It’s tempting to say there’s much too much going on in the world right now to pay any mind to something as trivial as awards show nominations, and normally I’d agree.
But Tuesday’s announcement of this year’s primetime Emmy nominees comes at a time in which audiences have never been more prepared to scrutinize, applaud and, in a few cases, rue the choices made by the Television Academy (more formally known as the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences). Under what feels like permanent house arrest, we’ll be even more ready when the awards are presented Sept. 20 on ABC in a virtual ceremony hosted by the network’s late-night guy, Jimmy Kimmel.
If the universe still knows how to unfold correctly, the big winner of the night will be Damon Lindelof’s unerringly prescient limited series “Watchmen” for HBO, a show that would have been dazzling in any year, but, with its story of an alt-America caught in a pernicious undertow of historical bigotry that is confronted by a summoning of superhuman resistance, the show became a thematic touchstone for where we stand right now as a country. “Watchmen” received 26 nominations, more than any other individual program, including acting nominations for Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jovan Adepo.
Besides protesting and trying not to catch a deadly disease, we’ve had precious little to do these past four months besides catch up on lots and lots of TV, priming us for the elation of, say, Catherine O’Hara’s nomination (and hopeful lock) for lead actress in a comedy series for Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek.” And wondering how Hulu’s “Normal People” failed to make the cut in the best limited-series category, or how the love story’s lead actress, Daisy Edgar-Jones, wasn’t nominated for her performance while her co-star, Paul Mescal, was; the success of their performances seemed so exquisitely dependent on each other.
In addition to other nice notes (Cecily Strong, a key player on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” for eight seasons, received a nomination, at long last, for her work), audiences can take comfort in the idea that Emmy voters seem to share their quirkiest obsessions, particularly where Netflix is involved.
Among its astounding 160 nods across a list of nominations that runs 61 pages (the Emmys give awards for practically every aspect of TV making), voters nominated some of our guiltiest Netflix pleasures, such as the documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”; the dessert-disaster pandemonium of “Nailed It!”; the meet-weird reality series “Love Is Blind”; and the movingly exuberant “Cheer,” a docuseries about competitive cheerleaders from a Texas junior college. Docuseries might be the hottest category going for homebound viewers who gobble them up. ESPN’s Michael Jordan epic “The Last Dance” was nominated, as was HBO’s scam saga “McMillion$.” I also was glad to see Hulu’s “Hillary” in this list because of how much it differed in structure and technique from other political documentaries.
This could well have been the year for the academy to open up voting to the great masses, for surely we have watched as much or more TV than academy members usually do. Already expert at binge-watching, we’ve now become completionists of the highest order. People write to me begging for a suggestion of something new to watch; I send back a list; they write back to say they’ve already watched all those shows.
People who still believe COVID-19 is a dire threat haven’t strayed far from home and perhaps have already recognized that a fresh discovery on TV is an increasingly rarer commodity. Others tend to settle in with a show that is pretty good rather than really great. (Looking at you, “Ozark,” nominated again this year for outstanding drama series, which it isn’t, but let’s not fight when there is so much else in this year’s crop of nominees on which to agree.) And then there are those who got bored and started to go out to restaurants and bars, go on “safe” mini-vacation trips, lured into unguarded social contact by misinformation or their own stubbornness. The rate of contagion then spiked. Don’t you wish they could just sit still and watch a little more TV?
The Emmy’s 2019-2020 eligibility cycle, which ended May 31, sort of straddles the before-and-after aspect of our quarantined lives. The shows, of course, are all about the world that no longer exists, in which people gather, travel, dine, carouse, hug, kiss, sob, attend weddings or funerals and, sometimes quite messily, kill. Their lives are spattered in one another’s many fluids, and they hardly care.
This can provoke many feelings at once: envy of their prepandemic freedom; an abstract worry that they’re not safely distanced from one another; and, most of all, gratitude to these characters, and the people who brought them to us, for the welcome reprieve from our reduced worlds.
Television, my friends, is still our surest and easiest escape, and I do worry what’s in store for us in the season ahead as completed shows play out and Hollywood’s shutdown catches up to the schedule. Obviously, the longer the industry is not able to shoot, the greater the likelihood that next year’s tally of Emmy contenders will begin to resemble an endangered species list. After all, there are only so many Zoom-based ways to make TV, and there are only so many Canadian/Australian/Scandinavian crime dramas to bridge the gap. We’re reaching a twilight hour, and this year’s impressive roster of Emmy nominations are a fitting reminder to savor the view.
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