Brow Beat

This Year’s Emmy Noms Prove Why It’s Great That Emmys Have Replaced Ratings as the Industry’s Standard-Bearer

Aziz Ansari in Master of None.
Aziz Ansari in Master of None.

K.C. Bailey/Netflix

In an essay Wednesday for the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara argued that the Emmy Awards have essentially replaced ratings—what with the splintering of outlets and audiences—as the standard-bearer of industry success. Indeed, the Emmys have defined the programming strategies of upstarts like Netflix and Amazon, and they’ve reformed cable and broadcast networks alike.

This morning’s Emmy nominations announcement affirmed this new Emmy-centric business model. USA Network received its first-ever Outstanding Drama Series nomination for its cyberpunk polemic Mr. Robot; Lifetime, formerly (and still largely) a purveyor of fluffy fare not taken seriously by awards-givers, netted a pair of major nominations for its flagship prestige drama UnReal; and both Netflix and Amazon continued to build on their success with their distinct new half-hour series—Master of None and Catastrophe, respectively—also cracking the field. Even FX’s decision to stick with low-rated critical darling The Americans paid off immensely, as its fourth season was slotted into Outstanding Drama Series and netted recognition for both of its lead actors.


The Television Academy is a voting body that, rather notoriously, tends to be averse to change. But the rapidly shifting shape of television is forcing an evolution in what, and who, is being recognized. The Limited Series/TV Movie categories are dominated this year by The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, FX’s historical depiction that pays special attention to the complex racial and gender dynamics of the “trial of the century”; other major players include American Crime, John Ridley’s provocative tapestry of intolerance in contemporary American life, and Roots, the urgent update on the classic 1977 miniseries. Over on the half-hour side, five of the seven nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series—Transparent, Black-ish, VeepUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None—center on either women, LGBTQ people, or people of color.


In some ways, the story is the same: Game of Thrones only built on its control over the drama field with first-time nominations for Kit Harington and Maisie Williams, and it was once again joined in the top category by past-their-prime veterans Homeland, House of Cards, and the concluded Downton Abbey. And Veep is on top again among comedies. But of more pressing interest is the new crop of series and voices introduced to the ceremony—the future of the Emmys.


Considering the eligible new drama series, voters could have easily gone for HBO’s Vinyl (which was abruptly canceled near the end of the voting period) or Showtime’s Billions to replace the departed Mad Men (and snubbed Orange Is the New Black). Both represent quality cable television as it’s been traditionally defined: anchored by an antihero, exceedingly dark in tone, and of a masculinized aesthetic. Their omissions are especially stark in comparison to the multinominated Mr. Robot and UnReal, whose radical thematic underpinnings—a trippy call for revolution and redistribution in the former’s case; a boldly feminist rewiring of tired TV tropes in the latter’s—reflect the medium’s turn toward a narrower commercial focus and broader artistic license.


Such heightened political aspirations speak volumes about what distributors are looking for in the new media market. American Crime, which this season advocated forthrightly for victims of sexual assault and LGBTQ bullying, was recognized for a second straight year in the Outstanding Limited Series category, and—despite low ratings—is beginning production on a third season set in North Carolina. After a single major nomination last year, ABC’s Black-ish fit into Outstanding Comedy Series for its sophomore year on the strength of its powerful, issue-centric episodes, which tackled the use of the N-word and police brutality, among other prescient topics. It also bears noting that a season of television steeped in queer theory and intra-feminist discourse—that’d be Transparent’s second season—is among the most cited series this year, with 10 nominations.


But no nominee shows this more clearly than Aziz Ansari. As the campaign season was ramping up, he told the Hollywood Reporter that he’d been initially sure that no network would give him “a show like Master of None. It definitely would have gone to some white guy.” Of course, Netflix—the original pioneer of this new specific programming strategy—did just that. And now, as a Best Comedy Actor nominee, he’s the first person of South Asian descent ever to be nominated for a lead acting Emmy. (In fact, he received four nominations—for acting, writing, directing, and producing Master of None—this year alone.)  You can bet that his success, along with that of many others this morning, will continue pushing outlets toward more Emmys—and more voices.


Below is a list of the nominations.                           

Outstanding Drama Series
The Americans
Better Call Saul
Downton Abbey

Game of Thrones
House of Cards

Mr. Robot

Outstanding Comedy Series
Master of None
Modern Family
Silicon Valley
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Outstanding Limited Series
American Crime
The Night Manager
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
Keri Russell, The Americans
Robin Wright, House of Cards

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Kyle Chandler, Bloodline
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Laurie Metcalf, Getting On
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Anthony Anderson, Black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Will Forte, Last Man on Earth
William H. Macy, Shameless
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Idris Elba, Luther
Cuba Gooding Jr., People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager
Courtney B. Vance, People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series of Movie
Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Sarah Paulson, People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Lili Taylor, American Crime
Kerry Washington, Confirmation

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
Michael Kelly, House of Cards
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

Outstanding Supporting Actress—Drama Series

Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
Maura Tierney, The Affair
Constance Zimmer, UnReal

Outstanding Supporting Actor—Comedy Series
Louie Anderson, Baskets
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Matt Walsh, Veep
Tony Hale, Veep

Outstanding Supporting Actress—Comedy Series
Niecy Nash, Getting On
Allison Janney, Mom
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent
Judith Light, Transparent
Anna Chlumsky, Veep

Outstanding Supporting Actor—Limited Series of Movie
Jesse Plemons, Fargo
Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo
Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager
John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Outstanding Supporting Actress—Limited Series or Movie
Melissa Leo, All the Way
Regina King, American Crime
Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel
Kathy Bates, Iris
Jean Smart, Fargo
Olivia Colman, The Night Manager

Outstanding TV Movie
A Very Murray Christmas
All the Way
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride