide-open in years, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. Here are seven questions we have about what to expect.
1) With Game of Thrones most likely sitting a year out, who will win Drama Series?
Game of Thrones’ production schedule will be pushed back a few months for season seven — and when you consider that season six just barely aired within the Emmys’ eligibility window for 2016, it seems quite likely the show won’t be a player in the 2017 awards.
That leaves a huge gap where the two-time reigning Drama Series champ would normally be, and with no obvious successor to step into its shoes. The last time such a void opened up, when the Academy grew tired of Mad Men in the early 2010s, Homeland and Breaking Bad were waiting to take over.
You could make a case for perpetual Emmy also-ran House of Cards, but given that the Netflix series has failed to win any major prizes over four seasons, its voting base in the Academy is likely rather small. You could also make an argument for Better Call Saul, but in its first two seasons, that show has earned even fewer major Emmy nominations than House of Cards.
To me, from a year out, the race will likely come down to two contenders: The Americans and The Crown. The former finally broke into the Drama race in 2016, for its fourth season, and while that accomplishment didn’t translate that into any major awards (just a repeat Guest Acting prize for Margo Martindale), at least the Academy seems to be watching the show. Critical buzz should be on The Americans’ side, and the show will soon be hurtling toward its climax — which is exactly the set of circumstances that won Breaking Bad its first series Emmy, in 2013.
Meanwhile, The Crown (which premieres Friday, November 4) is a very good Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II and the early days of her reign. It’s beautifully shot, handsomely written, and impeccably acted. It’s also about British people — whom the Emmys, like all American awards, love. Yeah, this one has a really great chance.
2) How will the Emmys handle Black Mirror and other true anthology series?
The Emmys have slotted shows like Fargo and American Crime Story — where each season tells a completely new story — into the "Limited Series" category. That makes sense, because the cast and setting of those shows change completely with each season, and the effect is much closer to something you’d see a repertory theater company rather than a traditional TV show.
But what do the Emmys do with the return of the UK anthology series Black Mirror — which will be eligible for 2017 Emmys for its upcoming third season, exclusive to Netflix? That series tells a new story with every episode. Does it qualify for "Limited Series" or "Drama Series"? Do all of its actors all compete as guests, since they never appear in multiple episodes? And how will the Academy classify other, similar upcoming series, like Easy and Dimension 404, especially if it looks like the anthology form is a new, hot trend?
My guess is they’ll be pushed into the Drama Series category, with the actors competing as guests and the scripts and direction competing against everything else. But the Academy has become very interested in nomenclature lately and may decide these shows are, say, a series of made-for-TV movies instead.
3) Will Netflix ever win one of the biggest prizes?
In 2016, Netflix quietly pulled off its best Emmy night ever — by winning three awards. But those three awards (two writing awards and Supporting Actor in a Drama Series) weren’t exactly marquee prizes. Amazon’s Transparent, at the very least, has won Jeffrey Tambor two consecutive Lead Actor in a Comedy Series awards.
So what will it take for Netflix to finally win a lead acting prize — or dare we say it, a series prize? That Kevin Spacey hasn’t won for House of Cards is something those of us who are skeptical of that series might be grateful for, but it’s also just a little weird. The Emmys usually fall all over themselves to reward movie stars. Similarly, the lack of acting trophies for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when co-creator Tina Fey’s previous series 30 Rock was such an Emmy magnet, is a bit strange.
Netflix winning one of the top prizes will probably happen sooner rather than later. But it clearly needs to bide its time at least a little bit longer.
4) Will the Academy expand the Comedy and Drama Series categories to 10 nominees?
It’s been threatening to do this for a few years, first increasing the pool from five nominees to six, and then to seven. But it’s never pulled the trigger on going all the way up to 10, or even borrowing the Oscars’ idea of nominating anywhere from five to 10 choices.
Honestly, this is probably for the best. I could certainly name three Drama Series that I would have loved to see join the seven the Emmys nominated in 2016 — but given the lack of down-ballot support, I’m guessing Halt and Catch Fire, The Leftovers, and Rectify weren’t on the tip of voters’ tongues. Most likely, if there were more open slots, we would have ended up with a Bloodline nomination (yuck).
But I think the expansion of the main series categories is probably inevitable — especially as the comedy scene explodes and more and more networks start or continue producing quality half-hour series (and hour-long ones with a smile and/or song in their heart).
5) Can FX keep its momentum going?
For a long time, FX was an Emmy cautionary tale. The network regularly programmed some of the best stuff on TV, but couldn’t seem to get the awards to pay attention to it for even a moment. AMC broke into the top categories with its very first original drama, while FX kept begging for scraps with series as wide-ranging as The Shield, Rescue Me, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy.
