Critics' Conversation: 2020 Emmy Nomination Pleasures and Puzzlers

Tuesday's announcement gave us much to celebrate, including recognition for 'Watchmen' and 'Schitt's Creek,' and much to be perplexed by, from 'Better Call Saul' and 'Better Things' snubs to 'Tiger King' nods.
HBO
Regina King in HBO's 'Watchmen'

Daniel Fienberg: Happy Emmy nominations morning! There is, as ever, a ton to discuss. The Mandalorian for drama series! Zendaya! Watchmen leading the way with 26 nominations! Netflix with 160 nominations to HBO’s 107 nominations!

But I feel like we need to start with the biggest Emmy nominations winner of all: Quibi, baby! The much-maligned streaming service, deemed a dud by anybody you’re likely to talk to, scored 10 nominations and dominated the short-form acting categories, picking up nominations for the likes of Anna Kendrick, Kaitlin Olson (never nominated for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Laurence Fishburne, among others.

Huzzah for Quibi, I say, using the parlance of The Great (produced — like Ozark — by MRC, a division of Valence Media, which also owns THR), which picked up writing, directing and a few tech nominations, but somehow missed out on recognition for Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. But where do you want to start, Inkoo?

Inkoo Kang: The big question I was looking to answer this morning was whether, in a post-Game of Thrones, post-Fleabag, post-Veep year, the Emmys would return to the also-rans of previous years or inject some new blood into the mix (always my preference). The drama and comedy categories had their share of old favorites (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Better Call Saul, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), but we’ve got some new contenders now in Dead to Me, What We Do in the Shadows and… The Mandalorian(?!).

We’ve gotta admit, though, that the shows in the best comedy and drama categories are still overwhelmingly white. Despite the newly increased ranks of these categories (eight shows were nominated in each group), Insecure, The Good Place and What We Do in the Shadows are the only comedies among the nominees without an all-white cast. And the situation is even more dire in the drama category, which only has Killing Eve — the sole show with a lead of color in Sandra Oh — with Pose shockingly and disappointingly out of the running.

That doesn’t erase the shake-ups in the acting categories, which saw a big swell in the number of black nominees — some of whom crowded out standbys like Elisabeth Moss for The Handmaid’s Tale, Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Aaron Paul (the Breaking Bad movie El Camino). But in a year that’s asked America — including Emmy voters — to take a harder look at its own racial biases, it’s worth noting.

DF: Progress with Emmy voters is always a back-and-forth proposition. Leaving Ramy out of the comedy series category and Pose out of the drama category definitely make those fields seem very, very white — and that's even with my feeling that including Killing Eve among the drama nominees for a season I'm struggling to get through is bizarre. But let's be honest, Emmy voters were never going to recognize a drama like OWN's David Makes Man, and that's their loss.

If you look, I don't think there's any question that timeliness, specifically with regards to police protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, benefited some shows and performances; you can see that in those 26 nominations for Watchmen. That said, none of the Watchmen nominations seem at all suspect to me. They're all well-earned.

Evidence of improvement this year can be seen in the directing categories, where three of seven drama nods and four of six limited nominations are for women. It's only two of seven nominees on the comedy directing front, which gives me the opportunity to say once again: Pamela Adlon is the best director of comedy currently working on TV and the annual failure to recognize her in this field — or, this year, in any field — is a botch of epic proportions by the voters. Is it a bigger botch than the regular exclusion of Rhea Seehorn in the drama supporting actress category? I'm not sure. Fortunately, I can be angry about multiple things at once.

Like, what the hell is Brad Pitt doing with a nomination for three minutes of Saturday Night Live screen time? That's outrageous. But at least voters stopped nominating Alec Baldwin.

IK: Despite the good news for Quibi, it’s a relatively bad year for most streamers not named Netflix. Amazon has just one big contender in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which admittedly was the second-most nominated program after Watchmen with 20 nods — but that’s betting an awful lot on a single stalwart. I just got a press release from Apple TV+ saying that six of its original shows received Emmy nominations — the most for a streaming service in its first year — but it must still smart that they weren’t able to clinch a best drama nod for The Morning Show (in spite of the numerous acting nominations, though somehow none for Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who turned in my favorite performance of that first season).

The Mandalorian truly seemed to come out of nowhere to achieve what The Morning Show could not, but no other Disney+ series has really broken through the way that Star Wars series has. The Moss snub for The Handmaid’s Tale signals a downturn for the Hulu series in Emmy consideration, though Little Fires Everywhere outperformed expectations. But neither The Great nor Normal People truly established themselves as Emmy darlings (despite writing and directing nods for each), save for the latter’s (easy to root for) Paul Mescal.

Of course, the streaming triumph we’re both still waiting for is that elusive best drama (or comedy!) nod for CBS All Access’ The Good Fight.

