Cable TV and online streaming services have created an Emmy revolution in the past few years that has all but squeezed out the big four networks in the top drama categories. However, “This is Us” may be well positioned to change that. The NBC breakout hit is poised to become the first network show to earn a Best Drama Series nomination since CBS’s “The Good Wife” received bids in 2010 and 2011.
In 2004 HBO’s “The Sopranos” won Best Drama Series after four previous nominations. What no one knew at the time was that it would signal the beginning of the end for ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX in the top category. “24” from FOX was the last network show to win Best Drama (2006), and that was more than a decade ago. It’s hard for the networks to compete these days against the onslaught of premium cable, basic cable and streaming programs. But “The Good Wife” managed to hold the line for broadcast TV prestige not too long ago, so there’s hope yet for a resurgence.
“The Good Wife” was about a politician’s wife (Julianna Margulies) who returns to her legal career after a scandal involving her politician husband. Awards-friendly legal dramas are familiar fare for the big four networks, from “L.A. Law” to “The Practice.” The same has been true of family dramas, where broadcast TV has scored top Emmys for shows like “The Waltons” and “Picket Fences.” Now hoping to continue that tradition, entering the Emmy race for its first season, is “This Is Us.”
NBC premiered “This is Us” last fall to widespread praise. It boasts a large ensemble cast and follows the Pearson family in both the past and present. In its inaugural awards season it has exceeded expectations, scoring three Golden Globe nominations: Best Drama Series and two Best TV Supporting Actress nominations for Mandy Moore as matriarch Rebecca Pearson and Chrissy Metz as her adult daughter Kate. The show was also included among the 10 AFI honorees for TV Program of the Year. And at the Critics’ Choice Awards it won Most Exciting New Series and picked up a nom for Best Drama Series.
Even more encouraging is the love “This Is Us” received from industry peers, including a SAG Award nomination for Best Drama Actor for Sterling K. Brown. It also won a WGA Award for Best Episodic Drama for the episode “The Trip” (written by Vera Herbert), plus an additional WGA bid for Best New Series. Those awards are significant because they’re handed out by industry professionals, just like the Emmys.
“The Good Wife” scored nine Emmy nominations for its first season in 2010: Best Drama Series, Best Drama Actress (Margulies), Best Drama Supporting Actress (Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi), Best Drama Guest Actor (Alan Cumming and Dylan Baker), Best Drama Writing for the “Pilot” (Michelle King and Robert King), Best Drama Series Casting and Best Costumes for a Series. Its only victory was for Panjabi, but that was a great start for the series as network shows were already beginning to fall out of favor with the TV academy.
Will “This Is Us” match that success? It couldn’t have asked for a better year to try to disrupt the cable and streaming stranglehold on the drama races. HBO’s two-time reigning champ for Best Drama Series, “Game of Thrones,” is taking the year off as it will not be airing episodes during the eligibility period. Also, PBS Masterpiece’s “Downton Abbey” aired its series finale in early 2016 so it competed for its final time last year. That leaves two open slots, so “This is Us” could get in without having to bump a nominee from last year.
Of course “This Is Us” still faces challenges on the road to a Best Drama Series nomination. Chief among them — or perhaps queen among them — is “The Crown” from Netflix, which bested “This Is Us” at the Golden Globes for Best Drama. Also from Netflix is “Stranger Things,” which also scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama, and then it won the SAG Award for Best TV Drama Ensemble.
And HBO isn’t going down without a fight. They hope to move the sci-fi western “Westworld” into the open slots left by “Game of Thrones.” It also picked up a Globe nomination for Best Drama Series and a SAG bid for Best Ensemble.
As with “The Good Wife,” most of the potential for additional “This is Us” nominations may come from the acting branch of the television academy. The show’s best chance to win may be Best Drama Actor contender Brown as Randall Pearson, who was adopted into the family. Brown was an Emmy winner last year for his supporting role as Christopher Darden in the limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” so he’s already on the Emmy radar — plus, he was the only “This is Us” cast member to score a SAG nomination. But perhaps Brown will be joined by onscreen adoptive dad Milo Ventimiglia in the Drama Actor contest as some of his best material came in the second half of the season that SAG voters didn’t get a chance to see. But both men have to break through a crowded field: all six of last year’s Drama Actor nominees are eligible again, including the defending champ Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”).
Moore is entered in Best Drama Actress but she may be in a better position since last year’s winner Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) is sitting this year out: like “Game of Thrones,” her show won’t have new episodes airing until after the June 1 cutoff. So there’s an open slot she has a chance to fill. However, several other first time contenders are having the same idea, including Claire Foy (“The Crown”) and Evan Rachel Wood (“Westworld”).
“Game of Thrones” earned five nominations for its supporting cast last year, so its absence opens the door for “This is Us” in both of those categories as well. Metz, who scored a Golden Globe nom for Best TV Supporting Actress, might be sitting pretty since there are four open slots at the Emmys with three “Thrones” women (Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Maisie Williams) and “Downton Abbey” star Maggie Smith not competing. Meanwhile Metz’s onscreen brother Justin Hartley and Brown’s onscreen biological father Ron Cephas Jones could fill the Drama Supporting Actor slots left open by Kit Harington and Peter Dinklage.
“This Is Us” could further pad its total nominations count with a Best Drama Guest Actor bid for Gerald McRaney, who has been working in television for over 40 years but has never received an Emmy nomination. His portrayal of Dr. Nathan Katowski, the doctor who delivers Kate (Metz) and Kevin (Hartley), is heartbreaking, and this could be the television academy’s chance to honor an actor who is wildly overdue for recognition.
Outside of acting nominations “This Is Us” will need to be strategic in their choice of submissions for both writing and directing. Last year saw six different shows nominated for Best Drama Writing and five different shows up for Best Drama Directing. Both awards went to “Game of Thrones” for the episode “Battle of the Bastards,” so yes, that’s another opportunity for a new show to swoop in and pick up some hardware. And with multiple characters and time lines on “This is Us,” awards for casting and editing are also strong possibilities.
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