Of all the major awards shows, the Emmys are often the most derided. (Well, it’s them or the Grammys.) There are so, so, so many categories, often with completely nonsensical names or hard-to-understand distinctions. The same programs and performances keep getting nominated, even after they’re well past their prime. And the winners often make no sense.
But the 2017 Emmys might — might — be different. For starters, there are the five first-time nominees for Drama Series, which have instantly shaken up that race. (It also helps that Game of Thrones, which won in 2015 and 2016, was ineligible in 2017.) The limited-series categories are as competitive as they’ve been in more than a decade, and are crammed full of major movie stars. The comedy categories seem slightly less poised for surprise, but there’s a chance for at least one major record to be tied there.
The point is that if you know what to watch for, even the Emmys can be a lot of fun. Here are five things to pay attention to when television hands out its top awards Sunday night.
1) A topsy-turvy drama race seems to have come down to two polar-opposite shows
There are seven Drama Series nominees, but it seems safe to bet that the winner won’t be one of the only two series to repeat their nominations from 2016, Better Call Saul and House of Cards. (Cards saw its nomination total sag, while Saul has yet to win any of the Emmys it’s been nominated for, which is too bad. It’s a great show.)
Next, it seems safest to eliminate The Crown. Yes, its Anglophilia and classical filmmaking appeal seem as if they might speak to many Academy voters, but Netflix has shifted its campaign focus to a different series (about which more in a moment), and The Crown seems likely to suffer the fate of the similar Downton Abbey — winning a supporting acting prize (in this case for John Lithgow) but losing the big trophy.
Now we turn to two series with slightly more in their favor: NBC’s This Is Us and HBO’s Westworld. This Is Us was by far the breakout hit of the past TV season, and Gerald McRaney won a guest acting prize for his role on the show at last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys. Westworld, meanwhile, garnered five Creative Arts Emmys (tied for the biggest winner so far) and has 22 nominations total (the most of any show). It’s also HBO’s only competitor in this race, and the network has won this category four times in the past (twice with The Sopranos and twice with Game of Thrones).
This Is Us has the higher mountain to climb. A series on one of the broadcast networks hasn’t won here since 24 in 2006, and This Is Us was the first broadcast drama to be nominated, period, since The Good Wife in 2011. Plus, it didn’t score nominations for writing or direction, usually considered important harbingers of a win for the big prize.
The case for Westworld is stronger, but taking a look at the Creative Arts results suggest that it’s less strongly positioned than the other two competitors in this category. Of the five awards Westworld won, one (Special Visual Effects) didn’t see it facing any fellow drama nominees, and the other four were in categories like Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media Within a Scripted Program.
No, the safe money is on one of the other two nominees: The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things. Both had successful showings at the Creative Arts Emmys, winning three and five trophies respectively, and both won at least two prizes that often accompany wins in the top category. (Handmaid’s won cinematography and a guest acting prize; Stranger Things won casting and editing.)
What’s more, the two are remarkably well-matched heading into Emmy night. Both are likely to win one (or both) of the writing and directing categories, and both have great shots at an acting prize (lead actress for Handmaid’s and supporting actress for Stranger Things). Stranger Things is the bigger, buzzier show, one that everybody seems to love. But Handmaid’s has the feeling of something “important,” particularly at this moment in history. It’s going to be a close one — and it wouldn’t be surprising to see either Westworld or This Is Us to sneak in for the prize amid the turmoil.
2) Can any comedy — namely Atlanta or Black-ish — beat Veep?
The favorite to win Outstanding Comedy going into this year’s ceremony is Veep, HBO’s acidic sendup of Washington politics that has won this category the past two years and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus the award for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy in the past five (a.k.a. every year Veep has been on the air).
In recent memory, the Emmys have tended to find a favorite comedy and reward it several times in a row. Before Veep, it was Modern Family winning five years running; before Modern Family, it was 30 Rock winning thrice. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, since some comedies, like Arrested Development (2004), have managed to sneak in once in a while. The question for 2017’s Emmys is whether Veep can hold on to the momentum it’s had in the past to keep the streak alive, especially now that HBO’s announced the next and seventh season will be its last.
But Veep is far from invulnerable this year. For one, it’s eligible for its shakier sixth season, which sent Louis-Dreyfus’s caustic politician Selina Meyer off Capitol Hill to wreak selfish havoc on the world at large while the rest of her team scattered to the winds. For another, Emmy voters in 2017 might be a tad less likely to find Veep’s take on craven politics quite as funny as they did in 2016.
Then there’s the fact that the Outstanding Comedy Series category is stacked this year with critically acclaimed options, like FX’s Atlanta and Netflix’s Master of None, that come from nonwhite creators — a demographic this category hasn’t recognized since The Cosby Show won in 1985.
