Emmys 2021 Special: The (small) screen’s gambit

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Kim Masters and Elvis Mitchell help make sense of this year’s far-flung Emmy nominations. Photo courtesy of Joe Seer/Shutterstock.

The 2021 Emmy Awards air Sunday, Sept. 19, but whether this year’s ceremony marks a return to business as usual for the Academy, the industry, and its audiences remains up in the air. Cedric the Entertainer is the host. We are still in the pandemic. There's going to be some kind of live audience. And with at-home streaming more popular than ever, the lines defining TV versus other filmed media are all but erased.

KCRW’s Kim Masters, host of The Business, and Elvis Mitchell, host of The Treatment, team up to make sense of the surprises, trends, traditions, and upsets behind this year’s far-flung Emmy nominations.

Read all of KCRW’s Emmy coverage and interviews with stars and showrunners here.

An industry in transition     

Kim Masters: “The film business always looked down on the TV business. Now they're starting to merge into one thing. But with the Emmys, it just feels like every year, for a long time now, they're just ridiculous choices, redundant choices, things that would be well past their sell-by. With this plethora of not only shows I've never heard of now, but services and channels I've never heard of, it seems like it's making the problem worse.”

Elvis Mitchell: “Until maybe the past couple of years, I felt like getting an Emmy was like jury duty in Los Angeles. At some point everybody gets one. But I think what this has done is exploded the old school version of what TV was. We had four networks and two cable services, maybe. And to see Disney in its first year come through in such an interesting way, I think we're seeing the impact of the film world on TV.

[For example, producer] Kevin Feige finally taking hold of the Marvel franchises for television, and bringing a more detailed, subtle, and nuanced version of those bigger stories that get told in those movies. So I do feel like there's a really fascinating spillover between these two things. We look at how many old shows that have been nominated this year, or people we know, even Michael Douglas being nominated, who probably hasn't been on TV since ‘The Streets of San Francisco.’”

Masters: “The one that really stops me in my tracks, honestly, is ‘Emily in Paris,’ which, I will admit, I haven't watched, but my sense is: Is this a show that has merit other than people have heard of it? I don't know. I mean, it's fun, right?”

Lily Collins as Emily and Ashley Park as Mindy in “Emily in Paris.” Credit: Carole Bethuel/netflix © 2020

Mitchell: “Not only that, but I think it does something not dissimilar to what ‘Ted Lasso’ does, which is it offers a way to sort of heal. It's a frothy look at a Paris that people wish maybe still existed, but probably never existed. If you're stuck at home, opening another pack of Milanos and trying not to look at what's happening to your investment portfolio, you look at ‘Emily in Paris’ and go, ‘Oh, that's kind of an old fashioned TV show.’ ... She has star quality and for a lot of people, it’s their fantasy of what TV should be.

I think there is an interesting schism in TV. You tune into it to sort of be reminded of the real world, or to be taken into a fantasy. And then more and more of these nominations of the past year, it's been of the fantasy kind of thing. But that division to me is really fascinating, because you've got a show like ‘WandaVision,’ which is doing both: paying tribute to old school TV, but also folding in the modern fractured storytelling and the meta aspects of comics and popular culture. I'm really excited about the Emmys in a way I hadn't been in a long time.”

Masters: “Because you want to see something like that win?”

Mitchell: “I like this thing getting nominated because there's a time when TV would stay away from those kinds of things, and if the show managed to stay on for four or five seasons, then they might eventually get Emmy nominations. But now, this kind of excitement is being recognized pretty early on. To your point about that line between TV and movies disappearing, you basically have to have seen the Avengers movies for ‘WandaVision’ to make sense. And you really have to know ‘Star Wars’ for ‘The Mandalorian’ to make sense. … I think more and more now, TV really asks a level of involvement, engagement, or knowledge of history of its provenance in a way that it hadn't before.”

Masters: “In terms of the larger context of the business, we see the movie business so much under challenge right now. Fox has disappeared into Disney, and Paramount has just lost its chairman, who is a guy who would have defended movies in theaters. What you see is we're not going to gather in theaters that have collective experiences, the way things are going. We'll do that less and less. And then you get into something like ‘WandaVision,’ and you have to be versed in that world, and I feel like it fragments the audience even more. … The TV Academy seems to be torn between the old and the new, and innovation and just the same old, same old.”

Breaking new ground

Mj Rodriguez stars as Blanca Evangelista in FX’s “Pose.” The actress is up for an award Sunday for her performance. Photo courtesy of FX Networks.

Mitchell: “‘Pose’ [on FX] is a really exciting show in terms of what it's doing about breaking down gender lines, and that it's being recognized by the TV Academy for doing that. There used to be a kind of show that the Academy is afraid of, but now there is such an overwhelming amount of product that John Landgraf, who runs FX, said about 10 years ago, ‘There's gonna be too much television,’ and people kind of laughed mirthlessly because they knew he was right.

I think no one had any idea that it was going to be this bad. When you were talking about that division between the old and the new, you've now got the dystopian tradition of ‘Handmaid's Tale,’ which now feels like an old friend because it's been around long enough. But then with ‘Bridgerton,’ it's a show that again, to me, is about … this ideal fantasy world that people like to believe existed. And not only that, but a new version of that where the racial lines are being dealt with in interesting ways that these shows have never touched upon before.”