I’ll name a few of the first-time nominees who more than deserve their nods this morning: the much-beloved What We Do in the Shadows (which was definitely not on many prognosticators’ short lists), the aforementioned Zendaya for Euphoria, Shira Haas for Unorthodox and Insecure's Yvonne Orji (who makes good on her recent standup special’s title, Momma, I Made It!). And I’ll be rooting for Tracey Ullmann for Mrs. America, Jim Parsons for Hollywood and the Euphoria makeup team of Doniella Davy, Kirsten Sage Coleman and Tara Lang Shah on Emmys night, in whatever form the ceremony takes place. (I’m glad I won’t have to choose between Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America and Regina King in Watchmen.) 

DF: If Jim Parsons beats Yahya Abdul-Mateen II for Watchmen, I'm gonna get all sorts of irritated. And man, that category points to how female-dominated the limited series space is. I would probably get rid of two or three of the supporting men in order to get Rose Byrne a nomination for Mrs. America (or Kaitlyn Dever, who really should have been in the supporting category). And Regina King would have my vote, if I had a vote.

It's definitely notable how the other streaming players ended up getting overshadowed by Netflix this year, especially Amazon, which had such a great year last year thanks to Fleabag. But if you take away The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it's almost entirely piecemeal nods. Like Carnival Row for fantasy/sci-fi costumes? Woo?

Then again, Netflix is hardly infallible. 160 nominations, but no nominations for Aaron Paul or Vince Gilligan for El Camino? Yet another year (the last chance) without a nomination for Will Arnett for BoJack Horseman? I'm still not sure how that happens. (But yay for Maya Rudolph's Big Mouth nomination, one of three nominations for TV's supporting MVP.)

At least BoJack got an animated series nomination? Looking at the representation for departing shows, it's a real mixed bag. Baskets? Shut out. Orange Is The New Black? Nominated only for Laverne Cox, who appeared in literally one scene this season. Modern Family? Only three nominations, including one for the late Fred Willard. On the other hand, The Good Place had a big morning with nominations for comedy series and most of the cast (sorry Kristen Bell and extra sorry Manny Jacinto). And 15 nominations for Schitt's Creek? When you consider that that show started off as a barely noticed series on Pop, that's one of the great underdog comeback stories in Emmy history.

But going back to Netflix and its general domination, quickly, I think we can both be pleased with some big nominations for Cheer and perplexed by some equally big nominations for Tiger King, which looks like one of a few shows clearly aided by the quarantine vortex of the past four months.

IK: Kaitlyn Dever but not Merritt Wever for Unbelievable, Dan?

DF: To me, Dever should have gone supporting and been nominated. Wever should have been lead and if that category had gotten six nominees like it should have, she’d have been in. But I’m sure you have some Tiger King celebrating to do!

IK: Don’t even joke, Dan — the phrase “Emmy nominee Tiger King” is bad enough. (As are the phrases “Emmy nominee The Masked Singer” and “Emmy nominee Love is Blind.”) Among Netflix’s triumphs this morning is surely the continued establishment of the streamer as a reality juggernaut, with nods not only for Love Is Blind but Nailed It, Kevin Hart: Don’t F*ck This Up and, uh, Cheer(?!). (Tiger King, in contrast, was nominated in a documentary category.)

Is it notable for you that several A-listers were snubbed, or are we done expecting that movie stars “slumming it” in TV will automatically rake in awards? Star power still counts for something — Meryl Streep and Laura Dern were nominated for Big Little Lies’ beyond-disappointing second season, Cate Blanchett for Mrs. America, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter for The Crown, Toni Collette for Unbelievable and Mahershala Ali for Ramy. But the absence among the nominee ranks this morning for Russell Crowe for The Loudest Voice in the Room, Al Pacino for Hunters, Nicole Kidman for Big Little Lies and Reese Witherspoon for Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, *and* The Morning Show is quite something.

DF: I can rationalize a lot of the “big star” snubbing. Like with Reese Witherspoon, she’s the executive producer on all three of those shows and she steered them knowing that she didn’t have the showiest part in any of them. So I think part of her is very, very pleased for Meryl and Laura, for Kerry Washington and for Jennifer Aniston. And with Russell Crowe, well, The Loudest Voice in the Room was mediocre and got entirely upstaged by Bombshell (which also wasn’t great), plus it aired sometime in the 1800s, by our time-vortex standards.

But once Julia Roberts didn’t get a nomination last year for Homecoming — and Janelle Monae was ignored this year basically for replacing her — it was clear that Emmy voters aren’t as star-obsessed as we might have thought/feared. It’s a relief that it isn’t all A-list all the time, because in that world, Shira Haas doesn’t get a nomination and she surely deserved it (and really deserves to at least be in the conversation against Regina King and Cate Blanchett).

Honestly, the thing that makes me happiest is how reasonably wide-open so many categories seem to be. Probably Watchmen is a big favorite and presumably Succession will be a favorite as well, but comedy feels like it could easily go to Schitt’s Creek or Maisel or, if voters are feeling "adventurous," maybe to Insecure? And most of the acting categories could go two or three different directions.

I’m glad to have plenty of mysteries as we approach Emmy night, other than the biggest mystery: How the heck are they going to do the Emmy telecast at all?

Stay tuned!