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Game of Thrones: How the Emmys reward genre television

Usually they don’t. The exceptions prove the rule.

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Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

One of the most popular TV shows in the world just won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. This should not be surprising: The Emmys tend to reward popularity, which is the right and duty of all popularity contests. But Game of Thrones is only the second fantasy series in the Emmys’ 67 year history to win the top dramatic prize. The other genre win occurred 10 years and two days earlier, when Lost won for its first season.

Lost won the Emmy at the precise moment of its quantitative peak. A few days after the 2005 Emmys — precisely 10 years ago today, in fact — Lost‘s second season premiere set the show’s viewership record with 23 million viewers. The series slowly but steadily bled viewers from there. Lost got better, but it also got weirder, and anyone who has worked in a video store/been to an American high school can tell you that weird doesn’t always/maybe never equals popular.

Lost wasn’t nominated for its second season. And it wasn’t nominated the next year, either — and that was the year that the Emmys nominated shiny new bauble Heroes, back when Heroes was a show people loved. But Lost got nominated for its final three seasons, losing each time to Mad Men.

Mad Men might be the least-watched TV show to ever fill a couple tow trucks with Emmy awards. But it sits nicely in Emmy history in the genre of “Highbrow Shows About Attractive White People Who Work/Sleep Together.” Back in the ’90s, The X-Files lost Best Drama four times, to NYPD Blue and ER and Law & Order and The Practice. Losing the Emmy to a doctor show, a lawyer show, and two cop shows: If that weren’t a true story, it would be a poignant allegory for the plight of genre fare at the Emmys.

The Emmys don’t run away from geeky stuff, per se. Star Trek: The Next Generation received a Best Drama nod in its final season — and the original Star Trek got nominations for its first two seasons. (It lost to Mission: Impossible both times. Picture young Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, not even 2 years old, gazing at the TV screen and dreaming of the day decades hence when he would reboot both franchises.) But when it comes to genre fare, the Emmys function a little bit like the Oscars. They like fantasy more than science-fiction. They might throw out one token nomination for the big prize here and there — but to win, a show or a movie needs to transcend its genre. It can’t just be a success; it needs to be a zeitgeist-defining sensation.

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Which is why Game of Thrones just won, despite a divisive fifth season: pretty much everybody on Earth is watching the show. Thrones keeps getting more viewers, probably because its so binge-friendly. (You could watch the entire run of Thrones so far in 50 hours, which is coincidentally as long as it would take you to watch a couple seasons of The Good Wife and listen to your friends promise you that it gets really good in season 5.)

The comparison is almost too easy to make, but this really is the TV equivalent of Return of the King sweeping the Oscars: Less a reward for a specific project, more of an admiring standing ovation by the motion picture industry for the sheer size and success of a phenomenon.

You may ask why the Emmys haven’t seen fit to recognize that other genre-TV phenomenon, The Walking Dead. There are very good statistical reasons for this. (Example A: the Film Crit Hulk HBO-voting conspiracy theory.) There is also the fact that, at some core level, Game of Thrones has the veneer of class: British accents, expensive locations. And Game of Thrones buries the usual genre trappings under a veneer of realism. This is partially a budgetary matter — the show can only do a couple big dragon scenes per year — but it reflects an approach that Lost helped to pioneer 10 years ago. Lost ultimately became a show about time traveling pantheist Christ figures, but it started off with real people crashing onto a somewhat strange island.

Putting aside any questions of quality, The Walking Dead can’t hide itself in the same way: Especially after the departure of initial showrunner Frank Darabont, Dead fully indulges itself as a zombie-bloodbath gorefest (even when they do a Terrence Malick episode.) Likewise, the gloriously indulgent American Horror Story has gotten a Miniseries/Movie nomination for all of its steadily-less-hinged installments — and it positively mints acting nominations — but it has yet to take home the big prize.

So Game of Thrones‘ win is great for genre television — and also business as usual. So it will be interesting to see how Thrones fares at the Emmys in the next few years, as the show moves further away from its source material. And that’s the other intriguing subtext of the Thrones win: The show based on George R. R. Martin’s novels finally won the Best Drama award for its least George R. R. Martin-y season. Maybe the TV Academy just loves Sand Snakes.