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Limited Series Are Now the Best Thing on TV—And 7 More Takeaways From the 2020 Emmy Nominations

9 minute read

The year is 2020, the pandemic is peaking, the political arena is on fire…and it has never seemed more ridiculous to care about awards. At the same time, though, they’re probably a healthier distraction than the endless quarantine doomscrolling that so many of us are indulging in these days. Even if you didn’t care enough to tune in to Tuesday’s 2020 Emmy nominations telecast—which had host Leslie Jones gamely wandering an empty, socially distanced set as the Zoom-style floating heads of Laverne Cox, Josh Gad and Tatiana Maslany read off the nominees—the results are a fascinating snapshot of this moment in time for the rapidly changing art and business of television. Here are the eight biggest takeaways.

Forget drama series—limited series are now the best thing on TV

Kaitlyn Dever in Netflix's 'Unbelievable'
Kaitlyn Dever in Netflix's 'Unbelievable'Netflix

With the exception of the occasional buzzy HBO or network-TV event, miniseries never used to be a huge draw. But some combination of compact storytelling, binge-ready format and all-star casts that might not want to be tied down with a multi-season project has made them the most vital format of the peak TV era. This year’s Emmy nominees in the limited series category include some of the very best, most thematically ambitious shows of the past season: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in the second-wave feminist postmortem Mrs. America, the searing serial-rape procedural Unbelievable, the emotional escape-from-Hasidic-Brooklyn drama Unorthodox, Damon Lindelof and Regina King’s remix of the classic comic Watchmen. (I didn’t love the fifth nominee, Little Fires Everywhere, but as a Reese Witherspoon literary adaptation with a laudable social message and an A-list cast, it was pretty much a lock for the Big Little Lies slot.)

Now, compare that to a drama-series slate glutted with expensive, low-substance genre shows like The Mandalorian and Stranger Things—a trend that looks to be Game of Thrones‘ true legacy—and the repetitive recent seasons of once-great programs like The Crown, Killing Eve and The Handmaid’s Tale. Ozark increasingly seems to be the “golden age” antihero saga’s last stand—and the predominance of female-driven shows in the miniseries category further supports that conclusion. There are a couple bright spots among this crop of drama nominees, for sure: Succession is a black comedy in my book, but whatever you call it, it’s one of the few narrative series that still qualify as appointment television. Better Call Saul, which aired its fifth season this winter, just keeps broadening and deepening.

Streamers are steamrolling traditional television

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies in 'The Crown'Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix

No surprise here, so I won’t belabor this point. But here are some numbers for you: five out of eight drama series nominees, three out of eight comedy series nominees and a whopping four out of five limited series nominees were streaming-service originals. Now, you can make the argument that HBO also counts as a streaming service—especially following the launch of HBO Max. And in that case, those figures go up to six out of eight, five out of eight and five out of five, respectively. Only one broadcast show—the final season of NBC’s The Good Place—and four basic-cable series across those categories. Next year, with HBO Max and Peacock originals in the mix, promises to be an even bigger bloodbath for traditional TV.

Hulu steps up, Amazon stands down

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in 'Little Fires Everywhere.'
Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in 'Little Fires Everywhere.'Hulu

The launch of Disney+ may have marked Disney’s biggest move into the streaming space last year, but don’t underestimate the impact of the megacorp buying out Comcast to bring Hulu fully under its umbrella as an attractive, adult-oriented addition to a suite of subscription services that also includes ESPN+. And the deep-pocketed parent company is clearly eager to invest in its new property. Seven months in, the Emmy nominations confirm that 2020 has already been an enormous year for Hulu. Aside from the past-its-prime Handmaid’s Tale, which could probably air a fourth season consisting solely of Elisabeth Moss’ sassy voiceovers and still get a nod, Hulu racked up nominations for Little Fires Everywhere, Normal People, Ramy and The Great. Its newly launched, FX-powered prestige hub FX on Hulu picked up six nominations for Mrs. America (and is probably where many viewers watched the latest season of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, a wonderful surprise nominee in the comedy series category). The service isn’t exactly Netflix yet, but it’s becoming a true force in prestige TV.

Amazon, meanwhile, seems to be slipping. While its (flagging) flagship show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel continues to impress Emmy voters who are the showbiz nostalgia-fest’s ideal audience, big swings like Nazi-killer action comedy Hunters, superhero pastiche The Boys and Project Runway photocopy Making the Cut all failed to connect. It’s starting to look like Amazon—which made its name in original programming with the ambitious, ill-fated Transparent—would rather have popularity than respect.

