Emmys mystery: Why do surprise winners not repeat when they have better episodes?

Over the past few years, we have seen some shocking upsets in the supporting categories at the Emmys when nominees prevailed with subpar submissions. In turn, these wins alerted their writers to the potential of these performers and they returned the following year with much better material. However, they failed to repeat. 

Consider the case of Tony Hale (“Veep”) who won Best Comedy Supporting Actor in 2013 with the episode “Running,” in which he was barely featured. He then lost this year with the far superior showcase “Crate.” Not a single expert or editor at Gold Derby had seen that upset last year because Hale did not fit the bill of previous winners: his was not a scene-stealing broadly comedic performance; rather, he truly played a supporting role in “Running” and led no storyline of his own.”Crate” was much more in line with past winning submissions. Indeed, it contained the funniest single scene of the category when Hale’s character gets a nosebleed as a result of overexcitement. Yet, he ended up being bested by Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”), who had lost in 2013 when he submitted a much stronger episode.

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Last year, Merritt Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) pulled off an even bigger shocker when she won Comedy Supporting Actress; she did even less than Hale in her episode. Her win was justified in hindsight as the following season she delivered her most substantial performance to date but Emmy voters snubbed her.

Drama Supporting Actress has had three notable upsets in the last six years, beginning with Dianne Wiest (“In Treatment”) who won in 2008 despite her submitted performance being relatively quiet and unvaried and certainly not her best work that season.

Her material was far more explosive the next season and she submitted her best episode. So, logic surely dictated another win. However, the winner was Cherry Jones (“24”), who had been discounted due to her low screen time.

In turn, Jones was considered the biggest lock of 2010 after a season for the ages, but she withheld her name from consideration. That left the race wide open. Eventual winner Archie Panjabi (“The Good Wife”) had been considered to be a longshot on account of her lack of range and name recognition. The next year, she entered an episode built around her character, complete with crying scenes but lost to Margo Martindale (“Justified”).

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Something similar happened to Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”), who was not the favorite when he won in 2011 for “Baelor,” which was missing his character’s signature sarcasm. Although he dominated the 2012 season which culminated in a killer submission for him (“Blackwater”), he was unable to defeat Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), who had won in 2010 but been ineligible in 2011.

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