Critic's Notebook: Which Emmy Contenders Will Get Lost in the Quarantine Time Blur?

'Orange Is the New Black,' 'Baskets,' 'Mindhunter' and 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' are among releases from early in this year's Emmy eligibility period that may be overlooked due to the way confinement has warped our sense of "then" and "now."
Patti Perret/Sony/SHOWTIME; Cara Howe for Netflix; Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
From left: 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida,' 'Orange Is the New Black' and 'Lodge 49'

Time, and our perspective looking back on it, is often analogized as a telescope, but since March 11 — Tom Hanks' COVID-19 diagnosis, NBA suspension, etc. — time has become more of a kaleidoscope: a jumble of shifting blobs in the foreground, anything in the background a blur. Yesterday and a month ago are the same in semi-quarantine, while six months ago is the Stone Age.

What that means for Emmy purposes is that this year there are two distinctly different eligibility windows: shows that launched between June 1, 2019, and March 11, 2020, and shows that aired between March 12 and May 31, 2020. It's hard enough to keep track of the dozens of things that premiered in the second window, but shows in the first can feel like memory fragments from a different age.

This isn't great, because Emmy deadlines already create their own disorienting effect. No show embodies this as well as The Handmaid's Tale, which didn't premiere a season in the window for the 2019 Emmys, but by virtue of hanging episode loopholes still picked up 11 nominations (winning three awards). The most recent season, then, started last June, and while the things the show does well remain unchanged — Elisabeth Moss may, remarkably, have been better than ever in the show's third season — even its uncanny timeliness has become a snapshot of a different nightmarish reality from our current nightmarish reality.

The concern is that Emmy voters' already established tendency toward recency bias and repetition will become amplified, causing a lot of great television to slip through the cracks.

Not every eligible show from 2019 has been lost in a stay-at-home fog. It just requires something exceptional to stand out. Succession, for example, hasn't aired an episode since October, but if you had a place on nearly every TV critic's Top 10 lists and dominated the winter awards season, you're probably safe. HBO's Watchmen may not have played as well with the Golden Globes, but Damon Lindelof's extension of the iconic comic property has gained renewed relevance amid Black Lives Matter protests and discussions of systemic inequalities, bursting back into the conversation in a way you'd never get with a mere FYC event. And star power and Apple money — if not quality — will probably prevent The Morning Show from vanishing.

So what shows am I worried might feel like artifacts of the "Then" rather than products of the "Now"?

Normally there's a sentimental boost of attention for shows completing an acclaimed run. We're actually saying that Modern Family might be back in the hunt for a valedictory wave.

But does anybody remember that Orange Is the New Black aired its final season back in July? Jenji Kohan's prison opus was undermined over the years by category confusion — its best Emmy performance was as a comedy, and then the Emmys decided it wasn't a comedy anymore — and the annual lag caused by summer airings, but its seventh season was a strong return to form. Not only were the scripts bracingly relevant, especially in tackling immigration issues, but the closing episodes were one awards showcase after another for the actors. The time has probably passed for big-picture recognition, but it would be a shame if Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks or Adrienne C. Moore weren't in the mix one last time.

I feel the same way about Louie Anderson in Baskets, another show you've almost surely forgotten ended in this Emmy window. The FX comedy's blend of bizarre, laconic and absurd was never going to be everybody's flavor of escapism, but Anderson won an Emmy for the show's first season and, with the Baskets family's life in Bakersfield facing a climactic upheaval, he was remarkable again.

As Orange Is the New Black proves, Emmy voters don't like shows that make them work to figure out which category they belong in, and having to try to remember long-absent shows won't help. That bodes poorly for Showtime's On Becoming a God in Central Florida, unquestionably a dark comedy misplaced in the drama field, which does no favors for Kirsten Dunst's heartbreakingly humorous lead performance. Amazon's Undone, a September release, is in a more awkward position as the rare animated half-hour that probably should be considered a drama, even if its trippy exploration of trauma and memory is more current than ever. And what about the final season of AMC's Lodge 49? It's not quite a drama, not quite a comedy. And because it had not quite a large enough audience, it will surely be ignored again.

I'm less worried about FX's Pose, off the air since August, if only because Billy Porter has made that show impossible to forget, while the irresistible grip of nostalgia probably will keep Stranger Things right-side-up (though I'm fairly sure that third season is also a relic of the '80s).

That doesn't mean that some of the Emmy calendar's early releases don't deserve to remain nestled in the back corner of our brains. Russell Crowe will probably get a nomination for Showtime's The Loudest Voice, but the rest of the limited series has settled deservedly into latex-entombed obscurity. The second season of Big Little Lies couldn't have premiered with more hype, but for all of my love of Meryl Streep's expert scenery chewing, that's a show that ended with a whimper.

But what about Netflix’s eerie Mindhunter or HBO’s loopy Los Espookys or performances like Carla Gugino in Jett or Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson?

Sigh.

Now I'm going back to worrying that nobody will remember I May Destroy You at next year's Emmys.

A version of this story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.