The 5 Biggest Surprises of the 2017 Emmy Nominations

7 minute read

Thursday morning saw the nominations for the Emmy Awards, the often behind-the-times but still authoritative prizes for the best of what’s on TV. The most notable new development in this year is big movement in the drama field, as Game of Thrones, the Emmys’ reigning Best Drama champ — and the all-time-winningest prime-time series — is out of contention due to its later-than-usual season this year. In the absence of Thrones, several new shows have the opportunity to grab the top prize, and, possibly win the first ever Best Drama gong for a streaming show. Here are the biggest developments from the nominations:

Fresh new dramas

The Emmys have the tendency to honor the same shows every year — it was big news, in 2016, when The Americans broke into the Best Drama field in its fourth season. This year, though, thanks to shows either ineligible (Thrones, the now-concluded Downton Abbey) or falling out (sorry, Americans) no fewer than five of the seven Best Drama nominees were brand-new, with only Better Call Saul and House of Cards returning. And the new shows in the field come from across the spectrum of television. There are three streaming series (Netflix’s zeitgeist smash Stranger Things and aesthetically ambitious The Crown and Hulu’s much-discussed Handmaid’s Tale), one network show (NBC’s This Is Us, the first show from a broadcast channel to be nominated since The Good Wife in 2011) and HBO (continuing a long streak of nominations with the sci-fi spectacle Westworld). It’s not hard to imagine that one of the three new streaming series — two of which helped fill the Thrones vacuum by generating endless chatter among TV fans, and the other of which is expensively made and about an eminently awardable historical subject —could break a longstanding barrier for streaming TV.

MORE: Margaret Atwood and Elisabeth Moss on the Urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale

Transparent out of Best Comedy

The rise of streaming seemed this year to largely apply to Netflix and, with Handmaid’s, an ascendant Hulu. Amazon saw its longtime awards stalwart Transparent fall out of major categories in spite of (in my view) its third season being by far the series’s best. The series missed the Best Comedy trophy (the only one of last year’s nominees, including ABC’s long-in-the-tooth Modern Family, to do so). It also lost out in the comedy directing category, where creator Jill Soloway had won the past two years. With 17 nominations, HBO’s Veep was, as ever, a powerhouse; unsurprising too was the bounty showered upon the one new Best Comedy nominee, FX’s critically-beloved Atlanta. The other big comedy surprise of the morning was Pamela Adlon’s acting nomination for FX’s Better Things, an underheralded show that generated some of last year’s heartiest laughs.

This Is Us shows surprising strength

This Is Us landing a Best Drama nomination, even in an age where streaming dominates, wasn’t necessarily a shock — it’s got great support behind it as the last hope for broadcast TV drama, and is skillfully made (if manipulative). But the breadth of its support in acting categories was startling: In Best Actor, for instance, nominations went to not just past Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown but also Milo Ventimiglia. Supporting player Chrissy Metz as well as three guest actors (Denis O’Hare, Brian Tyree Henry, and Gerald McRaney) will be waiting to see if This Is their golden moment, too. Still, This Is Us was not the most nominated-drama; with strength across technical categories owing to the robots and interdimensional creatures they depict, Westworld (22 nominations) and Stranger Things (18) topped the leaderboard. (And in getting a supporting nomination for the supernaturally gifted Millie Bobby Brown and a guest nomination for “Barb” portrayer Shannon Purser, Stranger Things has brought to the party two of the youngest nominees in recent memory.) Even if either or both loses the top prize (though an awards show that’s been more pop and populist of late suggests to me that one or the other will win), they may end up taking home the most trophies.

The power of Saturday Night Live

Westworld shares its title as the most-nominated among all series with a much older series: NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Given that SNL is the only program of its type with its rapid-fire prosthetic makeup and set construction, a high nomination count is hardly new; what is new is the show’s wild dominance of acting categories. Fully half of the comedy supporting actress nominees are sketch comics who worked last year in 30 Rock: Vanessa Bayer (who’s since left the show), Leslie Jones and last year’s winner Kate McKinnon. Though not an official cast member, Alec Baldwin’s volume of appearances as Donald Trump on the series qualified him to enter the supporting actor field, where he looks like a frontrunner; five SNL hosts, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dave Chappelle and Sean Spicer impersonator Melissa McCarthy, were nominated in the guest categories. This caps a year of renewed relevance for the late-night stalwart, which isn’t the only beneficiary of the present public engagement with newsy humor. TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and CBS’s The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, both of which came up empty for Outstanding Variety Talk Series nominations last year, are nominated this year. Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, which has struggled to find its place in a newly political landscape on late night, was snubbed. (It’s the first time Fallon, as host of Late Night or Tonight, has missed this nomination since 2010.)

MORE: Why Saturday Night Live Is More Important Than Ever

A Big Little Feud brews

The story of the much-watched miniseries categories — a hotly-speculated-about field in the years since “limited series” have come into vogue — is a showdown between two hugely ambitious female-led projects. HBO’s domestic drama Big Little Lies has the imprimatur of two major movie stars, a classy pedigree and above all shrewd insights about the ways in which society pits women against one another. So it’s a cruel irony that it’s, well, pitted against FX’s true-Hollywood-story Feud: Bette and Joan. With 18 nominations, the period-set, richly costumed and decorated Feud has more nominations, but it’s hard to imagine Lies‘ breakout Nicole Kidman losing — even despite her stacked category. (Kidman’s competition includes, among others, costar Reese Witherspoon as well as Feud‘s Susan Sarandon and — Kidman’s toughest competition — Jessica Lange.) A category to watch to see where the wind is blowing may be Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, where Lies‘s Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley are up against Feud‘s Judy Davis and (in a pleasant surprise) Jackie Hoffman. Lies was in many ways the TV story of the year — proving TV’s power to connect even the most well-established of stars with audiences in new ways and to tell stories of seemingly impossible complication in sensitive and powerful ways. And yet it becomes hard to imagine Emmys voters saying no to a story about how much every star loves the adulation of the crowd, and how hard it can be to keep up with Hollywood’s rapidly changing vogues.

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