During the weeks before Mr. Robot debuted on USA — almost exactly a year ago, on June 24, 2015 — showrunner Sam Esmail had only one small, fond hope. “I prayed we would be like a little cult hit,” he says. “I would have been totally happy with that.”
It’s a cult hit, all right — if that cult includes nearly 3 million viewers who watched the pilot episode and a volume of accolades previously unheard of for a USA series. By the end of its first season, the show about an underground hacker had earned its young, unknown star, Rami Malek, Golden Globe and SAG nominations and a Critics’ Choice win — along with Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for best drama series and supporting actor (for Christian Slater). “Obviously we’re very appreciative,” says Esmail. “But it’s just such an odd show that I didn’t think it would catch on like that.”
The current “peak TV” moment is well understood and documented: About 400 scripted shows were on the air in 2015, most of which you’ve probably never heard of, such as Esquire’s Spotless or BBC America’s London Spy. Not only did those programs need to break through the general media clutter, but they also had to compete with longer-running series that re-established critical dominance (Netflix’s House of Cards), appeared to be reaching a creative peak (HBO’s 2015 Emmy drama series winner Game of Thrones) or were in the middle of a highly anticipated farewell (CBS’ The Good Wife).
UPSTART STRATEGY: THINK DIFFERENT
Like Mr. Robot, a few other drama newbies took risks that paid off, whether it was shooting with unknown talent or changing and even charging for unheard-of distribution models. The common denominator is that their creators, unlike Esmail, possessed blind confidence the gambles would pay off, making the sort of waves Emmy voters can’t help but notice.
Such was the case this spring with WGN America’s slave-era drama Underground. In April, the network reported the show as its most-watched original program to date, drawing more than 3 million live-plus-7 viewers and consistently becoming a trending topic on social media on the Wednesday nights it aired. “We said from the start that we really wanted to be bold in all aspects of the show — storytelling-wise, digitally, musically — and really try to push the bar,” says Misha Green, who, with Joe Pokaski, created the series that mixes period costume with a contemporary soundtrack (with songs like Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” helping to drive the plot). “When we started pitching [the show], I think the reaction was that nobody wanted to watch a slavery drama. We were like: ‘This is not what this is. It’s going to be thrilling, it’s going to be fast-paced, it’s going to be exciting, and it’s going to be the kind of television you want to come back to week after week.’ “
Underground’s creative mix of period drama and contemporary music helped it stand out.
Of course, Netflix — the self-described “disruptor,” with a content budget of nearly $5 billion — also had some breakthrough dramas. Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos recently told an industry conference the streaming company planned 31 scripted programs in 2016 alone. One that will return is Narcos, a co-production with Telemundo, which managed to break through during its first-season run despite most of the dialogue being in Spanish, a predominantly Latino cast and no recognizable stars. A retelling of the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, it’s the first major TV program to shoot entirely on Colombian soil. “I thought the subject matter was intriguing,” says co-creator Chris Brancato. “I thought people would be interested in it. But I didn’t think too much at the time as to what the result of our efforts would be. When I saw [director Jose Padilha’s] cut of the pilot, I knew it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t sure how people would react, but I definitely thought, ‘This is so different.’ “
Horace and Pete’s unusual rollout on C.K.’s website didn’t diminish its critical reception.
Louis C.K.’s much-lauded Horace and Pete was another game-changer this past season. The six-time Emmy winner self-funded the 10-episode series and eschewed traditional distribution, releasing its first installment on his website, LouisCK.net, in January for $2 to $5 an episode (the entire season costs $31). The decision to self-distribute wasn’t about creative freedom. C.K. says FX, which produces his landmark comedy series Louie, would have given him the space he needed, but his intention to “experiment with time and style” dictated a different release model for Horace. “I knew I didn’t want commercial breaks, and I wanted episodes of wildly different lengths — all things that are difficult for a basic cable network to accommodate,” says C.K. So under a shroud of secrecy, he cast an all-star ensemble, including Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda and Jessica Lange, who portrayed a motley crew of characters in a Brooklyn dive bar. Adds C.K., “The idea of the show coming out of nowhere and the audience watching in the dark, having no knowledge of what they might see or how much of it they might see when, was exciting because it amplified the unpredictable nature of the show itself.”
STALWART STRATEGY: BELIEVE IN COMEBACKS
While risk-taking seems to have paid off with critics and audiences for some of the new shows, it’s often more difficult for an established series to maintain the creative consistency needed to placate longtime fans, let alone Emmy voters. Showtime’s Homeland, which won the drama series Emmy in 2012 after its debut season, is the rare instance of a show that took a major dip but found its way back. “Season three was the only season that we produced that we did not get nominated for a [drama series] Emmy,” says showrunner Alex Gansa. “So we were nominated after season four, which I consider our comeback. [This season] we weren’t in the same mind-set of, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to get back up on that list.’ It was really about how we were going to tell a story about Carrie [Mathison, played by Claire Danes] outside of the CIA.”
Season five found Carrie in Berlin, where she still is entwined in events of global urgency even though she no longer is a government agent. The European locale gave the show an intriguing new dimension, but Gansa believes the season was so well-received “in large part due to Claire’s performance and, I would say, Miranda Otto’s performance. Miranda was so vivid as that double agent; she carried entire episodes on her shoulders, which we really haven’t seen since Damian Lewis was on the show.
?Homeland’s fifth season continues the series’ comeback after a third-year slump.
“You work hard even if the show doesn’t come out as well as you hope, and you’re killing yourself every year doing it,” adds Gansa. “When it’s received well and turns out well, and people are jazzed, it’s incredibly gratifying.”
Another established series looking to break through and occupy the Emmy-nom berth vacated by the departed Mad Men is FX’s The Americans, which has been overlooked in the drama series category by TV Academy voters since its 2013 debut despite earning a Peabody and the Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year award in 2015. Just recently THR critic Tim Goodman posted a story urging the TV Academy “to nominate The Americans on FX for best drama,” adding that the series “is the best drama on television. Not one of the best — the best.”
According to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who outwardly have been diplomatic about Americans‘ Emmy snubs, much of the current fourth season has to do with propelling forward relationships that had been set in motion very early on in the series. That resulted in “emotional moves” that affected the lives of the show’s lead characters, Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), their children and their collaborators.
The Americans is looking to overcome its controversial Emmy snubs.
“We were certainly aware from the beginning that we were working with these storylines we had been telling since the beginning with Philip, Elizabeth, Martha [Alison Wright] and Nina [Annet Mahendru],” says Weisberg. “Bringing these arcs to a close and being able to tie them up in the right way was very important and emotional, and the season as a whole, if we did it right, would create a lot of feeling and a lot of emotion out of that. I think it felt good to us, a real goal for us that worked out well.”
Weisberg and Fields say they began scoping out the rest of the series after season three. With a green light from FX, the duo believes they have more than enough material to mine from the 1980s-set espionage drama for two more seasons. “I think it’s less a question of that we wanted to land at some place at the end of season four, but rather that we wanted to propel through to changes that will keep pushing the characters forward,” says Fields. “It’s always hard to do this job, but in this case the hard work is always rewarding, and we haven’t run into any brick walls. It seems like these characters and this setting have been extremely fertile creative ground.”
Whether Emmy voters will explore the well-traveled creative ground of established dramas or the freshly broken trails of freshmen series perhaps depends on how they view the slot left by perennial nominee Mad Men: as a chance to reward an underappreciated stalwart or an opening to stir the churning TV pot even further with an upstart nominee.
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.