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Emmy Awards: Why Rules Were Made to Be Broken (Column)

For years, the Emmy Awards stuck stubbornly to their old favorites: The same shows would get nominated year over year, much to everyone’s frustration.

But then two things happened: Peak TV exploded, and the voting rules changed. And suddenly, the only thing you could count on was not being able to count on anything. With 9100 submissions across over 120 categories, it’s become nearly impossible to offer any sense of predictability to the nominations.

As always, this year’s list offered the usual array of snubs and surprises, which Emmy prognosticators — Variety included — dutifully weighed in on. But the main takeaway from the nominations is simply this: rules are made to broken, which is a very good thing.

Star power matters — until it doesn’t.

In the past, the surest way to land a nomination — not to mention the trophy itself — was for an established male movie actor to star in an HBO movie. Witness: Al Pacino (“Angels in America,” “You Don’t Know Jack”), Geoffrey Rush (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”), Michael Douglas (“Behind the Candelabra”), Paul Giamatti (“John Adams”).

But Pacino didn’t make the cut this time out for a role that was prime Emmy bait: embodying the embattled Paterno in HBO’s film.

Yet that ephemeral fairy dust of star power worked its magic for other high-profile actors, including Antonio Banderas, who scored for NatGeo’s “Genius,” and John Legend, who’s now in contention for an EGOT for “Jesus Christ Superstar: Live.”

Ensembles matter — until they don’t.

Voters went deep on shows they loved — showering series like “The Handmaid’s Tale” with 20 noms overall and eight for its actors, including the surprise recognition of Kelly Jenrette, who played Luke’s ex-wife. Ditto “Westworld,” whose 21 nominations folded in 5 acting nods and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which scored 18 overall and 6 for its cast. Those casting sweeps mean that co-stars will be vying against each other in many of those races.

Yet inexplicably that love didn’t extend as deeply to the other series that Emmy fawned over: Somehow among “Game of Thrones” 22 nominations only three actors made the cut — snubbing series leads (and audience favorites) Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington (perhaps it was their jump from supporting to lead?).  And while four of “This Is Us'” nods came from the acting categories, somehow the women of the cast escaped the notice of voters — notably Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz, key members of the show’s ensemble. “GLOW” is competing for best comedy series without its lead actress in contention (Alison Brie), as is “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Ellie Kemper).

Timing matters — until it doesn’t.

Given the glut of programming, voters could be forgiven for forgetting those series that aired last summer at the start of the eligibility window, in favor of those that piled up in March and April. That spring timing certainly benefited series like “Killing Eve,” which scored a nod for star Sandra Oh, and HBO’s movie “The Tale,” which snuck in just under the wire. And while it’s the first season of “GLOW” that’s in contention, coverage of the second season, which dropped June 29, kept it top of mind for voters.

Yet voters proved they can remember what matters to them: Tatiana Maslany wrapped her run as the star of “Orphan Black” last June, yet the winner of the Emmy in 2016 is back in contention to defend her trophy. “Insecure” aired its second season last July, yet Issa Rae broke into the acting race.

History matters — until it doesn’t.

Consistency has been the hobgoblin of Emmy voters, who’ve rewarded the same shows year after year. Consider the reality races, which — but for the addition of “Queer Eye” — are virtually the same slate as in years past.

The talk series category was long a victim of a similar problem, making it impossible for new, more relevant series to break through.

Yet this year there was a shakeup: For the first time since 1995, Bill Maher did not earn an Emmy nomination for his onscreen work, whether for “Politically Correct” or “Real Time with Bill Maher.” “Modern Family,” which has been nommed every season since its debut, didn’t make the cut in the comedy series race. And Emmy favorites Jon Voight and Liev Schreiber fell out of favor for their work on “Ray Donovan,”

There was no consistency among voters when it came to reboots and revivals, TV’s trend du jour. Of course, we all know why “Roseanne” didn’t make the cut — with the notable exception of awards favorite Laurie Metcalfe, but while voters warmed to Larry David’s latest iteration of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” they also cooled to “Will & Grace,” which had been an Emmy darling in its first run, as well as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”

Netflix matters — until it doesn’t.

The day of the nominations, countless headlines (again, Variety included) trumpeted the success of Netflix, which had dethroned longtime king HBO atop the leaderboard of Emmy nominations, after a nearly two-decade long run. And while the spread was only 4 nominations, the symbolic victory heralded the triumph of streaming services. And to be sure, Netflix’s deep bench of content — spread across nearly every category in the race — fueled its success. Those 112 nominations were spread out across 40 series: Yes, even “Fuller House” got a nod, now competing as a children’s program.

But the millions spent by Netflix didn’t guarantee noms for all of its contenders. “Mindhunter,” the critically adored thriller from David Fincher, scored just one nom for guest star Cameron Britton; “One Day at a Time” also landed just one nod (for editing), as did “Alias Grace” (for dramatic score).

But the Netflix effect wasn’t just limited to its own originals: That magical algorithm and user-friendly interface also brought attention to some of its acquired series. One of the most celebrated surprises of Emmy morning was the recognition of Ted Danson, for his work on “The Good Place.” Insiders credit the debut of “The Good Place” on Netflix with finally bringing Mike Schur’s celebrated comedy — now in its second season — to the attention of Emmy voters.

 

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