Comedy shows are finally funny again

Up, up and away; The cast of The Good Place embarks on its final voyage
The cast of 'The Good Place' embarking on its final voyageNBC

For a while there, the Emmys comedy categories were packed with shows that were more “funny awkward” or “funny dark” or “funny surreal” than “funny ha-ha”: Girls, Atlanta, Transparent, Barry, Louie, Russian Doll and, of course, last year’s big winner Fleabag. But most of the 2020 nominees offer genuine, lighthearted hilarity, from the family farce of Schitt’s Creek and the Staten Island vampire adventures of What We Do in the Shadows to the afterlife antics of The Good Place and Larry David’s perennially uproarious comedy of manners Curb Your Enthusiasm. I mean, who doesn’t need a laugh these days?

Audiences’ favorite genres are changing, but Emmy categories aren’t

A still from The Last Dance of Michael Jordan's Interview
Michael Jordan in 'The Last Dance'Courtesy ESPN/Netflix

Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Michael Jordan, Joe Exotic and the Beastie Boys all have one thing in common: they were all the subjects of documentary series or specials that earned Emmy nominations this year. But you might not have heard about their shows’ nominations because their categories are relegated to the Creative Arts Emmys, which aren’t part of the big Primetime Emmys telecast and are set to air on FXX in 2020. Which is confusing, because between big, celebrity-backed projects and true-crime sensations, non-“reality” nonfiction is a bigger deal than it’s ever been on TV before. As genre eminence Ken Burns lamented to Meredith Blake of the L.A. Times, the awards “just don’t know how to handle documentaries.”

The Television Academy seems equally clueless about the current boom in adult animation. This year’s animated series nominees—Big Mouth, Bob’s Burgers, BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty and The Simpsons—are every bit as worthy of recognition as their live-action comedy counterparts. Their vocal fans would surely love to see these shows’ creators and voice stars in the Primetime Emmys spotlight. But they too remain in the Siberia that is the Creative Arts ceremony.

The talk-show category is stuck in the past

The only talk show I have watched in its entirety is Showtime’s Desus & Mero. Launched in 2019 and subsequently bumped up from once to twice a week, their half-hour late-night show consists mostly of the two titular Bronx natives and Vice veterans cracking wise about politics, culture, sports and the randomness of the viral internet. (They also conduct uncensored interviews with “illustrious guests” ranging from Joe Biden and Maxine Waters to Missy Elliot and Billy Porter.) Before the pandemic, they were the funniest guys in late night; since it started, they’ve become the only talk-show hosts to truly thrive in our socially distanced moment—quizzing Dr. Fauci about the New York of his youth, litigating the feud between rappers Freddie Gibbs and DJ Akademiks, helping to realize the dreams of a college-bound Black 13-year-old known as Dr. Nina and repeating Breonna Taylor’s name at the end of every episode. Nominees like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah always do solid work. But a new generation of talk-show personalities—not just Desus and Mero, but also Hasan Minhaj, Lilly Singh and more—deserve far more institutional attention than they’re getting.

Talented young actors are getting well-deserved shine…

Zendaya in a scene from the HBO show Euphoria.
Zendaya in a scene from the HBO show Euphoria.Eddy Chen—HBO

If there’s one thing that redeems awards shows, it’s the opportunity to honor emerging creators and stars. This year, I’m excited to see acting nominations for Shira Haas, the Israeli actor who may well have given the year’s best performance in Netflix’s Unorthodox; Zendaya, who along with unfairly overlooked cast mate Hunter Schafer made HBO’s mopey, uneven Euphoria worth watching; Nicholas Braun, a.k.a. Succession‘s delightfully inscrutable Cousin Greg; Paul Mescal, the young Irish stage actor who so convincingly brought Normal People‘s conflicted Connell to life (but what about his equally great co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones?) and seems poised for a career bump of Adam Driver proportions. Also? What They Do in the Shadows writers got three out of seven nominations in their category—and they totally deserved it.

… but some brilliant veterans remain inexplicably overlooked

POSE -- "Acting Up" -- Season 2, Episode 1 (Airs Tues, June 11, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured (l-r): Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Hailie Sahar as Lulu, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Angelica Ross as Candy. CR: Macall Polay/FX
Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Mj Rodriguez and Angelica Ross in 'Pose'Copyright 2019, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Emmy voters often fall in love with a show to the extent that they nominate everyone in it for every possible award. Sometimes it’s understandable (see: this year’s Mrs. America, Succession and Schitt’s Creek enthusiasm), but more often it’s a little silly (see: this year’s Maisel, The Morning Show, Big Little Lies and Hollywood enthusiasm). And it locks out more deserving candidates from series with strong ensemble casts. In 2020, the most egregious oversights include Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever for Unbelievable; the women of Orange Is the New Black, particularly Danielle Brooks, for their final season; Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore and the other trans actresses who are the beating heart of Pose; Better Call Saul stalwarts Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and the somehow-never-nominated Rhea Seehorn. Justice for Kim Wexler!

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