Critic's Notebook: The Limits of 2020's Emmy Inclusivity

Courtesy of Pop TV; FX; Netflix
From left: Rita Moreno in 'One Day at a Time,' Harvey Guillen in 'What We Do in the Shadows' and Poorna Jagannathan in 'Never Have I Ever'

The scarcity of Latino and Asian American acting nominees wasn't just a missed opportunity to recognize great performances; it was a failure to honor some genre-blurring, boundary-pushing television.

There was much to celebrate about the diversity of the 2020 Emmy nominations when they were announced earlier this week — and much to be frustrated by.

After a spring and summer marked by protests against police violence and headlines about the coronavirus — both of which have disproportionately impacted Black individuals and communities — the TV Academy seemed to pay greater attention to the prodigious and varied contributions of Black artists to the medium. A Los Angeles Times analysis found, encouragingly, that 33 percent of this year's acting nominees are Black (a 14 percent jump from the previous five years).

But the same article noted that Latino representation among the Emmys remains "abysmal," with zero actors nominated this year — a criticism that's been amplified on social media by the likes of John Leguizamo. In not much of an improvement, actors of Asian descent made up about 1 percent of this year's nominees. Those numbers are all the more striking in the context of the demographics of Los Angeles county, which is nearly half Latino and 14 percent Asian.

As the conversations about representation continue to evolve, it's inevitable that different communities will be more motivated by and have greater insight into the factors that work against them. Communities of color may share the goal of dismantling white supremacy — and they can and do delight in other groups' triumphs or commiserate with their losses — but it shouldn't be controversial to state that anti-Black racism, for example, has roots and manifestations that differ from, say, anti-Asian bias, which has a very different history in this country. It shouldn't surprise, then, that Black resistance and Black accomplishments might not look like those of other communities at this point in time.

So what's all that got to do with the 2020 Emmy nominations? It's worth analyzing why so few Latino and Asian series and performers made the cut this year, especially when TV looks more diverse than ever. Because the answer seems to be … it depends on who you're talking about.

As noted by writers Laura Bradley in The Daily Beast and Manuel Betancourt in a viral Twitter thread, there was no shortage of Latino shows and actors that Emmy voters could choose from. As a critic, I would've been perfectly happy if Pose's Mj Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez, One Day at a Time's Justina Machado, Undone's Rosa Salazar and Vida's Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera — all leads of their respective shows — were nominated for their excellent work.

On the supporting side, One Day at a Time's Rita Moreno, What We Do in the Shadow's Harvey Guillen and Orange Is the New Black's Laura Gomez and Diane Guerrero are no less worthy. Sure, one can nitpick these choices for not being "Emmys" enough — too "small" or "broad" or "niche" — and then I'd point you to Black Monday, Modern Love and The Kominsky Method, all of which garnered acting nominations. If a family-friendly Canadian sitcom like Schitt's Creek can emerge from obscurity to become an Emmys frontrunner, why can't living legend Rita Moreno?

The pickings get even slimmer when it comes to the acting contenders of Asian descent, who are represented this year by Killing Eve's Sandra Oh and Modern Love's Dev Patel. (They're just two actors, but Oh's Canadian roots and Patel's Englishness do gesture at the industry's chronic neglect of homegrown Asian American talent.) The lack of an Emmy nod for The Good Place's fan favorite Manny Jacinto — for the series' final year — seems like a real missed opportunity, as does the lack of recognition for Never Have I Ever's newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and veteran Poorna Jagannathan. 

Other potential competitors were Awkwafina for (the horrendously titled but winsomely acted) Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and Hong Chau for her supporting roles in Watchmen and Homecoming. But this relatively anemic list mostly suggests the miles that Asian American artists have to go in making progress on TV.

Mainly, though, the Emmys' diversity numbers give the impression that members of the TV Academy, like Oscar voters, are working with an outdated notion of prestige. The racial diversification of TV is happening, in many cases, with experimental genre expansions or blurrings. Orange Is the New Black didn't just introduce blond, upper-middle-class Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as a Trojan horse into a much more racially, economically and sexually diverse series, but also into a true dramedy that tackled seldom-discussed-in-pop-culture issues of prison reform and the small and great indignities of mass incarceration. Transparent not only helped mainstream trans issues (and, inadvertently, thorny questions of trans representation), but confounded Emmy categories as a generation- and continent-hopping half-hour drama.

Thus it's disappointing to see repeat, nostalgia-heavy space-fillers like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Stranger Things and — sorry to beat this dead horse again — The Kominsky Method take up valuable nominations in lieu of something like, say, the bold balancing act of the meta-telenovela Jane the Virgin; the sex-, grief- and conflict-lush Vida; or the gorgeously rotoscoped Undone, which dives into issues of racial identity as they intersect with the protagonist's disability in a quasi-animated world that goes to space and a pre-Columbian past and back.

The same could be said for Netflix's Never Have I Ever, which refreshingly repackages the YA elements of an all-American teenage losing-it plot within a comedy about mourning centered on an Indian American family that's never not internally skirmishing about how "Indian" its members should be. Some of the most exhilarating television is happening at these vanguard margins, and the Emmys, in missing out on a lot of "diversity," is also missing out on the exciting diversity of storytelling within "inclusive TV."