FX’s approach to this lack of attention was sort of ingenious: Give up on the main Drama Series race and shift its focus to the miniseries (later dubbed "Limited Series") categories. They were much less competitive, after all, and since Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story told a new story with every season, why couldn’t it compete there?
Initially, the network’s strategy was controversial — since American Horror Story easily could have competed in Drama Series at the time — but it’s since been ratified by the Academy itself, via the shift to the "Limited Series" categories described above. And now FX dominates those categories.
Of the 20 categories where limited series are technically eligible — including a few catch-all categories where it’s very hard for them to earn nominations against the likes of, say, Game of Thrones — FX won 13 of them in 2016. That was mostly thanks to The People v O.J. Simpson, but Fargo and American Horror Story: Hotel won a few prizes as well.
And by positioning itself as an Emmy powerhouse in those categories, FX was able to spread its success to both Comedy — where Louie had a great run from 2013 to 2015 — and, eventually, Drama, where The Americans finally broke through in 2016. Now, it’s nipping at HBO’s heels.
The network’s next big challenge will be to somehow re-enter the Comedy race. Fortunately, it has two new entries in Atlanta and Better Things — with the former, in particular, posting amazing ratings and earning great reviews. If the network can get Atlanta nominated in the Comedy category, The Americans nominated in the Drama category, and a host of other programs in the Limited Series categories, it just might be able to take HBO’s crown in an off year for the latter network. (The irony is that HBO’s best bet for a new show to win in 2017 is a limited series — The Night Of.)
6) Can the broadcast networks ever come back?
The broadcast networks aren’t in as dire of Emmy straits as they might seem to be. Regina King (of ABC’s American Crime) and Kate McKinnon (of NBC’s Saturday Night Live), as well as NBC’s The Voice, and Fox’s Grease Live! all won prizes.
But let’s face it: If you want to win an Emmy, you have a much better shot at doing so on cable or streaming. The seven "series" categories — Drama, Comedy, Limited, TV Movie, Reality Competition, Variety Talk, and Variety Sketch — featured 42 shows among them in 2016, and only 11 of those shows aired on one of the big four broadcast networks. (That number soars to 13 if we include PBS.) And it’s only that high due to the reality competition category, where broadcast networks accounted for four of the six slots.
Yet there were only two categories where the big four were completely shut out in 2016 — Drama Series and TV Movie. And in the Comedy Series category, especially, there were a number of viable contenders from the broadcast networks that just didn’t make it in (including a couple on The CW, which is a broadcast network, but mostly in a "kid sibling" sense). Would the race have been hurt by including ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat or CBS’s Mom or NBC’s The Carmichael Show or Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine? Of course not.
What could be different about the 2017 Emmys is that the broadcast networks have potentially competitive dramas as well. It’s not hard to imagine a world where ABC’s Designated Survivor (Kiefer Sutherland is the president), Fox’s Pitch (the first woman in Major League Baseball), or NBC’s This Is Us (true-to-life stories of people’s day-to-day lives) compete for a few major prizes. In fact, I’ll even be surprised if Pitch star Kylie Bunbury hasn’t garnered Emmy buzz by the boatload by the time the TV season ends.
Will any of this translate into actual Emmy attention? It’s impossible to say. But TV is healthiest when the broadcast networks are taking big, creative swings, and it would be nice for the Emmys to notice when they do.
7) Can Julia Louis-Dreyfus make it six-for-six?
Nobody has ever won five Emmys for the same role, in five straight years … until now. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s five-peat for Veep not only made history, it also set a record in terms of most wins in the Lead Actress in a Comedy category with six. (Her other win was in 2006 for The New Adventures of Old Christine.)
Even more remarkable: Veep has been on the air for just five years. So Louis-Dreyfus has won every year it’s been on. And though the show’s sixth season hasn’t officially been announced as its last, it’s not difficult to imagine it might be. (I won’t spoil the recent plot, but Veep fans will know what I’m talking about.) In that case, could the Academy possibly resist giving Louis-Dreyfus an Emmy for every year the show was on the air?
Winning a sixth Emmy for Veep would also tie Louis-Dreyfus with Cloris Leachman for most primetime Emmys won by any performer, male or female, for their performances. Leachman has won eight. Louis-Dreyfus currently has seven between Veep, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Seinfeld, for which she won a supporting actress trophy in 1996. (She has an additional two for producing Veep, but those are not primetime performance Emmys. And if we’re going to include them, we might as well include Leachman’s one daytime Emmy. Allison Janney, meanwhile, also has seven performance Emmys.)
Louis-Dreyfus going a perfect six-for-six for Veep would be sort of apt, considering how monumental her performance has been. But my guess is that it will only happen if season six is Veep’s last year. If not, somebody else will come along and win — the Emmys rarely award the same performance this many times in a row.
We have until September 2017 to find out, when the 69th awards will be broadcast on CBS.