Comedy Puts the Drama in This Year’s Emmys

Why This Matters: As the ultimate stamp of approval, the Emmys help viewers weed through an overgrown TV environment.

The big headline coming off of this year’s Emmy nominations — marking the 70th consecutive year the TV Academy has handed out awards — was that Netflix finally managed to topple HBO after 18 years as the biggest nominee-getter, grabbing 112 nominations to HBO’s 108.

But volume is Netflix’s game, so it was probably only a matter of time before the streaming service usurped HBO, which offers far less original fare each year than Netflix with its $8 billion-and-growing programming budget. That’s why HBO’s achievement of 108 nominations spread across a far smaller programming slate remains remarkable.

The premium cable network also can boast about having the most-nominated show in Game of Thrones with 22, and the second-most-nominated show in Westworld, which tied with NBC’s Saturday Night Live with 21 overall nominations. Another small-but-mighty network is FX, which came in fourth overall with 50 nominations, coming in behind NBC with 78 for shows like This Is Us and SNL, but outstripping much larger networks like CBS with 35 and ABC with 31.

“For the second time in three years, FX has had what many would regard as the single best American series in all three of the genres in which we currently program: That would be drama series, The Americans; comedy series, Atlanta; and limited series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks, said at the Summer TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles.

Once you get past the sheer numbers, another trend emerges: All of this year’s drama series nominees have been nominated before and two of them — Game of Thrones and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale — are previous winners.

“There’s nothing unusual here,” Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of Programming Insider, said. “These shows are all very expected but they are all worthy for different reasons.”

It’s in the comedy categories where the drama will really play out come Emmy night Monday, Sept. 17, on NBC.

Breaking New Ground in Comedy

There are repeat nominees in the outstanding comedy series category as well, with Atlanta competing again for its second season. ABC’s Black-ish — starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as a black married couple with kids who have great jobs and live in the suburbs — HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are also all repeat nominees.

Black-ish has been nominated for the past three years and Kimmy Schmidt, which comes from Emmy darlings Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, has been nominated for all four of its seasons. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm always has been an Emmy favorite and it managed to snag a nomination even though it had been off the air for six years when it returned last October for 10 episodes.

But the newcomers to this category — Amazon Prime’s Golden Globe-winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, HBO’s Barry and Netflix’s GLOW — are three series, along with Atlanta, that really show off how varied and experimental comedy has become in “the gilded age of television,” as John Landgraf referred to it at the TCA tour.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was completely unique and had such a nostalgic flair for New York in the 1960s,” Berman said. “The writing, acting and production were all A-plus. I would also be very pleased to see GLOW win, which was something we have never seen before.”

Right now, odds are favoring Atlanta, according to awards predictions website

It’s certainly been star Donald Glover’s year, what with a starring role in the theatrical film Solo as the young Lando Calrissian; a high-rated and Emmy-nominated turn on Saturday Night Live late in the season and an Emmy nod for it; a Grammy for best traditional R&B performance for his song “Redbone” as musical alter ego Childish Gambino; and the viral video release of his single, “This Is America,” during that SNL weekend, that went on to garner more than 362 million views and counting on You-Tube. Besides his nomination for SNL, Glover also is nominated for best actor, best director and best writing for Atlanta.

Although Glover is expected to win, he’s got a strong field surrounding him, including Bill Hader for Barry, Anthony Anderson for black-ish, Larry David for Curb, William H. Macy for Shameless and Ted Danson for NBC’s The Good Place.

Atlanta … was arguably one of the best, most original seasons of television ever,” Landgraf said at TCA. “Donald Glover has a chance to become the first African-American creator of a comedy series to ever win the Emmy award for outstanding comedy series. And we hope this happens, because it would be an historic and very well-deserved achievement.”

But Amazon’s spunky Mrs. Maisel, as played by Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan and written and executive produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino, upset at the Globes and could easily do so again.

The two shows could not be more different. Atlanta is set very much in the modern-day world in which people complain about their “weak-ass Instagram feeds” and find themselves having to perform on a makeshift stage at a company that looks very much like Spotify. The show focuses on a small group of African-American friends and showcases their struggles while occasionally taking a turn into the surreal.

Maisel, in contrast, is a loving homage to New York City in the late ’50s. Brosnahan plays never-say-die Jewish housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel, who morphs into an up-and-coming standup comic, helped along by her cynical manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), who immediately sees her raw talent.

Brosnahan and Borstein, who is also nominated for best character voice-over performance for her work playing Lois Griffin and several other characters in Fox’s Family Guy, are nominated as outstanding lead and supporting actress, respectively.

Also nominated is Tony Shalhoub, who plays Midge’s father, Abe, as outstanding supporting actor in a comedy. Shalhoub was nominated for best lead actor in a comedy for USA’s Monk eight times from 2003 to 2010, winning the Emmy three times. Jane Lynch, an Emmy winner for Glee and Hollywood Game Night (nominated again as best reality host for that show) and a 10 time-overall nominee, also was nominated for her guest appearance on Mrs. Maisel as comic Sophie Lennon.

But comedy is a deep field this year. It’s so strong that shows not making the cut for nominations include NBC’s Peabody winner The Good Place (although star Ted Danson received a nod), Netflix’s modern-day reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time and FX’s Better Things — omissions that many Emmy watchers saw as practically crimes against TV.

