Emmy mystery: ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Westworld’ will show us if Emmy’s sci-fi/fantasy curse is really broken

Remember when awards pundits like us used to talk about the sci-fi/fantasy curse at the Emmys? The television and motion picture academies have both had a longstanding bias against genre stories, perhaps considering them too outlandish, too young or too niche to be taken seriously as true art, but it’s harder to make that case at the Emmys after “Game of Thrones” won 24 awards in two years, including Best Drama Series twice in a row. But maybe “Thrones” is just the exception to the rule. We may find out this year once and for all: “Thrones” is out of competition since it won’t have any new episodes until after the June 1 eligibility cutoff. Two very different sci-fi/fantasy programs hope to take its place: “Stranger Things” and “Westworld.”

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“Stranger Things” debuted on Netflix last July and quickly became a watercooler hit for its homage to 1980s classics by storytelllers like Stephen King, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. In its first season it told the story of a boy who goes missing and the friends and family who search tirelessly for him, eventually tracking him to a parallel dimension. On paper this show should have an especially tough time appealing to Emmy voters since it’s not only about demons, but it’s also largely centered on a group of kids, and shows about children and teens also have trouble getting respect from the TV academy. That same one-two punch of fantasy stories and young characters was probably what staked “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at the Emmys way back when: voters thought it was kids’ stuff even while critics were constantly telling them it was one of TV’s best.

But TV industry groups have already had a chance to smack down “Stranger Things” for its youth appeal and subject matter, and instead they’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. It won Best TV Drama Ensemble at the SAG Awards. It was also nominated for Best Drama Directing at the Directors Guild Awards for its premiere episode, “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers.” It had two nominations from the Writers Guild: Best Drama Series and Best New Series. And it even won Best Drama at the Producers Guild Awards. Those are the same industry insiders who make up the TV academy, so we’ll see if “Stranger Things” can similarly overcome the Emmys’ biases.

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On the surface “Westworld” looks like a stronger bet for Emmy recognition. Yes, it’s about androids populating a Wild West theme park in the future, but it might be easier for voters to accept as prestige TV because of its pedigree. It was created by Oscar nominated writer Jonathan Nolan (“Memento”) and boasts a cast of A-list thespians including Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, Emmy and Tony wnner Jeffrey Wright, BAFTA winner Thandie Newton, Oscar nominee Ed Harris, and Emmy nominee Evan Rachel Wood. And like “Game of Thrones” it deals with heady themes and adult intrigues.

Like “Stranger Things,” “Westworld” has also been embraced by industry groups. It too was nominated for Best TV Drama Ensemble at the SAG Awards. It was also cited by the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and Producers Guild — in addition to many other industry craft guilds for its lavish production values. So the same industry that mostly turned up its nose at shows like “Buffy,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “True Blood” and the like has already welcomed this season’s menagerie of demons and robots with open arms.

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But can either show actually win? Despite the Emmy bias against sci-fi and fantasy, every once in a while a genre show has made it into the Best Drama Series lineup, including “Star Trek,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Quantum Leap,” “The X-Files” and even “True Blood,” but when it came time to picking the winners, voters returned to the kinds of grounded real-world dramas they were used to.

The first sci-fi trailblazer to actually win the top Emmy was “Lost” in 2005. That series told the story of a diverse group of castaways stranded on a mysterious island with mystical properties. It won Best Drama Series for its first season, but the TV academy was notoriously ambivalent about the show. As the Emmys started experimenting with voting procedures in the mid-2000s, including a short-lived runoff system in which episode submissions decided the nominees from a longlist of finalists, “Lost” found itself, well, lost. It was snubbed for the next two years before returning to the category in 2008-2010, but it never won the top award again.

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In the last few years the academy has again been experimenting with its procedures, but these changes have probably helped sci-fi and fantasy fare instead of hurting it. The academy recently switched to online voting. Two years ago it also expanded voting for the winners from small judging panels to an academy-wide vote of all eligible peer group members. And in 2016 it did away with its ranked balloting and replaced it with a straight plurality vote in which academy members just pick their one favorite instead of ranking the contenders in order of preference, and the nominee with the most votes wins.

Those changes might’ve helped “Game of Thrones,” and they might help sci-fi and fantasy shows like “Stranger Things” and “Westworld” this year. The reasons are popularity and youth. In the old days voters were forced to attend in-person judging panels and watch the episode submissions, which favored older academy members who had more time on their hands. At-home and online voting likely increased the participation of younger, more active, and more techno-friendly academy members, who aren’t scared away by dragons, monsters or magic. And switching from the small, mercurial panels to an industry-wide vote of all eligible peer group members means popularity, buzz and cool-factor are more important than ever. If everyone is watching your show, and critics and fans are rabidly discussing your show, you can now win an Emmy whether it stars doctors, cops, witches or space aliens — or in the case of “American Horror Story,” sometimes all of the above.

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But this new voting system hasn’t been around for very long, so time will tell if the Emmys will continue to embrace shows like “Stranger Things” and “Westworld,” or if “Game of Thrones” is just a fluke. This year Emmy voters could venture into another strange new world, or they could go back to the down-to-earth royals (“The Crown”), lawyers (“Better Call Saul”), politicians (“House of Cards”) or spies (“The Americans”) that they’re used to.

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Be sure to make your Emmy predictions. Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our Emmy odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on July 13. And join in the fierce debate over the 2017 Emmys taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our TV forums.

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