Business

HBO is king, women rule comedy and other takeaways from this year's Emmy nominations

Posted July 19, 2019 3:25 p.m. EDT

— The Emmy Award should be more important than it has ever been because television has risen to a place of genuine distinction in the arts. But for the most part winning one, or even being nominated for one, still pales in prestige comparison to an Oscar — and, for actors, probably a Tony Award.

But having been witness to much of the recent history of Emmy awards and nominations, the current batch, announced this week, does inspire a few observations — and not the usual ones about who got snubbed and who was undeserving.

HBO dominates

HBO rose again to the top of the heap in terms of overall nominations, pulling in a staggering 137 separate citations, eclipsing last year's top dog, Netflix, which this year still managed a prodigious 117. For several reasons this is interesting, not least because Netflix consciously set out to take down HBO as the top brand in television, and with its massive output (and production budget), the streaming giant has been primed for several years to claim that achievement.

But HBO apparently had at least one year of bragging rights left. (We'll see if that holds up when the awards are actually given out.) That is almost certain to change, both because HBO's new corporate owner AT&T (which also owns CNN) mandated that HBO move out of the boutique shop it has occupied so long and into something closer to the box store business Netflix now runs with such spectacular success.

And changes at the top of HBO management probably presage a shift away from the more artistically selective approach favored by the departed top executive Richard Plepler, a strategy that generated the excellence so often recognized by Emmy voters.

Over its years when it openly distanced itself from the rest of TV (it's not TV, remember, it's HBO), the premium cable channel also mastered the arcane art of inducing nominations though shrewd publicity and mass mailings of its best product. Netflix has yet to establish levels of clear distinction amid its blizzard of programming. Some truly great shows on Netflix can get lost in the drifts.

The queens of comedy

Meanwhile, one HBO show can pile up an unheard-of 32 nominations: "Game of Thrones." (The previous record was 26 for "NYPD Blue" in 1994.) That's amazing, and not just because one episode in the final season was too dark for viewers to even see what was happening. Domination like that is hardly expected to happen when the competition across categories is now so vast. (According to the annual survey by FX, nearly 500 scripted shows were generated in 2018.)

Many critics didn't expect it to happen either, because the "GOT" season left a horde of passionate viewers unsatisfied. Some even wanted to force the show's creators to go back and re-write the ending for the series and its characters.

They will surely take heart in the 32 nominations, not to mention the defense that artists get to make their own choices about how their characters finish their fictional lives.

Another reason why "GOT" may have overwhelmed its competition is that the drama category seems notably weaker this year, kind of a shock after a long run of spectacular work in television drama. More ambition was on display in the comedy categories. Beyond the repeat nominees, like "Veep" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," some truly interesting comedies were recognized for the first time. Most notably, mixed comedy/dramas like "Russian Doll" and "Fleabag."

Both those shows were showered in critical praise before being showered with nominations (13 for "Doll"; 11 for "Fleabag.") Both shows also starred their creators, Natasha Lyonne and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a burgeoning trend in TV.

"Fleabag" especially seemed to benefit from the ongoing life that streaming now provides. The show's first season got no nominations, even though it was, to most critical eyes, phenomenally fresh and brilliant. I happened to interview Waller-Bridge shortly after the first season started streaming on Amazon, and when I told her I thought it might be the best thing I had seen on TV that year, she was genuinely stunned.

She also stressed she would almost surely never return to the character for a second season, unless, she said, she could come up with some story that forced her to. In the interim, many more people got a chance to watch the first season, since it remained available on Amazon as word of mouth grew. So when a story did force her hand, they were primed for a second season, and clearly embraced it. In the meantime, Waller-Bridge created the drama "Killing Eve," which scored nine nominations of its own.

Waller-Bridge will face off in a stacked Outstanding Lead Comedy Actress category than includes both last year's winner, Rachel Brosnahan for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and the star who probably should have the award named after her at this point, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Veep." If Louis-Dreyfus wins, she will set the all-time Emmy record of nine acting awards; but more amazing is this stat: Since 1992, Louis-Dreyfus has been nominated as a comedy actress 18 times in three separate series.

Another of her competitors as best comedy actress is Catherine O'Hara from the show "Schitt's Creek," one of four nominations for a show that started in Canada and made it to the United States on the somewhat lesser-known channel Pop. What clearly pushed it forward in the consciousness of Emmy voters was having previous episodes available on Netflix.

"Schitt's Creek" also has the distinction of being a show that started out having a real promotion issue since some network television shows weren't allowed to say its name. When its star Eugene Levy turned up to promote the series on the "Today" show, they bleeped out part of the name.

The late night conundrum

The time has clearly come when there are too many shows in the category doing strong work. It was surely gratifying for Trevor Noah to bring "The Daily Show" back to award consideration, and the innovations brought by James Corden and his staff finally merited attention in the best variety category.

But Jimmy Fallon did some notably strong work this season, especially in a brilliant parody of "The Larry Sanders Show." And Seth Meyers really has established a potent late-night comedy voice. Neither was nominated for Outstanding Variety Talk Series. Nor was Conan O'Brien, who has shockingly never won in this category.

The last thing the Emmys needs is more categories, but maybe a fair way to deal with this would be to split off the shows that produce once-a-week shows from the ones that work every weeknight. Certainly John Oliver, who blows the voters away every year and has won three straight times, is a giant presence, and Samantha Bee is a force in her own right. But they have the advantage of working on each show for a week, rather than a day. Separating the category into daily vs. weekly entries would recognize a bit more of the good work being done in late night without denying the continuing excellence of shows like Oliver's and Bee's.