Why Are The Emmys So Inconsistent With Honoring Genre Actors?

Three years ago, Game of Thrones earned eight acting nominations at the Emmys, going on to even win in Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for Peter Dinklage. Two years ago, Watchmen earned six acting nominations, winning in Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Regina King. One year ago, Lovecraft Country and WandaVision earned four and three acting nominations, respectively, but The Mandalorian – despite earning its second Outstanding Drama Series nod – couldn’t get any of its actors in, and The Boys – while netting its first Outstanding Drama Series nod – couldn’t get Antony Starr in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, even though he’s the much hailed “face” of that show, and one would assume honoring it and him go hand-in-hand.

This wasn’t the first sign that Emmy voters were becoming more selective about “which” genre actors they would honor (Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour’s snubs for Season 3 of Stranger Things stand out as other “red flags”), but it was some of the most unignorable evidence yet, and this year, that line between “prestige” genre fare (Game of Thrones, Watchmen, Lovecraft Country) and “blockbuster” genre fare (Stranger Things, The Boys, Marvel’s Disney+ shows) has become more stark in light of several notable snubs. What became more apparent than ever was the fact that, when genre elements are only the backdrop to what is primarily an adult drama (Severance and Yellowjackets this year, shows like Lost and The Handmaid’s Tale in the past), you can earn more respect category-to-category. But when you put those elements at the forefront of your project – and perhaps sometimes prioritize the spectacle over the story (Stranger Things 4) – your actors are at risk of being overlooked.

The Triangle in Squid Game

I can already hear some furiously typing, “What about Squid Game?!” Which, sure, is admittedly a show that centered itself around several spectacle-fueled setpieces and grew its fanbase significantly thanks to its “survival at any cost”-centric storyline. However, while many were quick to compare the show to The Hunger Games, the other common comparison was 2019’s Parasite – and not just because both projects came from South Korea, but because they both featured heavy capitalist critiques alongside their genre thrills, which then “elevated” Squid Game in the eyes of Emmy voters. In comparison, Stranger Things, while featuring compelling and well-written character work for protagonists like Sadie Sink’s Max or Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, doesn’t have much to “say” about social issues or social groups the same way Severance, Yellowjackets, and Squid Game do (or as Watchmen and Lovecraft Country did)

And this is why actors like Severance’s Adam Scott and Patricia Arquette; Yellowjackets’ Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci; and Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, Jung Ho-yeon, Park Hae-soo, and Oh Young-soo all received Emmy nominations last week, but Stranger Things Sadie Sink and Millie Bobby Brown did not (despite the latter receiving nominations for the show’s first and second seasons). Brown’s omission in particular can be taken as a sign from Emmy voters telling the show that it needs to do and be more, especially given that this is her second snub in a row. In seasons one and two, Stranger Things was still “new” and “fresh,” but now, it’s so big and so beloved that it’s easy for Emmy voters to feel like it – and its stars – is already getting its due with mainstream acclaim, and they need to uplift other shows and contenders instead.

However, the frustrating – and admittedly baffling – part of this approach to Emmy voting is that, whether their show be a “blockbuster” genre project or not, Brown and Sink were giving some of the best performances of the year in their category (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series) and not resting on their laurels whatsoever, with Sink especially going above-and-beyond what was expected of her, in a role that, while well-liked, had never received this much attention from the mainstream before. Some of that could be chalked up to the daring direction and exceptional editing found in the show’s now famous “Running Up That Hill” scene, but the real reason that scene resonates as much as it does is because we viewers care so much about Max and her emotional journey and want to see her escape Vecna’s grasp just as much as her friends do – and it’s a shame Emmy voters didn’t recognize how essential Sink’s acting was to that affecting moment.

But Brown and Sink weren’t the only actors overlooked because their performances were seen as “less challenging” or “less impressive” than those in “less populist” projects, as none of Disney+’s contenders this year (Loki, Hawkeye, and Moon Knight) could score Primetime Emmy Award noms either, only receiving recognition at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards. And laugh all you want, but after WandaVision’s strong showing last year (eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations), it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility to see Loki show up in several Drama Series categories, Hawkeye crop up in a Comedy Series category or two, or Moon Knight make a play for a few spots in the Limited Series line-ups.

Even if none of these three shows seemed to be as acclaimed overall as WandaVision was (Loki came closest, though Tom Hiddleston had tough competition in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category), there were specific elements in each that were undoubtedly “Emmy-worthy.” Take Oscar Isaac in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Anthology Series or Movie, for instance. Instead of receiving recognition for his performance in Moon Knight (where he was essentially playing two parts by alternating between the personas of Marc Spector and Steven Grant in almost every single episode over the show’s run) he was nominated for Scenes from a Marriage – a performance that earned far less attention and acclaim in a show that wasn’t really cited anywhere else (not for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series or even Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Anthology Series or Movie for Jessica Chastain).

Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight

Perhaps this too is the Emmy voters refusing to give Marvel a “pass” after WandaVision – especially in light of their unprecedented influence over mainstream moviegoing – but their genre bias has extended past “blockbuster” genre drama projects and even oddly into Comedy Series contenders as well. Despite “fantastical” comedy series like The Good Place or Russian Doll earning Emmy noms in seasons past, What We Do in the Shadows – which has been nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series twice now, including this year – has still never received an individual acting nod (and speaking of Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne was notably left out of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series line-up this year).

Why does What We Do in the Shadows keep earning series and writing nods while its equally acclaimed actors (Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, and Harvey Guillén) are overlooked, time and time again? Their snubs are particularly shocking this year, when you had contenders in far less acclaimed – and un-nominated – shows like The Great’s Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning and The Flight Attendant’s Kaley Cuoco getting in (and you could even include Atlanta’s Donald Glover in this discussion, as although he is a former winner, his show failed to register this year elsewhere) while Novak, Berry, Demetriou, and Guillén are repeatedly shafted. 

The cast of What We Do in the Shadows

I don’t want to see the Emmys – or any awards ceremony, for that matter – overcome by contenders from the shows from the “biggest studios” or “biggest brands” solely because they’re “big,” but I do sense a push back against “populism” in the Television Academy after this year’s Emmy noms – and snubs (especially for Sink, Brown, and Isaac) – and it’s unclear now if this is a one-time occurrence or the start of a more significant trend. One can only hope that, while voters continue to fight for the preservation of creativity in televised entertainment over mere “content,” they also recognize that great performances can be found in any genre – from any “franchise” – as shows that are less shy about indulging in blockbuster spectacle aren’t entirely devoid of art either.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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