“Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” said James Corden when he opened the Tony Awards telecast on June 12. Well, the Tonys may have some company when the Emmy nominations are announced on July 14. While the film industry has lagged behind in terms of representation and the Oscars predominantly honor stories about white men – though the academy is making strides towards diversifying its membership – the TV industry has shown encouraging expansion in recent years. And we’re likely to see that reflected in who makes the cut at TV’s top honors.
We saw some welcome progress last year. Plenty of programs about people of color were recognized, including Best Variety Sketch Series nominee “Key and Peele,” Best TV Movie winner “Bessie,” Best Limited Series nominee “American Crime” and Best Drama Series nominee “Orange is the New Black.” Four black performers won acting awards: Regina King (Movie/Mini Supporting Actress, “American Crime”), Uzo Aduba (Drama Supporting Actress, “Orange is the New Black”), Reg E. Cathey (Drama Guest Actor, “House of Cards”) and Viola Davis (Drama Actress, “How to Get Away with Murder”). Davis was the first black winner of her category, and in her acceptance speech she called for greater opportunities for women of color.
The doors opened even wider this season. Most of last year’s nominees are eligible to return to the lineup, and there are a number of new contenders with a chance to break through. In addition to “American Crime” continuing to examine the intersections of race and justice, there are additional longform contenders that explore similar themes, like “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Show Me a Hero” and “Confirmation.” And let’s not forget “Roots“; the critically acclaimed remake of the landmark 1977 miniseries about generations of American slavery could score multiple nominations as well.
Native American actors are featured prominently in “Saints and Strangers,” Nat Geo’s miniseries about the pilgrims landing in North America: Tatanka Means, Kalani Queypo and Raoul Trujillo are on the ballot for Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actor. And one of the most important supporting performances in “Fargo” is by Zahn McClarnon, an actor of Lakota descent who plays a ruthless but conflicted enforcer for a Midwest crime family.
In the comedy field, “Black-ish” could increase its nominations haul following Anthony Anderson‘s Best Comedy Actor bid last year, while the critically acclaimed “Carmichael Show” has made a strong case for its first-ever Emmy notices. And Don Cheadle (“House of Lies”) is on the cusp of making history in the Best Comedy Actor race: if he’s nominated again, he’ll tie Robert Guillaume as the most nominated black actor in the category.
The comedy races are also where we could see increased visibility for other underrepresented groups. For instance, Asian actors have historically been given short shrift on television but made gains in recent years. Returning shows “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Mindy Project” could earn first-time nominations for their respective stars Constance Wu and Mindy Kaling, who could capitalize on the three new openings in the Best Comedy Actress lineup – last year’s nominees Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”), Lisa Kudrow (“The Comeback”) and Edie Falco (“Nurse Jackie”) are no longer on the air.
Perhaps the biggest contender among this year’s freshman class of comedies is Netflix’s “Master of None,” the reigning Critics’ Choice-winner for Best Comedy Series starring “Parks and Rec” alum Aziz Ansari as an Indian-American actor trying to make it in New York City. One of the show’s most talked about episodes focused specifically on whitewashing, stereotyping and the limited opportunities for Indian actors in entertainment.
Hispanic actors could make an impression in comedy categories as well. Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) seemed like a strong contender last year after winning a Golden Globe for her breakthrough role in the CW series, but she missed the cut. However, sometimes it takes an extra year or two for Emmy voters to catch on.
It’s taken much longer for voters to catch on to Eva Longoria. She’s on the Comedy Actress ballot for “Telenovela,” but she previously spent eight years on “Desperate Housewives,” where she was notoriously the only original housewife not to be nominated for an Emmy.
The TV academy was much kinder to America Ferrera. Currently starring in “Superstore,” Ferrera previously made history by winning Best Comedy Actress for her breakthrough role in “Ugly Betty” in 2007, which made her the first Hispanic actress to win that race.
Variety comedians could make strides as well. After earning seven nominations last year, “Key and Peele” returns to the sketch-comedy contest with its final season, which aired last summer. Also in the sketch category is Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, co-host of “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail”; Nanjiani is also a Comedy Supporting Actor contender for “Silicon Valley.” Meanwhile, Larry Wilmore (“The Nightly Show”) could enter Best Variety Talk Series for the first time, as could Jon Stewart‘s “Daily Show” successor, South African comedian Trevor Noah.
Among dramas, last year’s Emmy-winners “Orange is the New Black” and “How to Get Away with Murder” are back with their prominent showcases of people of color, as are Emmy-nominees “Empire” and “Scandal.” In addition to those are a number of diverse new shows, including “Sense8,” “Narcos,” “Quantico,” “Underground,” “Into the Badlands” and “Rosewood.”
But the drama most likely to make a big impact in the nominations is “Mr. Robot,” created by Sam Esmail and starring Rami Malek, both of Egyptian descent. Malek plays an activist hacker trying to start a digital revolution in the eerie psychological thriller. White actors make up the majority of the show’s supporting cast, though another Emmy hopeful, Asian actor B.D. Wong, is a strong contender for Best Drama Guest Actor.
There’s a lot to watch for in this year’s Emmy nominations and many more Emmy contenders I haven’t mentioned in front of and behind the camera, so it will be interesting to consider how many gains, if any, are made by people of color given the increased inclusiveness of the TV landscape. Given the number of high-quality options, the TV academy probably couldn’t whitewash their awards if they tried. The fact that there are so many available choices – and hopefully will continue to be – is really the whole point.
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