Can a drama series ever be destined to win an Emmy? The race ostensibly is unpredictable, but you don’t necessarily need to finance Hollywood exit polls to get a strong idea of where the biggest race in TV’s highest honors may end up in 2017. History paints a telling portrait.
Looking over the past three decades of Primetime Emmy Awards, there’s a consistent trend among dramas that have come out on top, tied not to their themes but rather their timing. Freshmen series, for example, have the best shot. Nearly half of the 16 series that have won the outstanding drama title since 1987 took the statuette in their first year of eligibility. Odds drop precipitously after that, until — insert gasp here — the fifth season. Yes, the fifth season was the sweet spot for The Sopranos, 24, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, when each won for the first time. For this year’s race, this surprising stat could bode well for fifth-season series House of Cards (Netflix) or The Americans (FX).
“Everything we read about the show and heard from executives was a constant repetition of, ‘It’s very unlikely’ and ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ ” says Americans co-creator Joe Weisberg of his drama’s break into the series race with its first nom in 2016 — its fourth year of eligibility. Adds fellow showrunner Joel Fields, “I didn’t realize we were no longer under the radar until we got the call last summer about all of those nominations.”
The FX drama’s emergence from three years’ worth of Emmy snubs was the biggest coup of the 2016 Emmys. Coming in with five key noms, including top drama, was beyond rare for a previously ignored veteran. After all, being nominated in the first year of eligibility has provided a substantial edge since the drama series category was launched in 1951. But it’s not the only path to glory. Roughly 25 percent of contemporary best drama winners were overlooked during their first season, including late TV Academy sweetheart Breaking Bad. Such precedence bodes well for a handful of older shows — including Showtime’s Billions, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s still-unrecognized The Leftovers — which should not be counted out of the Emmy running this year.
“If you don’t get nominated for [best drama] series in your first year, it’s really hard to break in there,” says Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, whose show currently ranks as the year’s most critically favored, with a Metacritic review aggregate of 98 (out of 100). The prolific film and TV scribe has yet to see a single Emmy nom for Leftovers, despite a Peabody award and some guild love. His previous drama, Lost, had an opposite trajectory, winning the series award once, in 2005, for its first season. Adds Lindelof, “What I’m most proud of with Lost is that after not being nominated for two years after we won, we were able to scrape back into contention for seasons four, five and six.”
Robert King, co-creator of The Good Wife (a drama nominee in 2010 and 2011), says, “I do think work goes up and down, and sometimes people aren’t watching or paying attention when you want them to.” The showrunner, who — with wife Michelle King — has the CBS All Access streaming spinoff The Good Fight in contention this year, adds, “The fifth season of The Good Wife, which I think is regarded as the best we had, wasn’t nominated. Who has any idea why people sometimes pay attention and sometimes they don’t?”
The Good Fight is one of the many dramas in the category’s most competitive group: newcomers. Hulu’s well-timed The Handmaid’s Tale is making a big push. Netflix’s white-hot The Crown is atop most oddsmakers’ Emmy predictions. NBC breakout This Is Us has many crying for some rare broadcast network representation in a category largely given over to the streaming and cable shows. There’s also 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), Westworld (HBO), Legion (FX), American Gods (Starz) and Queen Sugar (OWN) vying to be one of the lucky frosh series celebrating a nomination July 13.
Among the new favorites is the one that has had the most time to marinate with voters, a factor that worked to many first-year series’ advantage (see Mad Men and every broadcast freshman ever). Netflix’s Stranger Things premiered, seemingly out of nowhere, in July 2016 — just outside that year’s eligibility window. The drama, which so far has won PGA and SAG awards, seems immune to awards voters’ past aversion to science fiction. “I’m used to working in film, where, if something succeeds, it comes in at the tail end of a massive marketing blitz,” says executive producer Shawn Levy. “We didn’t go into season one with any hype. The trick is to be grateful for the cultural noise and to know when to tune it out. This Emmy season is filled with so many viable characters.”
Game of Thrones‘ ineligibility after two consecutive years of winning, combined with the departure of former mainstay Downton Abbey, guarantees at least two open spots in the potentially seven-series race. Last year’s nominees still in contention include The Americans, Better Call Saul, Homeland, House of Cards and Mr. Robot — but none of those is considered an absolute lock for a repeat nomination. It’s very likely that the year’s top drama will be a new series — barring a surprise win from Homeland, which hasn’t won since 2012 (for its first season, natch). The recent past proves to be a toss-up when it comes to the kind of show that could put an end to a hot hand like GoT, be it a freshman (Homeland ended Mad Men‘s run) or a veteran (Sopranos finally took the prize in 2004 after The West Wing‘s four-year streak).
And let’s not forget the dark horses in the race: Showtime’s Ray Donovan (which has gotten recognition for acting but never as a series) or WGN America’s Underground and A&E’s Bates Motel, which could get a swan song Emmy for their last seasons.
Regardless, with an unprecedentedly strong pack, and overall drama submissions said to be up to 180 (from 2016’s record of 151), the list of perceived snubs will be much longer than the nominees. “Sometimes shows you love get left out, but I don’t think that’s a statement about their quality,” says Lindelof. “I’ve been watching the Emmys long before I was doing this for a living, and I can’t think of a single instance where something won comedy or drama series undeservedly.”
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.