One of the major themes of HBO’s The Gilded Age is the representation of old versus new money. It permeates the series, not just in conversation but also in terms of costumes, cinematography, production design, and score. This tumultuous period of exponential change in American history provides a strong background on which Julian Fellowes dots his characters both fictional and historic.
But that theme also applies to the 2022 Emmy season itself.
It seems to me that, this year, the Television Academy sits at a crossroad. Down one path: the tried (and tired) dramatic series they’ve nominated before, some still kicking with life and vigor and some truly showing signs of age. Another path: a wide array of inclusive, popular, unique, and altogether exciting storytelling. Which path will they take?
Let’s take a look.
First, though, I want to take a look at the last five or so years of Emmy’s Drama Series contenders. Going back farther than that, you will find at the very least one new drama series nominated. In fact, it’s far more rare to see only returning shows nominated for drama series within the last 10 years. 2017 seems like a watershed moment for the Golden Age of Television where, out of seven nominees, a whopping five nominees were completely new series. That’s the season that introduced us to the eventual winner The Handmaid’s Tale, another winner for a later season The Crown, Stranger Things, This Is Us, and Westworld. Looking back, it’s quite shocking, to me, to see the Television Academy so broadly embrace the new.
Perhaps the story lives in what they were up against: season three of Better Call Saul and season five of House of Cards. No disrespect to those shows, but that pack of nominees feels as if the Television Academy was clamoring for a breath of fresh air. Plus, these new series were simply too good to ignore.
Other seasons, though, looking back seem quite… repetitive. Game of Thrones. Homeland. Downton Abbey. Mad Men. The Television Academy perennially nominated them time after time after time. Most of those shows I like quite a bit, but were they always worthy of a nomination?
Feels like name checking to me.
And for those who don’t understand the concept of “name checking,” think of it this way. The Television Academy are basically just like you and me. They have their own jobs (theirs are far better than yours or mine). They have their own lives. They have families. They effectively do not have time to simply watch every single television show on the air. And these days were in the infancy of streaming networks with really only Netflix a major player.
So, they went with what they knew. They went with what their friends were either in or were watching themselves. They did not branch out. They probably looked at what was nominated before and checked the same boxes to fill out their application requirements. That’s “name checking,” and it’s the enemy of any awards race, for certain.
But this year, with the Television Academy at the aforementioned crossroad, let’s see what their options are.
At the top of nearly everyone’s list of Drama Series predictions is HBO’s Succession. Personally, I can’t really dispute that. It’s a great series, and season three provided several fantastic moments that rank within the best of the series so far. It is technically an “old” show because it’s in its third season, but it still feels mostly fresh. I will agree with those who think season three wasn’t perhaps up to the jaw-dropping scandalousness of season two, but it’s hard to argue against ranking Succession at number one going in to the voting window. I fully expect it to be nominated, and I’m ok with that. It deserves to be there.
To win? Come back to me on that one.
Really, the main series that feel “name checked” are things like Ozark, Better Call Saul, Stranger Things, Killing Eve, and This Is Us. None of these shows are bad shows. In fact, they all range from good to very good. But the issue with them is none of them feel particularly fresh or exciting. No one seems to really be talking about them with excitement. No one seems to feel a great deal of passion for them.
Now, I fully realize that every single title I’ve mentioned has their rabid fans. That’s not my point. My point is that either due to waning storytelling or bizarrely truncated seasons, few of them are as great as they should be. Three of them ended this year: one smartly so, one years behind where it really should have ended, and one bombing so spectacularly that it became painfully evident it should never have progressed much beyond seasons one or two. One should be ending this year but is playing some bizarre game of splitting its final season in a way that deadens its awards season narrative (no reason to vote for it this year because it’s coming back with a mini season next year!). Another is overextending its stay despite being a relatively fun series that people love to binge.
Most of them fine shows, but The Best?
Not when you have so many new series waiting in the wings.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 season saw many new shows premiere after production delays forced them out of earlier premiere windows. But what’s really exciting about the new crop of drama series this year is that they’re embracing fully inclusive storytelling perspectives. With the success of Parasite in 2019, Americans finally seem to be onboard with Asian storytelling in a major way. 2022’s drama crop produced two critically acclaimed drama series: Squid Game and Pachinko.
