Emmys Preview: Will 'Empire' Get a Nom? Plus 6 More Burning Questions
"It's a less-than-perfect system," says one voting actor, as all sorts of finales ('Mad Men'), rule changes and the emergence of Cookie Lyon could require an Esalen-style retreat just to talk them all through.
This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The screeners are piling up, the calendar is packed with Academy panels and those distracting "For Your Consideration" billboards already may be to blame for a few Sig-Alerts. There's nowhere to hide — Emmy season is upon us. And this year's race and its controversial changes already are proving to be cutthroat: the contentious labeling of half-hours as comedies and hourlongs as dramas and giving sketch series their own category, for example. Then there's the unprecedented number of series finales (besides Mad Men) further confusing matters. As the Sept. 20 Emmy ceremony barrels forward, THR spoke with voters and execs to help ease the burden of campaign season. "I'm sure all the showrunners and actors who work so hard will love to hear this, but it's a less-than-perfect system," admits one actor. "When I vote, I want to get it right because there is so much great television. It's a big deal."
1. Can Mad Men Make an Emmy Comeback?
AMC's four-time winner for top drama was shut out of all Emmys the past two years. And now Mad Men's final seven episodes, including the much-praised May 17 series ender "Person to Person," stand as its final shot at redemption. In its favor? The absence of network neighbor Breaking Bad (winner of best drama the past two years) opens up the playing field, and TV Academy members do like to recognize a body of work once a series has ended. The latter could prove especially fortuitous for star and seven-time nominee Jon Hamm, who never has won. The same also could be said of Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery or any of the Mad Men players. The castmembers' complete lack of wins has not-so-jokingly been referred to as their Emmy "curse."
"The actors … behave like real people, and it has not been in style," creator Matthew Weiner told a New York Public Library crowd in the wake of the finale. "I'm not saying this because they haven't won awards. I just see when I sit through these clips, the big screaming, bulging vein through the forehead, burst into tears, big speechifying, 'I can barely' hoarse voice. Actors are voting on it. I'm confused by it."
A fifth win for best drama would be an Emmy first (NBC's The West Wing managed only four) if nostalgia plays in its favor. "After a time, we can take things we love deeply for granted," says one voter of Mad Men. "So when it ends, we are jolted back to how much we love it."
2. ... And What About All Those Other Finales?
A slew of other series are pitching for their last shot at Emmy love. Critically acclaimed dramas Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Parenthood and Boardwalk Empire and comedies Nurse Jackie and Parks and Recreation are some of the biggest players to call it a day. Boardwalk and Jackie never suffered from lack of voter affection, but Boardwalk's Steve Buscemi never won for the Prohibition drama, and Jackie's Edie Falco last took gold for her Showtime comedy in 2010. More compelling might be the perennial underdogs: Sons, the biggest show in FX history, never has received more than a nom for music, and Justified has only ever brought good fortune for its more minor players (Jeremy Davies, Margo Martindale). Parks' Amy Poehler, surprisingly, never has won an Emmy — despite her five nominations for the NBC series. But one TV Academy member says these realities might not amount to a Hail Mary win: "If they weren't favorites during their run, I don't think a finale is going to change that."
3. How Will Orange's Drama Move Affect Netflix's Contenders?
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos says he was "disappointed" by the TV Academy's decision to redefine hourlong 2014 comedy entrant Orange Is the New Black as a drama this year. The category change is sure to confuse voters, and it pits Orange against Netflix's flagship drama House of Cards (not to mention well-received newcomer Bloodline). And their shared race now is more crowded than ever. "The drama field overall saw a huge increase in entrants for the nomination round of voting," says TV Academy senior vp awards John Leverence. "We went from 108 dramas submitted in 2014 to 145 submitted this year."
If there's a beneficiary of Orange's dramatic turn, it's Netflix's own Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The Tina Fey-Robert Carlock comedy has been garnering Emmy buzz in both the series and lead actress (Ellie Kemper) categories.
4. Can Modern Family Score a Record Sixth Comedy Win?
Another victory would be historic for the ABC series. (The fifth consecutive sitcom trophy that the Steven Levitan/Christopher Lloyd creation earned in 2014 tied it with Frasier as the category's all-time most winning series.) Still, voters will tell you affections are waning for Family. This past year saw the cast unseated in the SAG ensemble category for the first time ever, snubbed completely by the Golden Globes nominations and its acting Emmy mentions fall from the years where all six adult stars used to be a lock for a nom. "I'm definitely voting for new blood," says one TV Academy member. "It's a great show, they have five trophies, but it's really time to move on." And maybe viewers have: Family's recent season finale was its lowest rated ever.
5. Will Academy Voters Be as Open-Minded as the HFPA About Newcomers?
Netflix no longer is the lone disrupter to cable and Big Four broadcasts' Emmy reign. This year sees major contenders from Amazon (the Jill Soloway-created transgender comedy contender Transparent) and The CW (telenovela adaptation Jane the Virgin). Both made a big splash at the Globes, where Transparent took top comedy and lead for star Jeffrey Tambor and Jane star Gina Rodriguez topped the comedy actress race. But can that success be duplicated with the support of the infinitely larger TV Academy voting body? "The Globes has always been a bit of a wild child, doing its own thing, but in the case of those two shows, I think they could definitely be a trendsetter," says Transparent star and first-year TV Academy voter Amy Landecker. "The Globes can definitely influence Emmy voters to consider shows they might not have." Leverence points to Transparent's win for its cultural impact at the Television Academy Honors and Jane's successful petition to compete as a comedy, despite being an hourlong, as promising signs of change: "Emmy voters are well aware of these two programs and others that showcase many aspects of diversity, and the critical acclaim they have received."
6. What Does the Variety Category Split Mean for Outgoing Letterman and Sketch Darling Amy Schumer?
Divvying the variety race into talk and sketch series comes at an eventful year in the genre. Incumbent The Colbert Report wrapped in December, David Letterman's Late Show (the last broadcast winner in the category) departed in May and Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show in September. Also not to be ignored is three-time nominee Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show (which has dominated the late-night conversation since its 2014 debut), Seth Meyers' Late Night and TBS' Conan, still riding critical praise for host Conan O'Brien's buzzy trip to Cuba. Newcomers James Corden, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore also might shake up the race. Overall, late-night contenders, especially retired legend Letterman, will be boosted by the rule change. And that's just the talk shows. The inaugural sketch category comes on the heels of Saturday Night Live's 40th season and major buzz for Comedy Central's Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. "A weekly sketch show and a nightly talk show are plain and simply two different genres. It penalizes both to lump them together," says Kent Alterman, president of original programming at Comedy Central, who advocated for the split. "It's hard to imagine anyone thinks of The Tonight Show in the same way they think of Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer."
7. Can Empire Spin Ratings Into Gold?
Broadcast's No. 1 new TV series has two big obstacles in translating its pop culture success into kudos. Soaps don't play as well with voters as straight dramas, and predominantly black series historically have struggled to break through on the big night. Still, the Fox hit has a solid chance in Oscar-nominated lead actress Taraji P. Henson. Her protective matriarch (and one-liner machine) Cookie Lyon has broken through in a way TV performances very rarely do. "I'd love to see her up there," says Empire co-creator Danny Strong. "It's a tremendous performance, and she's deserving of all the attention she's getting."
The bigger question is whether any of the series in the spate of diversity-fronted casts can break into the historically white winners' pool. Viola Davis nabbed a SAG award for How to Get Away With Murder. And if she, Henson or Scandal's two-time Emmy nominee Kerry Washington win, it would be a first: Lead actress in a drama series is Emmy's only acting category to never have awarded a statuette to a black performer.