Longtime awards watchers know that the Emmys tend to play things repetitive and safe year after year—shows that are in tend to be in forever, and shows that miss recognition do not, in the main, find recognition later.
But things may be changing, at least a bit. This year’s nominees list, announced Thursday morning, brought a dose of variety to the proceedings. Certainly the morning’s biggest surprise was the amount of love heaped upon The Americans—a show that aired its best season this year, but one whose first three seasons, all Emmy-eligible, had been more or less blanked. The show was nominated for Best Drama, and its two leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both picked up nominations in their respective categories.
The Americans joined Mr. Robot as newcomers to a Best Drama field that was more exciting than it otherwise might have been—and pushed out a show that had seemed like it might become a perennial nominee, Orange is the New Black. (Interestingly, it wasn’t that Netflix series’s recently dropped, superlative fourth season that was eligible, but the less beloved third season from 2015, so the show may find better luck next year.) In the Best Comedy field, both Black-ish and Master of None, two series that deal with admirable frankness about race, found their way in, the former after missing a nomination last year. Both saw their stars—Black-ish‘s Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross and Master of None‘s Aziz Ansari—nominated as well, lending yet more welcome diversity to a field that also includes a Best Actor in a Drama nominee of Egyptian descent (Rami Malek of Mr. Robot) and the returning Best Actress in a Drama winner (Viola Davis of How to Get Away with Murder).
Those looking to read the tea leaves on what shows might take top prizes should note certain favorites. In the comedy field, Veep (last year’s winner) received two writing and three directing nominations, while Silicon Valley got two in each category. For dramas, Game of Thrones (also a defending champion) got two directing nominations and saw five of its actors nominated in the supporting fields, including first-time honorees Kit Harington and Maisie Williams.
The continued honors for Game of Thrones and Veep prove this isn’t the Golden Globes—the Emmys don’t radically rewrite themselves each year. Downton Abbey, now off the air, has the honor of having been nominated for Best Drama each of the five years it was eligible (its first season won in the miniseries field). Modern Family is still in the Best Comedy mix. And reliables like Claire Danes of Homeland, William H. Macy of Shameless and Kevin Spacey of House of Cards seem destined to be nominated long after their shows leave the air. But this year marked, too, a lack of fear to cut certain shows loose—even after a season widely viewed as a creative resurgence (one I was less high on), Girls, much-nominated in its early going, appears to have basically wrapped up its Emmy story. And The Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert, a longtime Emmy favorite as host of the now-concluded Colbert Report, saw a period of rough news continue as he was blanked in the Best Variety/Talk field, in favor of Bill Maher, his two timeslot competitors (Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon), his CBS network-mate (James Corden), John Oliver and the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Perhaps the greatest change on this year’s Emmy ballot seems to be just how much the center of gravity has shifted. The addition of new blood into the Best Drama field only barely keeps it from feeling substantially less vital than what’s happening in the Miniseries field, where American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager and (almost certain winner) The People v. O.J. Simpson dominate. These series— delivered in short spurts allowing writers to take massive narrative swings—just feel more interesting than their longer-running counterparts. And on Emmy night, I’ll be more curious to see which The People v. O.J. Simpson supporting actor (of the nominees Sterling K. Brown, David Schwimmer, and John Travolta) prevails than to see likely repeats in Drama and Comedy, however worthy. These categories, refreshing with new blood every year, provide the real excitement a show largely meant to honor continuing programming fundamentally lacks. No wonder limited series have networks and audiences hooked.