“All are worthy nominees — but Pamela Adlon’s Better Things doesn’t get the level of recognition it should,” Jay Bobbin, feature writer for Nielsen’s Gracenote, said. “She does individually, but the entire show also should.”

Adlon was included this year, but Better Things was not. Other nominees for lead actress in a comedy include Black-ish’s Ross; Mom’s Allison Janney, who won the Oscar this year for playing Tonya Harding’s mom in I, Tonya; Grace & Frankie’s Lily Tomlin, and Insecure’s Issa Rae.

Significant absences in the lead actress in a comedy category included GLOW’s Alison Brie, who plays wannabe actress Ruth Wilder and her wrestling alter ego Zora, and The Good Place’s Kristen Bell.

Battle of the Drama Giants

On the other hand, the drama category is a battle of the television giants, with previous winners Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale going head to head and Westworld making a very good claim to the trophy with 21 nominations of its own.

Right now, GoldDerby has The Handmaid’s Tale edging out Game of Thrones by a significant margin. Going for Handmaid’s Tale is that it aired much more recently, and thus is fresher in Emmy voters’ minds, and it’s taking on very relevant topics in today’s era of fraught politics.

Star Elisabeth Moss won the Emmy last year for her role as Handmaid Offred and is expected to win again, even up against such competition as The Crown’s Claire Foy; Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh; Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, a previous winner; and Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood.

Game of Thrones, which immersed viewers in pure spectacle in its seventh and penultimate season, came away with 22 overall nominations, including acting nods for all three Lannister siblings: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime), Lena Headey (Cersei) and two-time winner Peter Dinklage (Tyrion). So GoT should not be counted out.

A critical fave — as exhibited by its recent wins at the TCA Awards for both drama and program of the year — is FX’s The Americans, which closed out its six-season run this year.

“[The Americans] has just not received the Emmy recognition it deserves,” Berman said.

Both of that show’s multifaceted stars, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are nominated, with Russell taking home the TCA Award for individual achievement in a drama.

In both drama and comedy, only one broadcast series is nominated: in comedy, that is ABC’s Black-ish and in drama, it’s NBC’s This Is Us.

“I’m a This Is Us loyalist,” said Bobbin, who also feels that Showtime’s Billions should also have been nominated, as well as members of its all-star cast, including Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis. “An outstanding show in and of itself, [This Is Us] also proves that broadcast drama still can be of a quality level to keep a place at the table.”

Once again, This Is Us stars Sterling K. Brown, last year’s winner, and Milo Ventimiglia are competing for lead-actor kudos.

Also nominated in this category is Matthew Rhys of The Americans, many critics’ choice to win, and Jason Bateman for Netflix’s Ozark (Bateman also earned a nom for directing that show). Like Brown and Ventimiglia, Westworld’s Ed Harris and Jeffrey Wright are up against each other, potentially canceling each other out.

Limited Offerings in Limited Series

Meanwhile, limited series is not the hyper-competitive category that it has become over the past couple of years, with shows such as FX’s The People v. O.J, Simpson: American Crime Story, Fargo and American Horror Story and HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Night Of facing off.

This year, odds are on the second iteration of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and its star, Glee’s Darren Criss, who played serial killer Andrew Cunanan, to win their categories.

Several other cast members also earned mentions: Edgar Ramirez, who played Versace; Ricky Martin, who played Versace’s lover, Antonio D’Amico; Penelope Cruz, who played his sister, Donatella; Judith Light, who played the vengeful widow of one of Cunanan’s victims; and Finn Wittrock, who played Cunanan’s friend and first kill Jeffrey Trail.

Opening this category up is the absence of any big entry from HBO, which is probably the reason why Netflix managed to pass it by in total nominations. Last year, HBO swept the limited-series categories with Big Little Lies, which earned Emmys as outstanding limited series and for its stars Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgård.

Conversely, Showtime feels like it made headway in this category, with limited series such as Patrick Melrose, nominated in the outstanding series category, and Twin Peaks, which grabbed nine noms, including three for creator and executive producer David Lynch in the directing, writing and sound editing categories.

“Having only entered the limited series arena a year ago, we’ve already become a potent force, with Patrick Melrose and Twin Peaks combining for 14 Emmy nominations,” David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime, said at TCA.

John Legend is going for his EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) with a nomination for playing Jesus Christ in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live!. And Jesse Plemons scored his second Emmy nod for his role as Robert Daly in Black Mirror’s “USS Callister.”

On the actress side, Laura Dern is expected to win for her performance in HBO’s The Tale, according to Gold-Derby. Last year, Dern won the best supporting actress in a movie or limited series trophy for playing the intense Renata Klein in Big Little Lies.

American Horror Story star Sarah Paulson grabbed her seventh Emmy nomination for playing Ally Mayfair-Richards in the AHS franchise’s seventh iteration, “Cult.” Paulson won the Emmy in 2016 for playing Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, and also has been nominated four other times for AHS roles.

Also nominated in this category are Jessica Biel for USA’s The Sinner, which she also executive produces; 14-time nominee and four-time winner Edie Falco for NBC’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders and two-time winner Regina King for Netflix’s Seven Seconds.

In the end, the Emmys have largely become a contest between premium cable and streaming services — both of which have money to burn against original series. That tends to leave broadcast out, which Bobbin sees as a shame.

“I lament that the buzz surrounding other series regularly leaves some of television’s most consistently solid performers, such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Blue Bloods, out of the race,” he said.

But maybe longevity is its own reward.

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.