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Don't Forget the Actors, Emmy Voters

Can ‘Shogun’ Save the Emmys from Itself?

The new frontrunner for Best Drama Series has the strongest reviews among a down year for the category, and it's one of the few contenders led by people of color. But will voters respond?
'Shogun' stars Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne and Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, shown here having an intense conversation outside
Cosmo Jarvis and Hiroyuki Sanada in 'Shogun'
Courtesy of Katie Yu / FX

For months now, awards prognosticators across the interwebs have been lamenting the state of the Emmy’s Drama categories. No, not the Emmy Awards that already happened (let’s not get into all that again) but the one TV Academy members will vote on in a few weeks. After a strike-altered release calendar and the departure of daddy’s No. 1 boy, 2024 was destined to be a strange awards season. Seven of last year’s eight nominees for Best Drama Series are no longer in contention. None of the most recent Primetime Emmy winners are eligible. A new Best Director, Writer, Actor, Actress and more will be crowned. Yet in an often-repetitive TV awards cycle, the excitement typically felt for a fresh field has been tempered by this year’s lackluster yield.

That is, excitement was tempered until a few weeks ago, when a white knight golden samurai rode in to rescue the Emmys. “Shōgun’s” category shift from Limited Series to Drama is not only a thrilling turn of events for those of us hopelessly caught up in the awards race — some excitement! finally! — but a pivot that may save us from winners with historically subpar reviews and a significant lack of diversity. “Shōgun’s” dramatic arrival on the Emmy battlefield may be a bit of gamesmanship by FX, which is likely taking advantage of a weak field to win its first ever trophy for Best Drama Series (a fact that hardly seems possible after so many landmark dramas). But it may also be important for the Emmys, as the awards body seeks to honor great work that also reflects its international industry and audience.

Or to paraphrase one of history’s greatest philosophers, if you come at the “The Crown”… please don’t miss.

And that’s precisely the show “Shōgun” will have to topple. The only returning Best Drama Series nominee from what’s officially known as the 2023 Emmys, “The Crown” has been the presumptive favorite over the past few months. For some, it still is, but much of the wind left in its sails is being generated by Netflix. Not only were reviews for Peter Morgan’s sixth and final edition rough, but the previous season saw its total Emmy nominations drop to just six — by far the lowest of any season, and a massive decline from Season 4’s peak (when it snagged 24 nominations and won 11 times, including Drama Series). A dip in reviews is one thing, but once voters lose interest, it’s extremely difficult to get them back on board. (Just ask “Mad Men.”)

In another year, we may be using the same logic to rule out another 2024 favorite: “The Morning Show.” After fighting tooth and nail for eight nominations in its debut season, the sophomore effort couldn’t hold on in its second run, falling to just three total nods. Neither initial entry earned recognition for Best Drama Series, and yet “The Morning Show” Season 3 currently has the third-best odds on Gold Derby to do just that. Why? Well, it’s not the reviews, which have never improved, so it’s gotta be the star power (and Apple money). Billy Crudup won a Best Supporting Actor trophy for its debut season, and stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell all secured nominations. That level of recognition indicated voters are watching “The Morning Show” (even if few others are), and they like what they see (or they just like those stars). Maybe the massive actors’ branch didn’t like them as much as “Succession,” but in a year of turnover, former runners-up can slide into the winners’ circle.

After those two veterans, things get a little more speculative, starting with “The Gilded Age.” HBO’s costume drama has the next-best odds for a Series nod, despite landing just one Emmy nomination for its first season. (Best Production Design, which it won!). Still, creator Julian Fellowes has a solid track record with the TV Academy thanks to “Downton Abbey,” HBO knows how to run an awards campaign, and “The Gilded Age” did see an uptick in interest during its second season. That could be enough to put it over the top, even if its 73 Metacritic score doesn’t place it among TV’s elite — a recurring slight for our early Drama frontrunners.

In fact, the lowest critics’ score of any Best Drama Series winner in the last 20 years was also a 73, which belonged to “Game of Thrones” Season 6. Seasons 7 and 8 have the next lowest scores at 77 and 75, respectively, and the only other Emmy champ to rate below an 80 is the first season of “Mad Men” (which history has proven deserved much better). Last year’s group of Best Drama Series nominees averaged an 80, and before “Shōgun” entered the fray this year, the predicted Best Drama Series nominees amounted to a mere 74, with “The Crown” (61) and “The Morning Show” (65) dragging the category down.

OK, so it’s bad out there. But is it that bad? This 2024 drama class isn’t shaping up to be considerably worse than from years past. The year 2021 was comparable to this one, given how the pandemic altered the release calendar (and thus the pool of eligible TV shows), and that batch of Best Drama Series nominees only averaged a 76 rating. Plus, this year’s class could see the scales tipped toward respectability if acclaimed contenders like “Slow Horses” (85 Metacritic rating), “The Curse” (88), and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” (88) over-perform. No, what stands out about 2024 isn’t the overall drama field. It’s that the forecasted winners — and the shows expected to receive the most overall nominations — have been so poorly received.

That, and they’re all very, very white. Along with its 85 rating, “Shōgun” offers the Emmys another reputation-saving advantage: diversity. Per Gold Derby odds, five the six expected Best Actress nominees are white, and the one person of color is “Shōgun’s” Anna Sawai. Best Actor fares a little better, with Donald Glover (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and Hiroyuki Sanada (“Shōgun”) expected to land in the final six, but the Supporting Actor and Actress races both predict only two people of color per category, despite expanding to eight slots each.

All told, current predictions suggest 30 of the 40 dramatic acting nominations will go to white actors, which would be a more diverse class than 2023 (when 34 of the 40 acting nominations went to white actors). But without “Shōgun,” this year’s tally would’ve projected 35 white actors to be nominated. Out of 40. That’s nearly 88 percent.

To be clear: This reflects poorly on the entertainment industry no matter how “Shōgun” is classified for awards. More programs created by and starring people of color need to be produced, released, and properly publicized in order for Emmy voters to acknowledge them. Yes, the TV Academy should be showing more love to “Tokyo Vice.” Maybe they should think a little harder about “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and they should definitely catch up on “Interview with the Vampire.” But they should also have more excellent, inclusive drama series to choose from.

This isn’t a plea for a “Shōgun” sweep. Its success with viewers has already helped ensure more international adaptations, more shows with subtitles, and more shows with grand ambition will get made. Emmys would be a nice bonus (especially for a network that’s deserved to win at least one Best Drama Series trophy already). But after years of overlooking both highly regarded dramas and highly regarded diverse dramas, it’s pretty clear the Emmys need “Shōgun” more than “Shōgun” needs the Emmys. Let’s hope that won’t be the case by the time Season 2 rolls around.

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