Television shows tend to end in one of two ways: Some go out on their own terms, with time to plan a strong wind-down — such as FX’s acclaimed drama The Americans, Showtime’s Episodes, ABC’s Scandal, IFC’s Portlandia, Hulu’s Casual and Fox’s New Girl in the past year — while others are abruptly canceled and frozen in time wherever they were in their progression, like ABC’s Roseanne and NBC’s Shades of Blue this year.
How does the TV Academy feel about series that were respected during their run but are already out the door by the time voting begins? One might assume that sentimentality or even pity leads members to offer fond farewells, and sometimes that is the case — in 1991, two of the five drama series nominees were recently canceled ABC shows China Beach and thirtysomething. And 20 years later, Friday Night Lights, which NBC had pushed off onto DirecTV to avoid having to outright cancel it, landed its only drama series nom for its final season.
But the reality is that exit wins for series have happened very rarely at the 69 Emmy ceremonies — four times with dramas (Playhouse 90 in 1960; Upstairs, Downstairs in 1977; The Sopranos in 2007; and Breaking Bad in 2014) and five times with comedies (The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1966; My World and Welcome to It, which was canceled after just one season due to poor ratings, in 1970; The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977; Barney Miller, the only final-season winner that had never even been series-nominated before, in 1982; and Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005). Logic dictates that this is because most series, if they were good enough to win an Emmy, wouldn’t be ending; many prefer wearing out their welcome over going out on top (see: Modern Family).
Nominations for departed shows happen far more often in other categories. In the past decade alone, statuettes for acting in the final season were awarded to Pushing Daisies‘ Kristin Chenoweth (2009), Friday Night Lights‘ Kyle Chandler (2011), Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Betsy Brandt (2014), Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm (2015) and Downton Abbey‘s Maggie Smith (2016). And, in 2015, for Jon Stewart‘s final season as host, The Daily Show won best variety talk series.
Tyne Daly infamously won three times for her work on a canceled show, twice for Cagney & Lacey (it was revived after its first dismissal) and once for Christy. Andre Braugher‘s 2006 victory for Thief, meanwhile, marked the first example, but certainly not the last (see Ellen Burstyn for 2013’s Political Animals), of an interesting maneuver — because of its premature ending, the show, originally considered a drama series, was reclassified as a limited series, so he won best actor in a limited series or TV movie. In other words, being canceled isn’t always the worst thing!
Of this year’s exiting shows, the one with the most Emmy potential is The Americans, which has been regarded as one of the finest examples of the Peak TV era. Still, it has only once been nominated for best drama series (in 2016), while stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have been nominated just twice (2016 and 2017); its only wins were for Margo Martindale for guest actress (2015 and 2016). Could that change this year for a final season that has been hailed as near-perfect?
The presumptive favorite in the drama category is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which returns to the race after a season away. It is following the lead of two previous winners, Breaking Bad and HBO’s The Sopranos, by “splitting” its final season into two parts that will compete in different years. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad won for both segments, suggesting not only that both installments were excellent but that TV Academy members may respond to the information — even if somewhat deceptively presented — that a strong show is coming to an end. Next year, that will be the case for not only Thrones but also for HBO’s Veep, Netflix’s House of Cards and, according to unconfirmed reports, Showtime’s Homeland. Let the games begin!
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.