Masters: “It just feels like there's so much hit and miss. You have ‘Black-ish’ once again in Outstanding Comedy Series — talk about an old friend — right alongside ‘Hacks,’ which is really fresh to me. So it's all over the place, and it feels like maybe because we're in such a transitional moment, there's no sense of what the Academy admires.”

Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson star in “black-ish.” Image courtesy of ABC/Richard Cartwright.

Mitchell: But "black-ish" is also a show that really worked to be different from comedy. From episode to episode, it was a mixed media melange. It would throw in animation and documentary footage and fake documentary footage and have flashbacks, and it really played with the form. … People are being offered many different kinds of things. ‘PEN15’ felt like a really fascinating, novel idea for a show, and now it's been around for a while. [For the] group of people nominated for lead actor, it’s incredible that you've got four men of color in that category, doing wildly different things in wildly different periods. I couldn't imagine anything like that happening before.

People have been feeling like TV has been corrupting movies for a long time. But the fascinating point now is that TV has actually finally claimed a kind of cultural primacy in the ways that it tells stories. ... People who make those kinds of movies now maybe feel like there's no place for them. But TV is welcoming that kind of storytelling.”

The screen’s gambit

Masters: “TV is spending money. And when we talk about TV in this context, I'm including the streaming services, because we tend to watch them on smaller screens. But these legacy companies and studios have been spending money like drunken sailors. It used to be that anybody who came into the film space from TV was treated like trash. ... And yet now we see a situation where Brian Robbins, who I think has about 60 seconds of experience in the movie world, is now going to run Paramount, which is probably going to be making a lot of the so-called movies that are working on streamers, and they don't tend to be highbrow.

We do see Apple, Netflix, Disney, all of them spending like drunken sailors. Netflix has thrown a blinding amount of money at ‘The Crown.’ We all know how thirsty Netflix is for awards, so, at this point, they sure did get a lot of nominations for their money. And I will acknowledge that I have enjoyed ‘The Crown’ a lot and think it is brilliantly made, but it does feel like a bit of an artifact. I don't know how much of that we get going forward.”

Emma Corrin in “The Crown.” Photo by Des Willie/Netflix.

Mitchell: “Thinking about all these different directions that the Emmy voters are pulled in, it feels like now there are 10,000 members of the Academy. There's like one voter for each TV show.”

Masters: “A lot of people think a show like ‘Ted Lasso’ was a huge hit of the summer, but it's not actually like that when you look at the real numbers. Apple TV, believe it or not, doesn't necessarily have enough subscribers to launch a giant hit. So it is misleading for people in LA or who are interested in entertainment. They think this is very popular, but [it’s only] very popular among a certain type of person.

Looking at the Outstanding Limited Series — talk about some amazing, fresh material. That category I cannot even complain about at all. You have ‘Mare of Easttown,’ ‘I May Destroy You,’ ‘WandaVision,’ ‘The Queen's Gambit,’ ‘Underground Railroad.’ All of those are bold, different. There's representation in there. It is the kind of thing that makes you think there may be some hope for tomorrow.”

Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in episode 106 of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Photo by Phil Bray/Netflix © 2020.

Mitchell: “Filmmakers [are] beseeching people to come to movie theaters, but then [TV gets] material like this. Between ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘Mare of Eastown’ alone, the way that they deal with the material and these incredible performances, they all kind of feel like signature shows from creators. I think you get a sense of authorship in TV that's been bubbling up for a long time and that is now undeniable.

A lot of these shows that we're talking about feel less like corporate appliances and more like statements from the creators who are trying to say something. … I think all these questions we're raising can be answered by the fact that TV is showing a kind of daring that I think people are responding to, and may be one of the reasons that there's been so much Emmy love spread out.”

The swing of the pendulum

Mitchell: “We should take a moment to talk about Michael K. Williams, who was nominated this year for his work on ‘Lovecraft Country,’ but also was part of a landmark TV show that, during its day, barely got any Emmy nominations, ‘The Wire.’”

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, and Jurnee Smollett star in “Lovecraft Country.” Photo credit: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO.

Masters: “The fact that Michael K. Williams did not win for his unbelievable portrayal of Omar in that series gets to my thing about the Emmys —  hopefully they have caught up now. Hopefully in today's world he would not be overlooked like that. ... I also cannot believe the TV Academy overlooked Ethan Hawke in ‘The Good Lord Bird.’ It just feels like that was meant to be.

And so these oversights, they happen, and you're going to quibble with any award show. I have been sitting on the Peabody jury, and people complain to me every time about something when the awards come out. But I find it sort of weird like, did they not watch it? Did they not want to watch ‘The Wire?’ Was it a race thing? I don't know what to make of stuff like that.”

Mitchell: “I feel that shift is finally happening. … It took decades to happen. The pendulum is always swinging back and forth. I think that [its] wild back and forth ... is one of the things that keeps me interested in the Emmys. Just because there is some work involved in the watching of these things, let alone trying to determine what's going to be of quality enough to secure nominations.”

Masters: “I think the bottom line is, hopefully, we will continue to have progress with representation. And we won't see things overlooked for that kind of reason. But right now, there's too much to make sense of. We have this problem with the Peabodys as well. We also consider podcasts and TV and radio. It's too much for people to get through. And there needs to be a rethinking of how this works, which categories are which. Otherwise, it becomes impossible for people to make sense of.”