In a television environment that feels filled with almost infinite content, viewers are invited to step into any one of a hundred worlds — from Yellowstone’s vast mountain ranges to Pachinko’s Korean countryside, from The Gilded Age’s lavish Upper East Side mansions to Severance’s stark white hallways.
While it’s impossible to keep up with the ever-flowing stream of content coming
to television — and especially now, with voting season upon us and so many shows released seemingly all at once — Emmy Awards voters have the equally impossible task of choosing among this varied slate of programs.
“Audiences crave unique and distinct experiences in this era of television and streaming,” Michael Ellenberg, CEO of production company Media Res and executive producer of shows such as Pachinko and The Morning Show, said. “I think there’s still a lot of demand for shows that are premium and that invite viewers into worlds they have never been to before. It’s hard to make these kinds of shows, but when you pull it off, audiences are dazzled by them.”
Past May Be Prologue
The 2021-22 TV season saw hundreds of shows debut. A few, such as Netflix’s Squid Game, broke out of the pack to become huge hits that kept people talking. Still, the odds-on favorites to win best drama and best comedy are shows that have already won big — HBO’s Succession, which returned in 2021 after a year off, among dramas, and HBO Max’s Hacks and Apple TV Plus’s Ted Lasso among comedies.
These veterans face plenty of competition, however.
Succession — with its razor-sharp writing, spectacular locations (take a speed boat across Italy’s Lake Como, anyone?) and effortless acting — seems like a shoo-in to repeat 2020’s win, with guest appearances in season three from the likes of Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgard, both playing wealthy men who enjoy wielding their power against Succession patriarch Logan Roy, played by 2020 Emmy nominee Brian Cox.
Looking to upset Succession are some of HBO’s own shows, including Gen Z-focused Euphoria and The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes’s follow-up to Downton Abbey. Gilded Age is sort of the original Succession, as robber barons and their wives try to outsmart each other to gain the upper hand in upper-crust New York City society.
“Our ambition with the show was to let the U.S. audience know that they have their own version of Downton Abbey,” Gareth Neame, executive chairman of Carnival Films and executive producer of The Gilded Age, said. “The version here in the U.S. was very much based on money, whether you had it for a long time or it was recently acquired.”
Neame understands the power of Emmy attention: “The Emmy nominations that the first season [of Downton Abbey] received were absolutely vital,” he said. “The show was already a hit on PBS, but the audience was always going to be capped there. When we had all these nominations and wins after the first season, half of the people who were in the Nokia Theater didn’t know what the show was. [That Emmy exposure] made a massive difference. In the second season, we had a big lift in the ratings and even more Emmy nominations and global awards.”
Should The Gilded Age not emerge as a big contender in its rookie season, it is still likely to receive nominations across the board in the below-the-line categories such as production, set design and costumes, with nearly every scene of the series carefully rendered. The production had many more resources at its disposal after it moved from NBC to HBO prior to the pandemic.
“We never thought we would have the resources to shoot in New York City,” Neame said, speaking from Newport, Rhode Island, where some of the show is filmed at the city’s historic Gilded Age cottages. “We also needed a massive stage space to build interiors, which we achieved. The fact that HBO wanted to shoot the show in New York and show an authentic history of New York City performed by people in the community, Broadway actors and the like, made all the difference.”
Produced with similar care is Apple TV Plus’s Pachinko, based on the novel by Min Jin Lee and executive produced by Soo Hugh. Pachinko tells the sprawling story of three generations of Koreans who emigrate to Japan, America and back to Japan. While the story begins in pre-World War I Korea, it feels timeless and relevant to today.
“I’ve been feeling that there’s a real hunger for Korean stories,” said executive producer Theresa Kang-Lowe, who originally was the agent on the series and then moved into executive producing. “The fact that we’re in a conversation for awards is really heartening. If we get nominated, it will inspire buyers to do even more diverse stories like this.”
Pachinko is told in three languages — Korean, English and Japanese — and it also jumps around in time, indelibly connecting the past and the present.
