clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 2019 Emmys drama race is wide open, thanks (in part) to Game of Thrones

HBO’s massive fantasy series chased away at least some of its competition — including Stranger Things.

A group of the kids from Stranger Things, facing the camera.
Stranger Things is sitting out the 2019 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.

If the 2019 list of Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series seems like it’s missing some familiar faces when it’s announced the morning of Tuesday, July 16 — that’s because it is.

The Emmys are known for nominating the same shows over and over and over again, often well past the expiration of whatever good qualities those shows have had. But when the 2019 drama categories are filled with a bunch of new nominees, it won’t be because the Emmy voters have suddenly developed a case of good taste. After all, the final season of Game of Thrones, which was hugely divisive, is expected to lead the nominations. It will be because many Emmy favorites just sat out this year’s race, for a variety of reasons.

The year-long Emmys’ eligibility window for a series to air at least half of a new season runs from June 1 to May 31. For the 2019 Emmys, only two of the seven series that were nominated for Outstanding Drama in 2018 — Game of Thrones (which won last year) and This Is Us — made the May 31 cutoff. (Another show, The Americans, ended its run entirely in 2018.)

Four different shows — The Crown, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, and Westworld — opted to sit out the 2019 Emmys entirely. Both The Handmaid’s Tale (the 2017 winner in the Outstanding Drama category) and Stranger Things even debuted new seasons within five weeks of the deadline, which strongly suggests they could have aired before the cutoff if they had really wanted to. (Premiere dates for The Crown and Westworld have yet to be announced; I assume the former will launch this fall and the latter next spring.)

Similarly, because it didn’t premiere until June, the second season of Big Little Lies — which won a bunch of Emmys in 2017 in the Limited Series category, when it seemed like the show was just going to be a one-and-done — won’t be eligible for the Emmys drama categories (where the Academy will place season two and all future seasons) until 2020.

Time will tell if sitting out was a smart move. Emmy voters may forget about these shows entirely by the time they’re eligible again next year (and the mixed critical reception for The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things likely won’t help their chances).

But whether these shows wanted to avoid the presumed Emmy juggernaut that was the final season of Game of Thrones or just couldn’t be ready in time, don’t be surprised when their names aren’t among the 2019 nominees when they are announced on Tuesday morning.

There’s just one exception: The Handmaid’s Tale might still receive a few nominations, thanks to a quirk of Emmy rules.

How The Handmaid’s Tale could still earn a few 2019 Emmy nominations, even though its current season isn’t eligible

The Handmaid’s Tale
The last three episodes of season two are eligible for awards this year.

Remember where I said above that to be eligible for the Emmys, a show must air half of its latest season before May 31? That rule is why The Handmaid’s Tale’s currently airing third season, which didn’t debut until June, isn’t in the running for 2019.

But in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale season two, the rule meant airing seven of 13 episodes on or before May 31, 2018, in order to compete at the 2018 Emmys, which the season managed by the skin of its teeth (episode seven aired May 30, 2018). It went on to win three awards from 20 nominations.

However, there’s a different quirk of Emmy voting that has come into play for season two’s final three episodes, which all aired after the 2018 Emmy nomination ballots were due (on June 24, 2018). Even though Hulu made those episodes available to Emmy voters as screeners, for an episode to receive nominations on its own — in categories like writing, directing, and most of the awards’ technical races like editing — it has to air before voting for nominations had closed.

As a result, the final three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two — which include the acclaimed “Holly,” a wonderfully written and directed showcase for star Elisabeth Moss that aired on June 27, 2018 — are eligible for Emmys this year, but only in categories that single out individual episodes. Those categories don’t include Outstanding Drama Series or any of the four acting awards that recognize series regulars. But they do include the writing, directing, technical, and guest acting honors.

Thus, The Handmaid’s Tale could receive a number of nominations in 2019 while remaining ineligible for the Emmys’ top drama categories. I don’t know how likely an outcome this is, given the way critical opinion has turned on the show in season three, but the Emmys do love their favorites.

With so many familiar drama players out of the race, who will actually be nominated in 2019?

Better Call Saul
Though it was ineligible in 2018, Better Call Saul will be back in 2019.

Beyond Game of Thrones and This Is Us, there are a few former nominees who might sneak back in. Better Call Saul sat out the 2018 Emmys, missing the May 31 deadline that year, but its fourth season is eligible in 2019 and should slide back in. Less likely but still theoretically possible would be nominations for House of Cards’ sixth and final season (the show also sat out the 2018 Emmys) or the penultimate season of Orange Is the New Black. Both House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black are former nominees that are technically eligible in 2019, though their luster has long since worn off.

Even more intriguing is FX’s American Horror Story, which typically tells new stories with brand new characters every season, and thus is eligible for Outstanding Limited Series, but aired its first sequel season in the fall of 2019 with Apocalypse. Since Apocalypse featured many characters from previous seasons of the show, Emmy rules dictate that it now has to compete as a drama series, as it’s an ongoing, serialized story. (American Horror Story’s next season, which apparently has nothing to do with previous seasons, will compete as a limited series again. Confused yet?)

Additionally, there are a bunch of shows either just coming off successful first seasons — like HBO’s Succession, FX’s Pose, Amazon’s Homecoming, and Netflix’s Bodyguard — or which just fell short of earning Drama Series nominations for their first seasons (namely Netflix’s Ozark and BBC America’s Killing Eve) that will likely take the bulk of the open slots in the category.

This might even be the year for critical favorites like Showtime’s Billions and CBS All Access’s The Good Fight, which have both been largely ignored by Emmy voters, to receive the recognition they’re due.

But many, many shows are voluntarily getting out of Game of Thrones’ way. (Who could have predicted that the anger directed at Game of Thrones’ final season would open up a great path for an awards underdog to campaign on?) Combined with the Emmys’ May 31 eligibility deadline, that means that 2019’s Outstanding Drama Series category is very much up in the air, and if some show I didn’t mention above makes it into the race, well, that will hardly be a surprise.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.