By Frazier Moore
AP Television Writer
Year after year, too many Emmy categories are laden with expected and oft-repeated winners. No drama then when the envelope is torn.
But there is drama ahead in the drama categories that will be presented tonight.
Four of the seven nominated drama series are new on the scene. Consequently, at least half of the Best Drama Actress, Actor and Supporting Actor nominees come from freshman shows, as do no fewer than five of the six Best Supporting Actress drama nominees.
No wonder the Best Drama field has confounded odds-makers. Any one of those nominees could take home the trophy.
Consider the wide range of contenders:
“Better Call Saul.” On basic cable (AMC), with its third-consecutive Best Drama nomination, yet thus far no Emmy wins in any category.
“Westworld.” On premium cable (HBO). Its first year in contention.
“The Handmaid’s Tale.” On a streaming channel (Hulu). Its first year in contention and, potentially, Hulu’s maiden Emmy win.
“House of Cards.” On a rival streaming channel already well-established with Emmy-winning content (Netflix), nominated for its fifth-consecutive season.
“Stranger Things.” Also on Netflix, in its first season.
“The Crown.” Yet another Netflix entry, also in its rookie season.
“This Is Us.” A freshman series on NBC, a broadcast network that scored its first Emmy in 1949 but which, along with the other legacy broadcasters, has been shut out of this category for years. (CBS’ “The Good Wife” was these broadcasters’ last drama series to be nominated, in 2011, and ABC’s “Lost” was the last to win, way back in 2005.)
Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” reference book and editor of Gold Derby, an awards handicapping website, predicts “Stranger Things” will take the prize, but in the same breath he acknowledges that show is too young-skewing and too “genre” to be an Emmy slam-dunk. The drama category, he sums up, is “wide open. You could make a compelling argument for all seven nominees.”
But let’s set aside for a moment who will win, and focus on what these nominees say about TV today. For starters, more than half of the field come from streaming channels, a distribution system that wasn’t represented by the Emmys until “House of Cards” claimed three statuettes in 2013.
Both premium and basic cable are also represented. (And it’s fun to recall that, until 1988, Emmy didn’t even recognize cable shows.)
And as the category’s biggest surprise, broadcast TV, which once had the Emmys all to itself, has pulled an upset by a network denied a drama-series win for 14 years.
Another oddity about the Best Drama field this year: Here, at least, Emmy voters have kicked the habit of picking the same series time and again. (Consider the Best Comedy category, where “Veep” has been nominated yearly since its 2012 premiere and won twice – so far.) The last time as many as half the drama field was newcomers happened more than 30 years ago.
“The radical infusion of new blood in the Emmy race is largely due to the huge impact that streaming services are having on TV,” O’Neil notes. He pointed to how Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (which has landed eight Emmys in just two seasons for “Transparent”) “are having the same disruptive impact on the Emmys that they’re having on the TV industry.”
One explanation for drama’s fresh faces: The absence of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (which has been nominated for its entire six-season run but didn’t air during the 2016-17 qualifying year) and another trusty challenger, PBS’ “Downton Abbey” (which has now concluded), has freed up slots those shows claimed for years.
Meanwhile, recent revisions in how Emmy votes are cast and counted has potentially boosted the chances for more edgy entries. Last year, the academy switched from a ranking-and-points system to simply letting voters check off a single top choice. That could account for how Rami Malek, the star of USA’s dystopian drama “Mr. Robot,” upset voter-friendly candidates such as Kevin Spacey, Bob Odenkirk and Kyle Chandler.
Of course, the Emmy has been a work-in-progress since its inception. Its policies and procedures have been in turmoil and dispute as far back as 1964, when ABC and CBS lashed out by boycotting the awards ceremony (aired on NBC that year) as unfair.
“The fatal flaw in the Emmy awards is the academy’s pathetic yearning to be liked at any price, to revise its systems of awards to meet whatever may be the latest wave of criticism,” wrote The New York Times’ Jack Gould after the 1965 Emmycast, which, in response to the ’64 kerfuffle, made some unbelievably dumb changes. “Refinements” included bunching all of the entertainment nominees into a single all-inclusive, noncompeting category. A grab bag of 15 programs – variety, comedy, drama, even high-brow music – resulted, with four of these nominees scoring Emmys.
“An unmitigated disaster,” Gould says. The next year, conventional categories were restored. Obviously, who-will-win suspense was essential to viewers, no matter how much grousing might accompany it.
It still is. And this year’s drama category, with seven worthy contenders, is serving up guaranteed suspense. But will the winner, whichever it is, really be the “best” show?
“The Emmys have never picked the best shows on TV,” O’Neil says with a laugh. He needs only to cite HBO’s “The Wire,” a permanent fixture on many best-shows-ever lists that, every one of its five seasons, got the Emmy brush-off (apart from a pair of writing nominations).
“There’s tons of outrageous examples you can point to,” O’Neil adds – “Lindsay Wagner won Best Dramatic Actress for ‘The Bionic Woman’!”
But it’s not so hard to understand, he explains: “The Emmys pick what they like.”