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The Emmys Had a Chance to Do Something Interesting. Instead, They Played It Safe.

With the pandemic threatening production and no clear favorites in the major categories, the Television Academy could’ve taken a chance on an exciting crop of new shows. But Tuesday’s nominations show voters favor stability in these unstable times.

Ringer illustration

The nominations for this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards cover a narrow, specific stretch in American television’s 70-plus-year history. On one side lies the inescapable dominance of Game of Thrones, the second-most-decorated program in Emmys history after Saturday Night Live; even its much-maligned final season earned the fantasy epic a dozen awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. On the other lies what could well be an unprecedented drought of viewing options in the midst of a global pandemic, with a drop-off conveniently starting just on the other side of the Emmys’ late-June eligibility cutoff.

The pandemic part may be new for television. But the last time Thrones was off the scene—in 2017, while taking an extended break between seasons—the Television Academy took a chance on an exciting crop of freshman shows. The prize for Outstanding Drama went to The Handmaid’s Tale, still the only time the honor has gone to a streaming-native story. But there were also nods for first-timers The Crown, Stranger Things, This Is Us, and Westworld, a stunning amount of turnover for a body that tends to reflect the prolonged, status-quo-favoring nature of multiseason TV.

This year, Thrones wasn’t the only juggernaut to exit the stage. The even bigger victor in 2019 was arguably Fleabag, the Phoebe Waller-Bridge vehicle that spawned a thousand resplendent memes when the auteur paused her victory lap for a cigarette break. Originally planned as a limited series, Fleabag’s encore bumped it into the same category as stalwarts like Veep and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But even in expanded form, Fleabag was still a finite work with a definitive ending, clearing the way for more disruption in its wake. If an international show with neither celebrity nor IP could win over 20,000 Americans on quality alone, anything could happen next.

The 2020 Emmys—to be awarded on September 20, from nominations announced Tuesday—thus marked a blank slate, or as close to one as an awards show celebrating often half-decade-old series could get. Their significance is only heightened by the vacuum that will follow the Academy’s strange calendar year, which stretches back to last summer. Judging by the announcements themselves, led by Leslie Jones on a cavernous soundstage and assisted via FaceTime by the likes of Josh Gad and Laverne Cox, what TV we’re likely to get in the coming months won’t look like the polished product we’re now accustomed to.

Instead, this morning’s crop represented more of the same—not a new feeling from an oft-frustrating contest, but a disappointing one nonetheless. On the drama side, Game of Thrones was swapped out not for an audacious newcomer like Euphoria or even The Morning Show, but The Mandalorian, another hugely expensive genre exercise bankrolled by the most dominant force in entertainment. (Elsewhere in the category, 2019 nominees Bodyguard and Pose were swapped out for Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale, no longer the upstarts they were back in 2017.)

Nor did a post-Fleabag comedy field fare much better. FX’s sublimely silly What We Do in the Shadows was the most pleasant surprise, picking up a trio of well-deserved writing nods for its troubles. Netflix’s Dead to Me, while a solid exploration of grief, reads like category fraud; there are several genres, including thriller, I’d assign to it before “comedy,” increasingly a catch-all term in Emmy-speak for “sub-40-minute episodes.” Insecure’s inclusion is earned but long overdue, especially after Issa Rae’s nomination for Outstanding Actress in 2018. The rest are dependable ringers, from gimmes (The Good Place) to groaners (The Kominsky Method).

The major bright spot was Limited Series, a category that’s come to epitomize the Peak TV arms race. After Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story hack turned the anthology series into an end-run around eligibility rules, Limited Series has become a minefield of multiseason stories masquerading as something they’re not and celebrities stopping by to pick up a quarter of their EGOT. But the most nominated show of all this year—with 26 nods, eight more than Succession’s and Ozark’s 18—was Watchmen. The nine-episode HBO show was one of the best productions aired in 2019, full stop, and one that creator Damon Lindelof admirably insisted on leaving at its natural stopping point. Watchmen didn’t get the chance to revive a moribund drama crop, but it does leave an impressive field of its own.

With Big Little Lies’ second season kicking it over to drama, where it earned less than a third of the nominations of its first outing’s 16, Limited Series ended up surprisingly light on star power. (Stunt casting is often a convenient cheat that lets the Academy’s thirst for celebrity—second only to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s—get the better of it.) Little Fires Everywhere got a few nods, but not as many as it could have; Mrs. America may have Cate Blanchett, but it doesn’t lean on her for a wide-ranging, perceptive look at reactionary politics and the plight of feminism. Unbelievable proved powerful enough to overcome a 10-month gap between release and nomination; prawn cocktail crisp enthusiast Paul Mescal pulled through for Normal People, a quietly devastating romance costarring two relative unknowns.

Still, the novelty of Limited Series nominations is forced by the form’s definition. Elsewhere, the Emmys fell back on exhausting old habits: overlooking the masterful work of Rhea Seehorn in Better Call Saul, who can now at least commiserate with a now similarly snubbed Bob Odenkirk; shutting out the raucous, exciting Desus & Mero from Variety Talk Show; nominating Brad Pitt for a three-minute appearance on Saturday Night Live as Anthony Fauci, a gimmick where the entire joke is that Pitt is ludicrously unfit for the part and giving what is essentially a nonperformance. Given the upheaval elsewhere, it’s almost comforting to know that the Emmys are always gonna Emmy, no matter what’s going on in the world at large.

In his short opening remarks before nominations were announced, Academy chairman and CEO Frank Scherma emphasized two roles TV can play in this historical moment: providing stability in an unstable time, and pushing forward the progress demanded of institutions by protests nationwide. What followed did include a few nods to the latter, including nominations for Euphoria’s Zendaya, Hollywood’s Jeremy Pope, and virtually all aspects of Watchmen. But for the most part, it was clear the Emmys favored the former. The same body that once honored Modern Family five years in a row doesn’t like to rock the boat. Not even a pandemic can change that.