The voting has closed. As a member of the Public Relations Peer Group of the Television Academy, I was once again honored to be able to vote in certain categories for the 2017 Emmy Awards for outstanding television programming. The online viewing site for the nominated programs opened up at the beginning of August, and online voting opened up during the last two full weeks of August, closing down on the final Monday of August. Academy members were required to view all nominees in a category before voting, but for series or limited series nominees, members only needed to view one episode of the six provided of each nominee in order to vote. This flexibility allowed me the opportunity to view and vote for six categories this year, two more than I voted on and posted about last year.
For the Outstanding Reality Competition category, five of the six nominations were also nominated for last year’s Emmy Awards. Dancing with the Stars was the only nominee from last year that did not get re-nominated. Instead, RuPaul’s Drag Race was the new nominee for this year. The other nominees were American Ninja Warrior, Project Runway, Top Chef, The Voice, and The Amazing Race. My vote for this category followed the same reasoning and feeling that I had last year. RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, Top Chef, and The Voice are all judging competitions focused on specific skills, while American Ninja Warrior is a straight physical competition of speed, agility, and strength over an elevated obstacle course, but The Amazing Race, an admitted favorite of mine, provides a global cultural lesson and perspective to the viewing audience, as they watch teams of two race around the world. My vote went to The Amazing Race.
Just like last year, I decided to view and vote in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. Four of the six nominees were repeat nominees from last year, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, IFC’s Portlandia and Documentary Now, and Comedy Central’s Drunk History. The two new nominees were TruTV’s Billy on the Street and HBO’s Tracey Ullman’s Show. The new nominees definitely provided sharp humor, but I found Billy Eichner to be overly combative at times to the unprepared folks he would stop on the street in his show, and Tracey Ullman’s skits were short, sharp, and not very deep in her show. This led me back to the repeat nominees. This season’s Comedy Central’s Drunk History was represented by an episode where Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit, Hamilton, relates the story of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr while drinking whiskey with a friend in his home. The video sketch of his story has two actresses play Hamilton and Burr, which adds to the humor. Clever, but not quite there. Just like last year, Documentary Now was just a touch arcane for my taste. This brought me back to Saturday Night Live, which has soared with audiences this past year with the political narrative occurring within this country, and Portlandia, a much more subtle half-hour series that I have enjoyed over the years. I must admit that Portlandia was not at the top of its game this season, but Saturday Night Live still has its own fluctuations in its live skits. I gave my vote to Portlandia.
There were only five nominees for Outstanding Television Movie, the same number as last year, and the same concerns I presented last year about the changing definition of a television movie continued with this year’s nominations. The concept of a stand-alone long form story was challenged by another episodic tale of the modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character in PBS’s Sherlock: Lying Detective. However, just like last year, another nominee was only an hour long, and in this case, it was an episode of an actual Netflix series, Black Mirror. The series is an anthology series, much in the style of The Outer Limits, therefore, each episode could be considered a stand-alone story, just like the episode that was nominated, San Junipero, where two seemingly different young women meet in a California beach town in the 70’s and form a relationship, except we discover that this bonding is actually occurring in a more futuristic digital space. Interesting and well done, but it is still only an hour long movie per its nomination. The other three nominees fit the standard television movie mold, but are unique in their own way. NBC’s Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love is a rural heartfelt holiday tale of family and church, which is sweet, but basic in its story. The other two HBO nominees are historical based, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Wizard of Lies. In the first film, Oprah Winfrey stars in the story of a researcher who searches for the history and family of the woman whose cancer cells provided the basis for years of ground breaking medical research, while recognition of her contribution was hidden by the medical community that sought to profit from her cells. Robert De Niro stars in the second film as Bernie Madoff, at the time his massive Ponzi scheme was uncovered, revealing the consequences to his family as his crimes destroyed the financial lives of others. There was power in all five nominees, but the lessons of the historical movies moved me more. In the end, the common story of Henrietta Lacks had more depth than the power story of Wall Street baron, Bernie Madoff. I voted for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
A new category which I was able to concentrate on this year was the Outstanding Limited Series category, and there were five nominees representing cable and premium cable. These five nominees are easily divided between the genres of history and mystery. Under mystery, FX’s Fargo and HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Night Of worked their magic with character, suspense, and local flavor. For Fargo, this was the third incarnation of a long form mystery set in the rural northern central plains region, and it had a complex tale of a man who hires a drug-addled criminal to rob his wealthy brother, only to find the criminal getting lost and murdering the father of a small town police chief while robbing the wrong home. The first episode was complex in itself. In Big Little Lies, a person, who is not identified in the opening episode, is murdered at a social party, and as the police interview witnesses, the viewing audience is presented with a story of three women who meet while dropping off their kids at a private elementary school and clash with another mom. This highly enticing mystery tale of high society and status stars a well-known cast with Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern. On the other end of the social scale, The Night Of deals with a young man of Middle Eastern parents who takes his father’s taxi cab in order to go to a friend’s party in mid-Manhattan, but when he gets lost, is distracted by a wild, yet depressed young woman who gets into the cab and tempts him to her apartment for a hook-up. He wakes up a few hours later and finds her dead with knife wounds, but when he runs away, he finds himself through odd coincidence into police hands, but a street lawyer may be his only hope. The intricacy of the opening episode plot with tones of cultural bias was captivating in itself. I find a well-done mystery to be truly entertaining, but a strong perspective of history is also important. FX’s FEUD: Bette and Joan presented a slice of Hollywood history with the back story of the conflict of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the fifties, but pop culture fascination is not enough to overcome a good complex mystery. However, NatGeo’s Genius, which delves into the background biography of Albert Einstein, presents the uplifting of science against the backdrop of two World Wars. Genius got my vote.
