Emmys: With 'Game of Thrones' Out of the Running, Drama Category Is Up For Grabs

EMMY - THE RACE-The Americans to This Is Us -Illustration by Kirsten Ulve -P 2017
Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

Not every drama series can be like HBO's epic fantasy Game of Thrones — a favorite of TV critics, viewers and, yes, TV Academy members. It led the Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy fields in total nominations for the past three years and in total wins in each of the last two, claiming the drama series prize in 2015 and 2016. But this year, it won't receive any recognition after, well, abdicating the throne. Much has been made of HBO's decision to bow GoT's seventh season on July 16, missing the May 31 eligibility cutoff for Emmy noms. Now the question is: What drama series stands to benefit the most from the gaping hole left by GoT, if only for this year?

A case could be made for each of the other five 2016 drama series nominees that return to contention (the sixth, Downton Abbey, is gone for good). FX's The Americans, now the undisputed critics' darling, feels timely in light of Trump-Russia shadiness. USA's Mr. Robot, which revolves around an unstable computer hacker, seems particularly relevant in the aftermath of a presidential election that purportedly was influenced by a hack. House of Cards, which put Netflix on the map seemingly eons ago (2013, to be precise), centers on a corrupt politician whose behavior has never seemed more plausible. Showtime's globe-hopping Homeland captures the world's heightened sense of terror in the age of ISIS. And AMC's Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, about a small-town, small-time lawyer, no longer seems quite as small — its Achilles' heel — without such a big series as GoT sharing its category.

Chances are slimmer for several previously overlooked shows, among them Fox's ratings-leader Empire, HBO's cult-fave The Leftovers, Showtime's melodramatic Billions, Netflix's ever-improving Narcos, Amazon's Philip K. Dick adaptation The Man in the High Castle, WGN America's underappreciated (and recently canceled) Underground and the final season of A&E's Psycho-inspired Bates Motel. Ditto Netflix's diverse Orange Is the New Black and ABC's medical soap Grey's Anatomy — once nominees in this category, but years ago.

Even though only three first-season shows have won the award this century — Lost, Mad Men and Homeland — it looks as if 2017 might bring a fourth. Two shows to place bets on are Netflix rookies — both period pieces that, ironically, involve thrones and sci-fi: Netflix's The Crown and Stranger Things, respectively.

While the latter — a sci-fi mystery — deliberately looks grungy (it's an homage to 1980s genre films), the former, a historical biopic about Queen Elizabeth II's ascension, reeks of the sort of prestige and production value that past winners, including GoT, boast. (The Crown had a $100 million budget for its first two seasons combined, bested only by the $100 million for GoT's sixth season last year and the $120 million for the first season of Netflix's The Get Down this year.) A win for either — or the streamer's House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black or Narcos, or one of Amazon's conspiracy-minded rookies, Goliath and Sneaky Pete — would be historic: No show from a streamer has won a drama, comedy, variety or limited series Emmy.

Stranger Things, it must be noted, isn't the only genre show in the mix hoping to follow in GoT's giant footsteps. There also are four other critically hailed rookies: Westworld, a dystopian Western that represents HBO's best series hope; FX's Marvel Comics-inspired Legion, from Fargo creator Noah Hawley; Starz's American Gods, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 mythology-infused novel; and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, derived from Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel that reimagines a post-democracy America.

Meanwhile, as many observers were getting ready to write off the Emmy prospects for any broadcast series, along came NBC's This Is Us, TV's highest-rated new drama. It has been 11 years since a broadcast network won the drama series prize (Fox's 24 in 2006) and six since the last broadcast network nomination (CBS' The Good Wife in 2011). But This Is Us, a rare family-friendly soap, not only thrived in the face of the presidential election cycle and a seven-game World Series; it also became a critical hit (it already has series noms from Critics' Choice and Golden Globe voters). If it musters acknowledgment from Emmy voters, which it likely will, its backers will have not just creator Dan Fogelman to thank, but also GoT's showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.