Over the past decade, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has struggled to inject more populism into the Oscars. Solutions, which haven’t impacted a steady audience decline, have included expanding the number of best picture nominees and floating the idea of a “popular film” category, eventually settling this year for a glorified Twitter poll in which fans of Zack Snyder and Johnny Depp battled to invalidate the entire endeavor.
But the Emmys are not the Oscars.
Although they’ve never drawn the viewership that flocked to the Oscars at their peak, the Emmys are fundamentally a more mainstream show. For years, that was because television was a three-channel universe and most shows, even the bombs, drew the kind of audience that would make them a juggernaut now. But even in the present day, Emmy voters have favored shows like Game of Thrones and leaned in the direction of recognizable movie stars migrating to the small screen.
You would not know this from one corner of the discourse that greeted the nominations for the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards last month. Using Paramount Network’s Yellowstone as a wholly unrepresentative example, naysayers dusted off the usual boring canards that Emmy voters are out of touch with “The People,” accompanied by predictable accusations related to the woke coastal elite and the tyranny of blue states.
Anybody complaining, though, that a show predicated on the ephemeral notion of “quality” had some responsibility to honor Yellowstone because it’s popular? Please look again, because if there’s anything that stands out about this year’s Emmy nominations, it’s that Emmy voters went out of their way to embrace populism — or at least populism insofar as we can define it given that nobody knows who watches anything on streaming.
The days when the Emmys were dominated by broadcast networks are obviously past and unlikely to ever return unless CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and The CW reevaluate their mandates. But look! There’s Abbott Elementary, front and center in the comedy categories, not just series but across the acting fields. It’s a broadcast hit! Could Emmy voters have shown more love for This Is Us in its final season? Absolutely, but otherwise it isn’t like there were that many broadcast shows aspiring to do more than reach the widest audience possible.
Populism isn’t just about some mathematical formula for audience size. Yes, Abbott‘s competition includes entertainment inside-baseball shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Hacks and, somewhat, Barry — but Barry is primarily a hitman comedy, as mainstream a genre as there is, unless you want to talk about underdog sports (Ted Lasso) or vampires (What We Do in the Shadows). Maybe Only Murders in the Building fits certain aspects of “coastal” and “elite,” but fronted by two-thirds of the Three Amigos and a beloved Disney star.
The drama series nominees are even more attuned to the zeitgeist. Because of some superficial similarities in their plots, some folks will always deride Succession as Yellowstone with cable news instead of cows and no viewers instead of the biggest audience on TV. Fine.
But what about the rest of the drama series nominees? Squid Game was an international sensation; while I don’t have a clue what that means, I know that the Korean drama thrust itself into the conversation with a premise of childhood games as death sport designed to strike a chord with literally any human who ever played a playground game. Speaking of engineering for popularity, Stranger Things was a laboratory-blended, nostalgia-fueled combination of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg hits, the entertainment equivalent of a labradoodle. Imagine criticizing a labradoodle owner for having elitist taste in pets.
The argument that Yellowstone and shows of its ilk are discriminated against because of ideology is based on this peculiar insinuation that Taylor Sheridan and George Will are coffee-drinking companions. Instead, Yellowstone is just a somewhat centrist drama in a genre that has traditionally leaned very slightly to the right. If TV shows could vote, Yellowstone and Emmy favorite (and, according to Netflix, massive hit) Ozark would probably support the same candidates.
If you want to criticize Emmy voters for shunning red-state TV, let’s hope you also are taking umbrage on behalf of shows like Reservation Dogs or Somebody Somewhere, with their Oklahoma and Kansas settings. Those two would be front and center if the Emmys really and truly were reflective of the content celebrated by the woke elite and snobby TV critics. Collectively, they received the same number of nominations — zero — as Yellowstone. That’s the same number as Better Things and As We See It, only one fewer than Pachinko and Russian Doll, respectively.
The Emmys are not honoring the TV equivalent of art house movies, yet none of this will impact the ratings for the NBC telecast any more or less than next year’s telecast will be a blockbuster if they give 20 nominations to The Terminal List.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.