In the Outstanding Comedy Series category, six of the seven nominees were repeat nominations from last year. FX’s Atlanta was the new nominee this year in place of Transparent, but I felt that Atlanta had the same flaw that Transparent had for me last year. I just could not see it as a comedy, as its strong serious tone fit it in more as a drama, even if its episodes were only a half hour long. This brought me back to the repeat nominees, ABC’s black-ish and Modern Family, HBO’s Silicon Valley and Veep, and Netflix’s Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. With little variation, the same impressions I had in deciding my vote last year with these six series still came through this year, so even with its aging premise, I voted for the subtlety and broader perspective of Modern Family.
The last category I committed to this year, a category I felt I did not have time to view and judge last year, was Outstanding Drama Series. Of the seven nominees in the category this year, five were in their premiere season, which means they were not repeat nominations, an amazing tribute to new creativity in the industry. Another interesting point which demonstrates the direction of video viewing is that four of the seven nominees are original streaming series, available solely via Internet. I knew this was going to be an interesting category to judge. The two series that were not in their first season was AMC’s Better Call Saul and NetFlix’s House of Cards. Better Call Saul, a spin-off of the earlier celebrated series, Breaking Bad, was in its second season and definitely maintained a dark noir tone, but its slow plot structure made it difficult to pick up where the story was going. House of Cards, after several seasons, was deep into the political machinations of President Underwood’s administration, which felt very intense in the current political environment, but the current storyline appeared to be more forced. In the new series nominees, network television was only represented by NBC’s This Is Us, which had already become the most popular new series of the season with its very emotional family drama twists, but I felt that it had to stretch reality at points to gain maximum pain and heart. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale‘s apocalyptic dystopian society message had helped Hulu’s reputation in competing with leader Netflix, but its storyline message was deliberate in its dark tone. Netflix’s The Crown appealed to my interest in history, as it is based on the modern reign of Queen Elizabeth starting from her ascendance to the British throne just before World War II, but its revelations was just a bit shy of the power I felt with Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s Westworld. I had become intrigued by Stranger Things with the positive feedback it had gotten when it first was released, so I took advantage of bingeing the entire season during the nomination period around June. I was amazed at the blending of childhood bonding and coming of age themes within a sci-fi cross-dimensional monster scare-fest buttressed by a government science lab conspiracy set in the retro historical time of the 1980’s when phones had to actually be dialed to make a call. Perhaps it was a sign that while I was watching the episode where Winona Ryder’s character has strung up lights to try and communicate with her missing son and the lights began to flicker, my power went out in my home for a half hour. However, when I watched the first episode of Westworld on the Academy online platform, the series reboot of the classic 70’s movie intrigued me with its more in-depth mystery and character structure of human-design artificial intelligence robots in a Wild West story-immersion theme park starting to uncover independent consciences within their programming, so I committed to watching the other five episodes provided. After viewing these episodes, I was torn for a moment between Stranger Things and Westworld, but I gave the edge to Stranger Things and put in my vote.
Last year, none of my votes wound up for the eventual recipient of the Emmy, but maybe this year, some of my reasoning will match with my fellow academy members. I will see when the Emmy Awards are given on Sunday, September 17.
Update: As announced during the Emmy Awards that aired on CBS on Sunday, September 17, the shows I voted for in all six categories did not wind up receiving the Emmy. The Voice repeated in receiving the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Saturday Night Live received the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Black Mirror: San Junipero received the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, Big Little Lies received the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, Veep repeated in receiving the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and The Handmaid’s Tale received the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. I applaud the recipients of this year’s Emmys.