This year’s Emmy Award nominees, announced Tuesday morning in an online presentation emceed by an extremely enthusiastic Leslie Jones, were marked by notable oversights, as is always the case. Each year, the Emmy nominations, particularly the acting categories, are routinely scrutinized for their degree of representation in racial, ethnic, and gender terms as well as the degree to which they capture the breadth and depth of great television. And while the TV academy certainly made some missteps in that regard this year, on the whole, the net cast by Emmy voters in 2020 is a bit wider and more inclusive than it has been recently.
Normally, at least one of the Emmys’ major acting categories is composed entirely of white faces. Last year, all the Lead Actress in a Comedy nominees were white, as were the Supporting Actress in a Drama contenders. The year before that, everyone competing for the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Emmy was white. In 2017, that described the Lead Actress in a Limited Series list. This year, however, none of the acting categories was a total whitewash, and a couple were even dominated by Black performers. Five of the eight nominees for Supporting Actor in a Comedy — Mahershala Ali (Ramy), Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Sterling K. Brown (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), and Kenan Thompson (Saturday Night Live) — are Black. To put that in historical perspective, in the three decades separating 1979, when Robert Guillaume was the first Black actor nominated in this category, and 2009, when Tracy Morgan was nominated for 30 Rock, only six Black men total were nominated in this category, including Guillaume and Morgan. (Only Guillaume has won.) This year’s Supporting Actor in a Limited Series field is similarly dominated by Black actors, thanks in large part to Watchmen, whose Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jovan Adepo, and Louis Gossett Jr. were all nominated, along with five-time nominee Tituss Burgess from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend.
It feels telling that Watchmen, which grapples with systemic racism in ways that somehow get more prescient as time goes on, was the most nominated program of the year, with 26 honors to its credit. While it’s always a little foolish to try to guess what motivates Emmy voters as they make their choices, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that recent upheavals in the real world may have had an influence. The nomination period, which ran from July 2 to July 13, took place during this country’s ongoing reckoning with racial injustice and inequity. While the Emmy Awards have been taken to task for not being more inclusive long before this year, voters may have felt more motivated than ever to do a better job on that score in the midst of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
That said, for all the heartening progress this year represents for Black performers and creators, other groups that have been traditionally underrepresented at the Emmys remained so. As The Daily Beast has already pointed out, no Latinx actors or their respective series were nominated this year: no one, including Rita Moreno (for One Day at a Time), or Los Espookys, or Vida, or Gentefied. The only actor of Asian descent to be nominated in any of the major categories was Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh; while there were many nominations for Watchmen, one for Hong Chau wasn’t among them. And although last year’s Outstanding Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series winner, Billy Porter of Pose, was nominated in that category once again, it’s a shame that a show so rooted in the trans experience didn’t receive nominations for any of its multiple trans performers. (Laverne Cox, however, did receive her fourth nomination for playing Sophia on Orange Is the New Black, while Rain Valdez snagged a nomination in the short-form category for the YouTube series Razor Tongue.)
Another extraordinary factor likely at play this year was the fact that nomination considerations were being made during a pandemic that shut down TV production, which seems likely to have had an impact on what was rewarded. Yes, some people in Hollywood have still been working. Zoom-focused programming is being created. Writers’ rooms are up and running. Ideas are still being pitched and deals are still being made. But more than at any other point in recent history, the members of the Television Academy have been faced with (theoretically) more time to check out screeners. And there were certainly some pleasant surprises on Tuesday morning that suggested voters took at least some advantage of that time.
What We Do in the Shadows, the quirky FX comedy that has been championed by critics but was predicted by few, if not zero, prognosticators to get any Emmy attention this year, was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and scored three nominations for its writing. Insecure also broke through in a more major way, with nods not only in Outstanding Comedy Series but for star Issa Rae, who has been nominated before, and supporting actress Yvonne Orji. It’s theoretically possible that, in an ordinary year, Zendaya might have gotten nominated for her performance on Euphoria; Ramy Youssef would have been nominated for his on Ramy; Unorthodox and its star, Shira Haas, would have been recognized; and so would Paul Mescal for his work on Normal People. But this is not an ordinary year, and one gets the sense while scanning the variety of offerings deemed statuette worthy that members of the Television Academy took a little more time than usual to consider what was being offered for their consideration. Even Baby Yoda got nominated. Actually, that’s not true, but The Mandalorian did earn 15 nods, including one for Outstanding Drama, so in a way it’s kind of true?
Of course, that doesn’t mean some extremely worthwhile shows and performances didn’t wind up getting overlooked. If you heard a loud noise between 11:30 a.m. and noon, ET, there is a real chance you were hearing me screaming about the fact that Rhea Seehorn, whose Kim Wexler has emerged as the heart of Better Call Saul, wasn’t nominated for an Emmy yet again. I was also disappointed to see Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever passed over for their extraordinary work on Unbelievable, the Netflix limited series released last September, the equivalent of a decade ago in 2020 time. And if Emmy voters had really dug deep, they would surely have found a way to nominate David Makes Man, the delicately rendered coming-of-age drama that aired last summer on OWN and recently landed on HBO Max, where hopefully more viewers will get a chance to discover it.
But for every disappointment, one could find an inkling of hopeful progress in this year’s batch of nominees. Take a look at Outstanding Direction for a Limited Series, TV Movie, or Dramatic Special, a prestige-heavy category that includes maybe two women in a good year. This year, it features four: Maria Schrader for Unorthodox, Nicole Kassell and Steph Green for Watchmen, and Lynn Shelton, a gifted filmmaker who died suddenly in May of this year, for Little Fires Everywhere. On a bittersweet note, the honor marks Shelton’s first Emmy nomination.
The Emmy Awards ceremony, scheduled to be broadcast on ABC on September 20 in a virtual event, will take place while Americans are likely still struggling with the health, economic, and sociocultural implications of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be weird and probably pretty awkward. Even those of us who enjoy awards shows may not know how to feel about watching one right now, especially in a modified, socially distanced context. But if there’s a silver lining in that heavy cloud, it’s that the Emmy Awards, like today’s nominations, may be a little less predictable than usual. That’s a minor source of joy, but let’s take our joys where we can get them.
This article has been updated and corrected to include Rain Valdez’s nomination for Razor Tongue.