Takeaways + Trends in This Year’s Extraordinary Emmy Award Nominations

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Want the inside scoop on all things awards? Welcome to Letter From the Awards Editor, our series in which Backstage’s Jack Smart takes a look at the latest film and television news, industry trends, and awards projections that matter to today’s working actor.

Dear Backstage reader,

Long time no letter! Now that television’s best and brightest are officially off to the races with the announcement of the 2020 Emmy Award nominations, I’m back in awards season mode and ready to give you an insider’s guide to industry trends, and of course enthuse about worthy contenders for the prize.

First, the elephant-sized virus in the room: our global COVID-19 pandemic is still throwing a wrench of historic proportions into the Hollywood machinery, and its awards shows are still figuring out how to best adapt. Since this year’s eligible TV season was on track for release within the June 1, 2019–May 31, 2020 window (for the most part—see you next season, “Fargo” and “The Undoing”!), the Primetime Emmys ceremony is still planned for Sept. 20. But major questions remain: How exactly will the ABC broadcast present the awards safely? Did the pandemic’s effects on society, including enforced lockdown, sway Television Academy members’ selections for nominations? And what about campaigning—is a strong internet connection and glamorous lighting in webcam press interviews now the key to winning an Emmy?!

The biggest takeaway from this year’s nominations, and indeed the last several years’, is the dominance of Netflix. Upping their total from 118 nods in 2019 to 160 this year is impressive enough, but when you consider HBO led last year’s nominations with 137, and this year earned 107, there’s no question which platform voters are tuning into the most. However, the love was still spread between streaming, cable, and traditional networks, and while the best drama series race includes mostly repeat contenders, it’s anyone’s to win after “Game of Thrones” reigned every Emmys except 2017, when current nominee “The Handmaid’s Tale” stepped in. And without “Veep” or “Fleabag,” best comedy series could go to brand-new nominee “What We Do in the Shadows,” or even the final seasons of “The Good Place” or “Schitt’s Creek,” the latter hailing from the humblest little Canadian distributor, Pop TV.

The 2020 Emmys will also be remembered as a big year for new content platforms crashing the race. I was stunned to see Disney+’s “Star Wars” prestige hit “The Mandalorian” sweep in with 15 of the streamer’s 19 nods, including for the coveted drama series prize. AppleTV+ fared well with 18 total, eight of them for “The Morning Show,” a story of women in daytime TV that curiously received nods for four male actors and one female, SAG Award winner Jennifer Aniston. And content platform Quibi’s bid to earn recognition in short-form Emmy categories paid off, with 10 nods.

Bias alert! What I personally was most excited to see on the nominations list may be influenced by which stars I’ve spoken to in depth about their work. There’s D’Arcy Carden, whose Janet on “The Good Place” will absolutely go down in history as one of TV comedy’s most iconic characters. There’s Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who continue to uphold the gold standard of family sitcom on “Black-ish.” And there’s Regina King and Jean Smart, the fearless women of this year’s nominations leader, “Watchmen”; if you’re ever looking for examples of performances that are limitlessly re-watchable, look no further.

But as much as I prefer to look on the sunny side, and reiterate each awards season that there must emerge more losers than winners, I feel obliged to reveal the performances I was heartily hoping would make the cut. Cynthia Erivo did the best work of her career, which given her recent rise to superstardom is really saying something, as the meticulously odd Holly Gibney on “The Outsider.” In her bid to become the reigning queen of TV, Reese Witherspoon was eligible for a whopping six categories for producing and starring on “Big Little Lies,” “The Morning Show,” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” and only earned producing recognition for the latter. (While I’m sure she’s genuinely gracious about this, I can’t help but imagine what the outraged reactions of each of her characters would be.)

And the exclusion of award–winning actor and activist MJ Rodriguez, for her endlessly empathetic work on “Pose,” in my opinion undermines the Television Academy’s credibility. That she and her fellow transgender stars continue to be left off the ballot is part of a bigger discussion of industry and cultural trends—and the subject of another letter from your awards editor.

What about you, dear reader? Which are the should-be nominees in this golden age of television? And which contenders are you rooting for? Luckily we have plenty of time to binge watch and speculate—52 days, but who’s counting?—in the build-up to the already extraordinary 72nd annual Emmy Awards.



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