The two shows could not be more different in execution, but they both give international audiences compellingly fresh and unique narratives. Netflix’s Squid Game is, of course, the much bigger hit as it is a classic thriller that uses The Most Dangerous Game coupled with very fresh economic woes and class warfare to create a series you could not possibly ignore. Hollywood seems poised to embrace it in a very big way, too, as they unexpectedly awarded its two stars (Lee Jung-jae and most surprisingly HoYeon Jung) with SAG acting trophies earlier this year.
Apple’s Pachinko is a more dramatic series, less murdery and more heartfelt tragedy-y. But critics love it, and it has some of the most excited fans of any series this year.
The Television Academy could also nominate HBO’s Euphoria, which admittedly isn’t “new” (ie – it really hit the big time with this year’s season two), but so many people discovered this series after Zendaya’s Lead Actress in a Drama Series win that it feels completely new to most audiences. The online buzz over the year has been very strong, and it’s poised to break out in a huge way this year, likely seeing a repeat nomination for Zendaya as well as several supporting cast members. I don’t think the Television Academy will ignore a series that a) is already an Emmy winner and b) includes so many different sexual, gender, and race perspectives.
Showtime’s Yellowjackets comes to us from a nearly entirely female-driven creative team and narrative. It smartly leverages stars of the 1990s in a morbid hybrid of Lost and Now and Then. Plus, it’s a goddamn fun series with twists and turns you do not see coming. It’s one of the truly breakout, buzz-worthy new series of the year. It’s kept that buzz (pun intended) by winning actress awards for star Melanie Lynskey who, in my opinion, is a very strong contender to win that category in September. Plus, Yellowjackets fills that vaguely sci-fi / fantasy / thriller slot the Television Academy has opened up ever since they embraced Lost.
You may roll your eyes when I include Yellowstone in this “new” section. It is not a new series. Not at all. In fact, it’s recently aired its fourth season. However, I do believe an old series can boast the air of something new if people only recently discovered it. Schitt’s Creek had that same vibe the year it won all the comedy Emmys. Yellowstone roughly follows that same trajectory: ignored completely until a recent season when it received a handful of technical nominations. Then, it feels like everyone binged all four seasons overnight, and now all of a sudden everyone is talking about it. Plus, it has an inclusivity that no one really wants to talk about. It’s incredibly popular within certain red states that most people want to ignore. It’s not a “conservative” show, but it is one that a broad spectrum of people watch. By nominating Yellowstone, the Television Academy likely opens itself up to Emmy viewers who wouldn’t traditionally care. They wouldn’t be alone either: Yellowstone has performed extraordinarily well on the guild and critics circuit.
And then there’s Severance. While the show doesn’t really cover the whole “inclusive” vibe (it’s largely a very white cast, but I think that’s part of the point of the series), it does have an extraordinarily unique narrative. Directed by Ben Stiller (and honestly it may be the very best thing he’s ever done), It’s a mind fuck of a series, brilliantly acted and just very, very cool. The trouble for it to get into the top eight will be, I suspect, the patience of viewers. The first few episodes are fairly standard, sort of odd. It doesn’t really kick into high gear until the last handful when you literally cannot stop watching. Will Apple get it into the top eight when they couldn’t with last year’s The Morning Show? It’s very difficult to see at this point because my vision is clouded by the online fans who love it so dearly. Or did three months ago. Their attention has shifted as of late.
Other new shows the Academy could consider include Disney+’s Loki and HBO’s The Gilded Age. I’ve been on record before about The Gilded Age, and I suspect it’s going to be largely ignored in above-the-line categories. I still find it difficult to believe that a series likely to receive 8-10 craft nominations cannot get into an 8-category drama series race, but the competition is very strong this year. It’s an odd mixture of a show too. The writing mostly feels just adequate, the characters stolen from previous Fellowes’ series, and the entire proceedings rather old fashioned in a world that seems to have moved on from Downton Abbey. I argue that, in its exploration of the 1880s power of women and the Black middle class not to mention the historic impact of Black Americans post-Civil War, it’s just as inclusive as many other series far more in vogue. But maybe I’m delusional and slightly bitter. I do love the show.
So What Gets In?
Right now, I believe the Television Academy will tip their nominations toward the newer series with their increasingly diverse membership and with their ear to the ground on what’s hot and new following the winter guild season. I’m not going to get all eight exactly right, but I do believe I comfortably have at least five nominees correct. Here are my top eight as of today:
- Squid Game
- Better Call Saul
- Stranger Things
And here’s the kicker: the Television Academy will award Netflix another Drama Series Emmy win.
Squid Game will win Direction and Drama Series.