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This year’s Emmy drama race is the most competitive it’s been in ages — maybe ever

Stranger Things, This Is Us, and many more are trying to crowd into an already crowded category.

Stranger Things
Stranger Things wants to be one of the new additions to the Best Drama Series race at the Emmys.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Since the 2010 Emmys, 17 shows have been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series. They include among their ranks some of the best shows of this century to date — Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Americans. They also include gigantic Emmy behemoths like Game of Thrones, and would-be awards monsters that eventually fizzled out, like Boardwalk Empire. And then there’s Dexter, because why not.

But between 2010 and 2016, there were 44 total slots available for Drama Series — and all 44 slots were filled by just those 17 shows. The Emmys, suffice to say, aren’t fond of nominating shows they’re not already familiar with.

The problem the Emmys have always faced is that the people who vote on them tend to be people who don’t have time to watch a lot of television. Either they’re too busy making it, or they’re long since retired and only watch the types of programs they already know they like.

As such, once a show is in at the Emmys, it’s usually difficult to push out, no matter how good some of its challengers might be. (Just ask The Americans, which was a critical darling for four whole seasons before finally making its way into the Emmys’ Outstanding Drama Series category last year.)

But the winds of change just might be brewing in 2017. Indeed, this is the most exciting race for a drama series nomination in many, many years, thanks to a shaky set of returning nominees and an unprecedented number of Emmy-friendly shows knocking at the door.

The 2017 Drama Series race has more potential for turnover than usual

The Crown
The Crown seems a safe bet to join the race.

Major turnover in Emmy categories tends to happen when the absence of previous Emmy favorites leaves the door open for new blood. In 2015, the absence of Breaking Bad and True Detective opened the door for Better Call Saul and Orange Is the New Black, while the addition of a new, seventh slot allowed Homeland to squeeze back into the race after having been pushed out the year before.

Years with multiple openings for new series are rare — but 2017 is just such a case. Downton Abbey completed its Emmy run with the 2016 awards, while the reigning Drama Series champ, Game of Thrones, isn’t eligible for the 2017 awards, due to its newest season not having aired yet. (And Game of Thrones fans should get used to that — the final season is rumored to not be airing until 2019, so the show may still miss another Emmy ceremony before all is said and done.)

So that’s two openings right there. And that’s on top of the fact that all five of last year’s still-eligible nominees have their weak points. I’ll tackle them alphabetically.

  • The Americans had to scrape and struggle to enter the race to begin with, only to air what was likely its least critically acclaimed season so far. If Emmy voters agree that season five was a little slow, the show’s chances could be in danger.
  • Better Call Saul earned critical acclaim for its third season, but its viewership has always been a little soft compared to that of its parent series Breaking Bad, and though it’s been nominated for a number of Emmys, it’s never won one.
  • Homeland has been ousted from the category once before, and the fact that our political reality so badly outpaced Homeland’s reality in its most recent season has made the spy drama feel weirdly sedate.
  • House of Cards has roughly the same “reality is telling a crazier story than fiction” problem as Homeland, as well as a network (Netflix) that has lots and lots of Emmy irons in the fire (more on those below).
  • Mr. Robot’s second season suffered the same sort of critical acclaim gap as The Americans’ fifth season — without the benefit of a planned ending just around the corner. (The Americans will close up shop in 2018; Mr. Robot will return for season three in the fall.)

Now, the Emmys are still the Emmys. The safe bet is always that some of these shows — and maybe even most of them — will make the cut all over again. In most years, I’d simply rubber stamp at least four of them into nomination slots.

But 2017 isn’t most years. In 2017, there are lots of new dramas to choose from.

This year, Emmy voters are faced with an unusual bounty of Emmy-friendly, never-before-nominated dramas

This Is Us
Will This Is Us make it in? Seems likely to us.

Start with Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which fell out of the Drama Series running in 2016 but is eligible for its most acclaimed season (its fourth) in 2017. With such an unstable field, Orange should be good for some votes, right?

See, I just don’t know. Because here’s a brief list of new shows, in their first years of Emmy eligibility, that have enjoyed marked success at other industry and critical awards, and which are all fighting tooth and nail to make it into the Emmy drama race. I’ll keep the list, for now, to just five, in alphabetical order:

Four of these shows — all except for The Handmaid’s Tale, which hadn’t debuted yet — performed admirably with last fall’s industry prizes, especially among the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild, which indicates people in the TV industry are at least watching them. And though The Handmaid’s Tale was ineligible for those awards because it didn’t air in 2016 (it premiered in April), it has since earned tremendous reviews and a bevy of nominations from the occasionally predictive Television Critics Association (of which I am a member).

Between Orange and these promising freshmen, that’s already six shows competing to fill a total of seven slots — to say nothing of the five returning nominees.

And then there are other contenders like The Good Fight — the well-received spinoff to Emmy favorite The Good Wife — or the massively acclaimed final season of The Leftovers. Or Amazon’s lawyer drama Goliath, which would have been Emmy catnip in the ‘90s (but now might feel too tired). Or Showtime’s Billions, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, for Pete’s sake! Now we’re up to 10 potential first-time nominees, and that’s largely off the top of my head. (I haven’t even mentioned “If Todd ran the Emmys!” picks like Halt and Catch Fire or Rectify!)

The most likely scenario is that a number of previous nominees will return, but even if that number turns out to be “four” — because I can’t imagine Homeland muscling its way back in — three open slots will remain, with a whole bunch of shows fighting to snag one of them.

It’s not the sort of thing I’d dare try to predict (though, gun to my head, I’d go with The Americans, Better Call Saul, The Crown, Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, This Is Us, and Westworld, with House of Cards just missing out). But the especially stacked competition will make for a more exciting Emmy nomination morning than usual — and a strong argument that the Television Academy should open up the number of slots in its series categories to an even 10.

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