The 2017 Emmy nominations were a mixed bag for ethnically diverse shows, but there’s no simple conclusion to draw from that fact this year. The Emmys had broad multicultural representation last year, so the TV academy didn’t have as much to prove as the motion picture academy did after its two years of #OscarsSoWhite backlash. What’s more, the Emmys are trying to accommodate an explosion of content from broadcast TV, cable TV, and streaming services, so some of the biggest omissions can be attributed to having too many shows and too few nomination slots. For every snub of a show centering the experiences of people of color (like Netflix’s “Dear White People”), there was a snubbed show with a predominantly white cast (like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”).
So I won’t blast the Emmys for “getting it wrong,” per se. That would be reductive and unfair. However, it is worth taking a closer look at which shows succeeded and which shows didn’t — and which shows landed somewhere in the middle — in the context of TV representation. There’s more programming than ever, and more opportunities than ever for creators of different backgrounds to reach an audience, whether it’s through their televisions, tablets, computer screens, cell phones or these days even their watches. So let’s dive in to see who made the cut with Emmy voters.
Almost half of the nominees for Best Comedy Series are focused on people of color: “Atlanta,” “Black-ish” and “Master of None.” It was an especially good year for “Atlanta” and “Master,” which not only received nominations in the top category, but also in various other creative fields. “Atlanta” follows a struggling music manager and his cousin’s burgeoning rap career, and it’s up for six awards total, including another three for star and producer Donald Glover (Comedy Actor, Comedy Writing, Comedy Directing), plus a second bid for Comedy Writing (for Stephen Glover, Donald Glover’s brother), and one for Best Comedy Casting.
“Master of None” is in its second year at the Emmys, and not only did it do well, it doubled its nominations total. Aziz Ansari stars as Dev, a New York City actor, and the show often directly addresses Dev’s Indian and Muslim heritage. This year it’s nominated for eight awards, up from four last year. Among those, Ansari is nominated again for acting, writing, directing and producing the series. He shares that writing nomination with his co-star Lena Waithe for the episode “Thanksgiving,” for which Angela Bassett contends for her guest performance.
There are a number of other actors of color nominated for their leading roles, including Sterling K. Brown (Drama Actor, “This is Us”), Viola Davis (Drama Actress, “How to Get Away with Murder”), Anthony Anderson (Comedy Actor, “Black-ish”), Tracee Ellis Ross (Comedy Actress, “Black-ish”) and Riz Ahmed (Movie/Mini Actor, “The Night Of”), and several more had breakthroughs in supporting categories, including Ron Cephas Jones (Drama Supporting Actor, “This is Us”), Leslie Jones (Comedy Supporting Actress, “Saturday Night Live”), Thandie Newton (Drama Supporting Actress, “Westworld”) and Samira Wiley (Drama Supporting Actress, “The Handmaid’s Tale”), to name just a few.
But it’s not just in scripted categories where we see advances. W. Kamau Bell explores race in America in “United Shades of America,” which is nominated for the second time for Best Unstructured Reality Program and earned Bell a breakthrough nom for Best Reality Host alongside another first-time nominee, Snoop Dogg (“Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party”) and returning champ RuPaul Charles (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”).
Ava DuVernay earned an Oscar nomination for her documentary “13th” about mass incarceration in the US and its historic ties to slavery. Now that doc is among the most nominated nonfiction programs of the year with eight total bids, including three for DuVernay as a writer, director and producer. Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning documentary series “O.J.: Made in America” by Ezra Edelman is up for six awards including Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking and Best Nonfiction Directing.
The Emmys continue to have a significant blind spot where it concerns Latinx shows and performers. Lin-Manuel Miranda earned a bid for hosting “Saturday Night Live,” but two shows concerning Hispanic families — “Jane the Virgin” and “One Day at a Time” — earned hardly any nominations despite widespread acclaim. “Jane” was shut out entirely, while “One Day” is only up for its picture editing — even legendary EGOT champ Rita Moreno couldn’t get in.
One could also include “Sense8” in that category; it’s one of the most internationally diverse shows on TV, and one of its leading roles is a Mexican movie star struggling to balance his career and his sexuality, played by Spanish actor Miguel Angel Silvestre. “Sense8” received just a single nomination for its cinematography.
“Sense8” also features major Asian characters, as does the similarly under-recognized family sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” which focuses on a Taiwanese family and is still without an Emmy nomination after three seasons despite consistent critical praise for its star Constance Wu.
Also missing in action are “Insecure” and “Dear White People,” both shut out of the nominations. Even Barry Jenkins couldn’t earn a nomination — he directed a pivotal episode of “Dear White People” — despite still basking in the afterglow of his film “Moonlight” winning Best Picture.
Some shows seemed to be up and down at the same time. “Mr. Robot” dropped out of Best Drama Series and Best Drama Actor (Rami Malek, the reigning champ), and its creator Sam Esmail was left out of writing and directing categories. That show, however, had a divisive second season, and it did still manage to pick up a handful of bids including a first ever nomination for BD Wong for Best Drama Guest Actor.
The aforementioned “Black-ish” got into top categories, but it was expected to increase its nominations total this year and only added one extra nomination for guest actress Wanda Sykes. Series co-creator Kenya Barris was considered an especially strong contender for Best Comedy Writing and Best Comedy Directing for the episode “Lemons,” which examined how the show’s black family responded to the election of Donald Trump.
In the longform categories, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” did make the cut for Best TV Movie, but that’s its only nomination. Director George C. Wolfe and star Oprah Winfrey were overlooked.
Come to think of it, when you consider Winfrey’s snub alongside “Jane the Virgin,” “One Day at a Time,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Insecure” and “Dear White People,” it does appear that many of this year’s disappointments specifically befell women of color. This year’s success stories included a number of men (“Atlanta,” “Master of None,” “The Night Of”). But while female-driven shows like “The Crown,” “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “Big Little Lies,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Veep” cleaned up, shows about women of color generally didn’t share in that bounty. That may be an issue worth considering as we head into the next Emmy season.