Blockbuster TV creators and stars discuss why the Emmys are finally paying attention
Game of Thrones used to be the only genre television show sitting on the Emmys throne. But the long, cold winter of blockbuster TV being shut out of the awards show race is finally over, and sci-fi/comic book series are finally getting the Emmys recognition they deserve.
When the 2021 Emmy nominations were announced last month, WandaVision, The Mandalorian, The Boys, Lovecraft Country, and more genre shows all received multiple nods in major, above-the-line categories — practically unheard of for blockbuster TV. But it wasn't a fluke: The Falcon and Winter Soldier, The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, and Lucifer all received major nominations as well. It represented a major shift for the Television Academy, which had long ignored sci-fi/comic book/fantasy series when it came to voting. Outliers like Game of Thrones, Watchmen, Stranger Things, and Westworld were always the exception, not the rule. But now that perception is finally and deservedly changing, and we're gearing up for an Emmys ceremony that could make history for the genre.
"I think what streaming has allowed, plus frankly a year where there weren't that many Hollywood movies, there's an openness to the sci-fi/fantasy genre more than there has been [before]," Eric Kripke, creator of the Outstanding Drama Series nominee The Boys, tells EW. "If you look at who else is nominated, The Mandalorian is cleaning up, and Umbrella Academy is there and Lovecraft Country, maybe people are starting to realize collectively that there's more to [the genre] than just what's on the surface. It's beyond superhero stuff — be it horror or science fiction or superheroes. I think everyone is just doing such extraordinary work that it's finally becoming noticed."
Giancarlo Esposito, who is nominated again for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his work as Moff Gideon on The Mandalorian, is thrilled to see "that people's minds are finally opening" to viewing genre TV as awards-worthy. "When you cultivate really good subject matter and really great themes in a show, it takes to the forefront, it begins to lead the way in that progressive thinking. These shows are good, and so why not have them be considered as some of the best? The attention to detail of Mandalorian and the technological imagination that went into creating this show is epic."
He's optimistic that, even with the nominations alone, this year represents "a turning point in the way people are thinking about the material they see." He laughs before adding, "There used to be a time where a dramatic actor wouldn't do television and would only do film because that was the medium they wanted to be seen in. And now we're in the golden age of television. It's wonderful that these shows are getting attention in this way because they affect us on a very deep level. It's no longer just fluff TV. You're dealing with issues and themes that affect humanity, but those are being done so well right now by genre TV that you can't ignore them."
Courtney B. Vance, nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his work on Lovecraft Country, says that his now-canceled HBO series was "groundbreaking television" because of the way it tackled the horrors of racism in white America, both literal and symbolic, through a supernatural lens. "This is new television," he says.
Vance's costar Jonathan Majors, nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his performance as Lovecraft's Atticus Freeman, points out how "prophetic" it was for the series to air in the months after the George Floyd protests, which is why it touched people from "all walks of life."
"That summer, s--- was going crazy in the world, and we put something into the world that was pro-love, that was pro-family, that was pro-equality, and entertaining as f---," Majors says. "Thank God things are shifting and changing, and I would say that summer, the summer of 2020, the time in which Lovecraft Country was [airing] every Sunday giving people an hour of respite, an hour of balm, that meant a lot."
While the HBO series featured a lot of supernatural horror with Lovecraftian monsters, it was the way in which Majors was able to show a Black man as a true hero and warrior that gave it a deeper meaning. "What is a hero? That's the answer I was wrestling with," he says. "My objective for Atticus was: here is a flesh and blood human being that loves, hurts, fights, and has so much nobility and dignity and rage and love inside of him, and he is a Black man. He is living in this Americanized, patriarchal world and is capable of surviving and thriving in it. And that, to me, gives hope. Atticus is hope."
Another genre TV show that delivered a deeper message wrapped in a comic book layer is WandaVision, which received 23 nominations overall — earning the second most nods of any other series (just behind The Crown and The Mandalorian with 24 nominations each). Director/executive producer Matt Shakman says "the true north" of WandaVision was always "an exploration of loss. It's there from the very first episode. There's this lake of trauma underneath the show the entire time and it's really the spine of the show, this story of loss and grief, but it's the flip side of that which is love. It's this beautiful love story."
Not only did WandaVision break new ground for Marvel in getting Emmys recognition, it also introduced a new kind of comic book story, one that revolved around a female character's internal journey rather than saving the world or universe from an external threat. That's what creator/writer/executive producer Jac Schaefer is most proud of, having created a Marvel series "about this woman's trauma. We saw this show as being really and truly about mental health."
And series star Elizabeth Olsen, nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her work as Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, knew how difficult it was to pull that off — in general on TV but also especially in this genre. "It's really hard to tell stories about grief and trauma that people really want to see," she says. "But we captured the audience through humor and charm ... so that they can be with us when we get to these sadder, darker moments."
Kathryn Hahn, nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her work as Agatha "All Along" Harkness in WandaVision, was excited to sign on "to something so thrilling and bold and ambitious" and to "take a swing into this genre" because she had never done anything with the sheer scale of a Marvel project. But it was the fact that the series not only told a story of grief and loss but also highlighted the history of iconic sitcoms that impressed her.
"There was something that made people feel really nostalgic about sitting around the television once a week," she says. "I know a couple families have said their kids have [become] interested in watching I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show after seeing our show ... and that's very moving to me that their kids were interested in going back to see the origins of sitcoms."
The amount of work, both technical and broad, that goes into creating the worlds of these blockbuster TV shows is awards-worthy in and of itself, but the actors reveal that these shows are also allowing them to deliver the best performances of their careers — so why shouldn't they be recognized as such? According to Olsen, the way WandaVision combined the superhero genre of Marvel together with the physical and broad comedy of iconic sitcoms was "bizarre and scary," but also the most rewarding. "We were really lucky to get to play in lots of different tones and worlds and genres," she says before adding with a laugh, "We were either going to fail or succeed."
And succeed they did. "It's been amazing to watch people fall in love with it," Paul Bettany, nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for playing Vision, says. He adds that having to perform in front of a live studio audience to get that sitcom authenticity for the premiere was "the most joyful endeavor of my entire career. It went from terrifying to just the most extraordinary experience in 45 minutes."
Hahn points out that there were days on set when she was able to deliver performances that "didn't feel like we were doing this huge Marvel show; it just felt really small ... I had an unexpectedly profound experience making this show. The whole thing was magic."
Majors puts it plainly, calling Lovecraft Country "the greatest jungle gym for my imagination and for my approach to the craft of acting that I think I've ever experienced." So it's only right that the TV Academy is finally rewarding it, as well as all these other blockbuster TV shows, as such — at least, with Emmy nominations. But we'll have to tune in to the ceremony next month to see if any of them get some shiny trophies for their efforts.
The 73rd annual Emmy Awards airs Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS and will stream live on Paramount+.
— Additional reporting by Chancellor Agard, Devan Coggan, Patrick Gomez, Gerrad Hall, and Nick Romano
Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Emmys analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's TV shows and performances.