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Snubs And Successes: 6 Lessons Learned From This Year's Emmy Nominations

Peter Dinklage stars in HBO's <em>Game Of Thrones, </em>which earned 19 Emmy nominations, including one for Dinklage as best supporting actor in a drama series.
Helen Sloan
Peter Dinklage stars in HBO's Game Of Thrones, which earned 19 Emmy nominations, including one for Dinklage as best supporting actor in a drama series.

There are things you could quibble about in the array of nominations announced today for the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards.

No best drama series nomination for CBS' The Good Wife, though several stars got acting nods. No acting nomination for Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany, though she plays about eight different roles on BBC America's clone-focused adventure drama. No best variety show nod for John Oliver's increasingly stellar Last Week Tonight on HBO. And a best TV miniseries nod for Lifetime's dreadful Bonnie and Clyde?

But nitpicking aside, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences did a pretty good job of recognizing the growing wealth of great material now available on TV and online, handing significant nominations to newcomers such as HBO's True Detective and Silicon Valley, FX's Fargo and Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.

The big tallies went to HBO's Game of Thrones, which earned a whopping 19 nominations, despite the fact that many of its actors were not nominated in the top acting categories. AMC's Breaking Bad also scored big for its final season last year, earning 16 nominations total.

But the flood of nominations also revealed a few telling lessons about this year's Emmy process for anyone willing to pay attention.

Here's a quick list:

Lesson 1: Strategic nominating pays off. FX saw its strategy of submitting its most groundbreaking shows as miniseries pay off, with the TV adaptation of Fargo earning 18 nods and its anthology series American Horror Story getting 17 nominations in a category with much less competition.

The lack of competition in comedy also helped Netflix's Orange is the New Black, which scored 12 nominations, including three nods in guest acting categories for Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols), Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) and groundbreaking transsexual actress Laverne Cox. (Slating those women in the guest actress category may have been another sly move to compete in a less crowded field).

Lessons 2: Emmy is finally ready to acknowledge high-quality new series when they are new. Despite Emmy's history of rewarding the same faces year after year, the new crop of nominees reflects an undeniable influx of new, high-quality shows. HBO's True Detective may be the best example, earning nods as best actor in a drama for stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. HBO took a risk, nominating the new show as a drama series rather than a miniseries — since the cast will be different next season, either category could apply — but McConaughey's star power now makes him the closest to a sure thing in the Emmy race.

True Detective also earned a nomination as best drama series, joining established shows such as Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

The list of best comedy series nominees also saw two newcomers, with Orange is the New Black and HBO's Silicon Valley joining The Big Bang Theory, Louie, Modern Family and Veep. So this year at least, Emmy managed to shed a bit of its reputation for picking the same favorites all the time.

Lesson 3: Emmy does still love its traditions. So ABC's Modern Family is poised for a historic fifth win as best comedy series, while Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons could earn a fourth win as best comedy actor. Allison Janney, who has won past Emmys on The West Wing, was nominated as supporting actress in a comedy for CBS's Mom and as guest actress in a drama for Showtime's Masters of Sex.

Likewise, Fargo star Martin Freeman was nominated as best actor in a miniseries for the FX show and best supporting actor in a miniseries for his work on the BBC's Sherlock. When Emmy likes a performer or show, it is the gift which keeps on giving.

Lesson 4: The divide between film and TV is nearly gone. Movie stars like McConaughey, Mark Ruffalo and Billy Bob Thornton each earned their first Emmy nominations today (for True Detective, HBO's film The Normal Heart and FX's Fargo, respectively). They join a list of high-powered movie actors who have found Emmy gold in TV performances, including Julia Roberts, nominated for best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie for The Normal Heart; Jane Fonda, nominated for guest supporting actress in a drama for HBO's The Newsroom; and Jon Voight, nominated as best supporting actor in a drama for Showtime's Ray Donovan.

When you've got Oscar-winning actors lining up to try ambitious TV, any star left who turns up their nose at the small screen just isn't paying attention.

Lesson 5: Diversity grew for some groups, others not so much. Scandal star Kerry Washington, who broke barriers as a black woman leading a TV drama, was nominated for best actress in a drama. She joined nonwhite actors such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Cicely Tyson, Andre Braugher, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Don Cheadle, Joe Morton and Reg E. Cathey in key nominations.

Two shows featuring lots of nonwhite actors — HBO's Treme and Lifetime's TV movie The Trip to Bountiful — were also nominated in major categories. But nearly all these nominations involved black actors, leaving out Hispanic and Asian performers. Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife, Mindy Kaling from The Mindy Project and Lucy Liu from Elementary were all left out of major acting categories. Even Emmy's reliable Latina nominee, Modern Family's Sofia Vergara, was edged out of the supporting actress comedy category this time.

Lesson 6: Some snubs still hurt. No James Spader for The Blacklist or Matthew Rhys from The Americans. No Dean Norris from Breaking Bad or Jeffrey Wright from Boardwalk Empire. No Maslany. No major nominations for The Walking Dead. All this proves Emmy still has a little work to do.

We'll all learn how many of these lessons translate into Emmy wins when the show airs at 8 p.m. Aug. 25 on NBC, hosted by Seth Meyers. But so far, it seems like an awfully good start.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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