“When I first gave it to Soo, I asked her to think about how she would want to tell the story,” Kang-Lowe said. “It was her idea to have the timelines be in a dialogue, with the older generation and the current generation in conversation with each other.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Apple TV Plus’s Severance, a surprising series that feels completely different than anything else on TV. The show is set in the heart of a cold corporation, where employees whose brains are “severed” only remember work when they are at work, and only remember home when they are at home.
“I wrote the original version of this show almost 10 years ago,” Severance creator and executive producer Dan Erickson said. “It was an idea that came to me when I was working a real office job. I would walk in and so dread the next eight hours. I thought, ‘If I could just pull those eight hours out of my experience on this earth.’ ”
Severance, which is executive produced and directed by Ben Stiller and stars Parks and Recreation’s and Party Down’s Adam Scott, was released in February, as the world was winding its way out of the latest pandemic surge. The timing was not intentional, but it resonated.
“After the pandemic came the Great Resignation and people were really considering what an appropriate work-life balance looked like,” Erickson said. “The show wasn’t written as a commentary on pandemic loneliness, but it really recontextualized everything. I was terrified that it would not be relevant at all, since it was coming out right after offices went extinct, but the fact that so many of us are working from home just highlights the need for us to draw those boundaries.”
The comedies are, perhaps ironically, more grounded in today’s moment, with shows such as HBO’s Hacks and Barry, Apple TV Plus’s Ted Lasso, ABC’s Abbott Elementary and more set in the present day. Among the potential comedy nominees, only Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set in a different era.
Shows That Build Worlds
But each of these shows still manage to sweep viewers away to their own worlds, whether that’s the glittering version of Las Vegas set by Deborah Vance in Hacks or Ted Lasso’s take on London, where they drink brown water and call it tea. For Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, the show creators wanted to plunk viewers down in the modern-day Upper West Side and show them a great time with stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez.
Headed into Emmy voting June 16-27 and then nominations on July 12, here are the shows most likely to score nominations:
AMC: Better Call Saul (pictured)
Apple TV Plus: Pachinko, Severance
HBO: Euphoria, The Gilded Age, Succession (2020 winner)
Netflix: Ozark, Squid Game
Paramount Network: Yellowstone
ABC: Abbott Elementary
Apple TV Plus: The Afterparty, Ted Lasso (2021 winner)
FX: Atlanta, What We Do In the Shadows
HBO Max: Hacks, The Flight Attendant
Hulu: Only Murders in the Building
Prime Video: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Apple TV Plus: WeCrashed
FX: Under the Banner of Heaven
HBO: The Staircase, Station Eleven, The White Lotus
Hulu: Dopesick, The Dropout, Maid
Showtime: The First Lady
“There’s no greater connective tissue between us than intense experiences,” John Hoffman, executive producer of Only Murders in the Building, said. “That was intriguing as a theory about the landscape of the show and that coincided with the insane last two years that we’ve all spent in isolation. I think that hit the audience subliminally. The internal emotion was all there in the guise of this lovely, funny, beautiful show.”
The comedy category also includes auteur shows, such as FX’s Atlanta, which is created, helmed by and stars Donald Glover, and ABC’s Abbott Elementary, one of the few broadcast series likely to score Emmy nominations, which was created by and stars Quinta Brunson.
Finally, the highly competitive limited-series category includes a mix of all of this — shows that immerse viewers in new worlds, such as HBO’s Station Eleven, and shows that dig deep into real-life events, such as Hulu’s The Dropout and Dopesick and Apple TV Plus’s WeCrashed.
HBO’s Station Eleven, based on the novel by Emily St. John, also unintentionally ended up resonating with audiences due to its stark-but-hopeful story of a post-apocalyptic world in which most of the population has been wiped out by a virulent pandemic.
“It felt uncanny shooting this show during the pandemic, but it’s impossible to tell what people are wanting or needing or feeling,” executive producer Patrick Somerville said. “We weren’t chasing an audience that might be interested in it. It’s an emotionally honest show.
“We couldn’t control COVID or the omicron spike … [but] there are a good amount of people who want stories about how we are feeling right now,” Somerville said. “Art just gives people ways to feel things.” ▪️
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.