What the Emmys cannot do, at least without creating more categories and nomination slots, is both.
Perhaps I’m going a little easy on the Television Academy, which, in voting on the Emmys, bestowed its garlands on only a handful of series this year despite theoretically having had a lot more time to catch up on their screeners during quarantine.
Awards prognosticators are expecting “Ted Lasso” and “The Crown” to sweep the comedy and drama categories at Sunday’s award ceremony (to be hosted by Cedric the Entertainer), not least because they’ve respectively received 20 and 24 nominations. Other members of the 20-nods-or-more club include “The Mandalorian” (which tied with “The Crown” for the most Emmy nominations this year), “WandaVision,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Saturday Night Live,” the sole network series of the bunch.
I understand where the gripers about nomination hoarding are coming from, whether they lay the blame on too much TV or lazy and unimaginative Emmys voters. But the fact remains that the medium’s most prestigious award can’t fully convey all the excellence on television; there’s simply too much of it, and so much under the radar. Never mind high-profile snubs like Ethan Hawke on “The Good Lord Bird” or Renée Elise Goldsberry on “Girls5eva” — I’d love for Antony Starr on “The Boys” or the cast of “The Good Fight” to be considered Emmy material. (Next year I’ll probably be saying the same about Heléne Yorke, Drew Tarver and Molly Shannon on “The Other Two.”)
But the case for the Emmys as a collective showcase of the industry’s middlebrow finest is an easy one to make — at least for the medium’s sake. (That’s not necessarily a knock against middlebrow entertainment, a capacious category that’s given us shows as disparate as “Mare of Easttown,” “Bridgerton,” “Hacks” and “The Queen’s Gambit” — all nominated this year. I’m using the term to distinguish it from less popular or accessible fare, such as the vibes-driven “Betty” or the genocide-contemplating “Exterminate All the Brutes.”)
It wasn’t too long ago when the Emmys earned the derision directed its way for, say, its umpteenth best-comedy trophy for “Modern Family,” a sitcom that felt past its prime almost as soon as it debuted. But in an era of infinite programming options, it’s comforting to have a consolidation of prominent picks to choose from, even if not every nominee is everyone’s cup of tea. The fact that there’s such great genre and tonal variety among the nominations, with, for example, “WandaVision” alongside “Mare of Easttown,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “I May Destroy You” and “Underground Railroad” in the refreshingly undetermined limited series category, is one reason to celebrate their inclusion.
Some Emmy watchers might fear a reversion to the norm, defined by the kind of nomination inertia that famously led to Candice Bergen bowing out of the race after five wins for “Murphy Brown.” (There’s an argument to be made that there’s quite a few conspicuous beneficiaries of that inertia among this year’s contenders — I’m looking at you, “This Is Us” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) But this year’s nominations have also been fairly receptive to new shows, traditionally at a disadvantage at the Emmys, as well as to the many different types of series out there.
And if TV still aspires to be a communal experience — which is, even in these fractured times, one of its most compelling draws as a medium — it needs to have a few shared stories around which audiences can express their pleasure, conjectures or disagreements. And those viewing communities would ideally not just be found through subreddits or social media hashtags, but among the flesh-and-blood people we work, live and laugh alongside, who we can finally spend time with after more than a year of enforced social hibernation.
Soon after this year’s nominees were announced, Scott Feinberg, the Hollywood Reporter’s esteemed awards pundit, reacted to the clumping of nominations around a few TV tentpoles by calling the Emmys “ridiculous.” My guess is that he’d prefer the nominations to better reflect the scattered brilliance across the networks and streaming sites, and while I’m certainly sympathetic to the idealism of that stance, I just don’t see it happening. There’s simply too much television to watch and celebrate — even for a critic like me, whose entire job is to watch and celebrate TV.
Perhaps the best that the Emmys can do is what it appears to be doing this year: Crown a few winners and reflect a sampling of what’s great about TV right now. And the best viewers can do with the Emmys is what TV audiences have probably always done with them: Acknowledge that it’s but one consideration of what good TV is at the moment, and hopefully be a bit more adventurous in their own watching habits.
The 73rd Emmy Awards (three hours) air Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.