Atlanta probably has a slight edge over Master of None, but from where we’re standing, the most likely usurper to Veep’s throne is ABC’s Black-ish. The third season wasn’t the show’s strongest, but it’s a sharp and relevant network sitcom that has thrived in recent years. Also, the Academy has consistently recognized the show in other categories, namely with lead actor Anthony Anderson being nominated three years in a row and actress Tracee Ellis Ross twice. If Black-ish pulls out an overall win Sunday, we won’t be surprised — and we won’t be mad about it, either.
3) Will Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Allison Janney tie an Emmy record?
The performer with the most Emmys for acting is Cloris Leachman, who won eight beginning in 1973 with the TV movie A Brand New Life and concluding (for now) in 2006 with a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle. She even won two Emmys in 1975. (If you count her one Daytime Emmy — which most Emmy aficionados do not, because it’s a separate, less competitive thing — she has nine.)
Yet here are Veep’s Louis-Dreyfus and Mom’s Allison Janney, both with seven awards, both nominated for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and both with a great shot at winning that category.
Louis-Dreyfus’s awards span Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep (for which she has won the past five comedy actress prizes). Janney’s run the gamut from The West Wing to Masters of Sex to Mom, and she’s won four of the six categories open to actresses in scripted series. (It’s worth noting here that Louis-Dreyfus has two Emmys for producing Veep, but if we’re counting “all of the Emmys won by an actor, period,” then she’s tied with Carl Reiner, who also has nine Emmys, though only three for acting.)
Anyway, if either Louis-Dreyfus or Janney wins, history will be made and Emmy-heads will get to argue about if Leachman’s Daytime Emmy should “count.” Or Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross could — deservedly — win and spoil the party for everybody.
But even if that happens, don’t worry. Louis-Dreyfus and Janney have years of work ahead of them, and Leachman seems to be immortal. They’ll be battling it out for decades to come.
4) Don’t look now, but the Limited Series race is exciting again
It wasn’t all that long ago — 2011, to be exact — that there were so few miniseries and made-for-TV movies that the two categories were collapsed into one, leading to such amusingly incongruous results as American Horror Story’s first season losing to the HBO adaptation of the book Game Change.
But the rise in popularity of limited series like American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective — shows that tell a single story in a season, and then return with a reshuffled cast of characters and a new storyline the next season — has meant the Limited Series category has ramped up in competitiveness and intrigue in just the past few years, since the TV Academy once again it and made-for-TV movie into separate categories in 2014. (The Limited Series category is where the action is, but don’t sleep on the movie category this year, which includes Black Mirror’s standout “San Junipero” episode.)
This year’s race is likely between three projects: HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Night Of and FX’s Feud.
Feud has the old-school Hollywood glamour, 19 nominations, and two Creative Arts wins. Big Little Lies was the most buzzed-about and boasts 16 nominations, three Creative Arts wins, and a Television Critics Association award. The Night Of is squarely in the Academy’s “gritty crime drama” wheelhouse, and it boasts 13 nominations and four Creative Arts wins.
We’d give Big Little Lies the edge, but any one of these three winning would be far from a surprise. And even better, this influx of quality limited series has made at least one category one of the best Emmy acting categories ever.
5) There’s no 2017 Emmy category quite as stacked as Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
And now, please join us in admiring the list of Limited Series actresses nominated for their performances this year:
- Felicity Huffman (American Crime)
- Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies)
- Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies)
- Carrie Coon (Fargo)
- Susan Sarandon (Feud: Bette and Joan)
- Jessica Lange (Feud: Bette and Joan)
If you need a brassy broad with nerve of steel and a steelier glare, boy do we have the category for you!
While Lange and Sarandon were locks for nominations practically the second Feud was first announced, Big Little Lies ended up being the more critically beloved and more discussed series, with Kidman’s restrained performance in particular earning heaps of praise. (We’d argue that Witherspoon’s role of the steel-jawed mom keeping everything together, so help her God, required just as deft a hand, but it’s hard to deny that Kidman’s stellar turn as an abuse victim reclaiming what’s hers is the kind of performance that will be hard for voters to resist.)
What could be interesting here is if Kidman, Witherspoon, Sarandon, and Lange — all the kind of movie stars turned TV actors that award shows tend to love — split the votes between fans of their respective shows. That would leave Coon and Huffman to pick up the pieces, and between them Coon may have the edge, if only because her nomination for Fargo feels like it’s a proxy for her towering performance in HBO’s The Leftovers, which was tragically ignored in the Lead Actress in a Drama category.
We don’t envy those who have to make this choice, but damn if every one of these women isn’t deserving — a pleasant surprise, given the otherwise scattershot nature of this year’s nominations.