With a central premise that merged the hallmarks of classic sitcoms with the excitement and superheroics we’ve come to associate with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “WandaVision” was a pleasant surprise when it debuted earlier this year on Disney+. Starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as their Marvel characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision, respectively, the high-concept series used the sitcom format to tell an emotionally resonant story about trauma and grief while setting the stage for the next phase of the MCU. It was unlike anything we’d seen before — and anything we’re likely to ever see again — and while many fans had high hopes the show would be rewarded for its uniqueness come Emmy time, no one saw the show’s double-digit nominations coming.
The one-and-done series received 23 nominations, including a bid for Best Limited Series and acting noms for Olsen and Bettany in lead and Kathryn Hahn in supporting. The show took home three awards during the Creative Arts Emmys, including Best Original Music and Lyrics for the uber-catchy “Agatha All Along.” But during the 73rd Primetime Emmys on Sunday, the series failed to win a single award, proving once again that Emmy voters might like to pretend they like fun, high-concept genre shows (see also: “The Mandalorian”), but that when it comes down to it, they’ll always revert to what they deem safe and familiar in the end.
Now, it’s not as if pundits and fans expected “WandaVision” to dominate the evening. HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” and Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” — two programs that are much more in line with the traditional shows voters tend to love — were the favorites to win limited series; the latter prevailed and also took directing, which it was predicted to win as well. Meanwhile, “WandaVision” would have needed to overcome triple vote-splitting to triumph in the writing category over Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You.” But Hahn had long been the frontrunner in the race for supporting actress thanks to her scene-stealing performance as Agatha Harkness and was the show’s best chance of winning an above-the-line category. In the end she was bested by Julianne Nicholson of “Mare of Easttown.”
Like Hahn, Nicholson is a well-regarded actress who has been overlooked for her work for too long, and her performance on the limited series was equally deserving of accolades. So it’s hard to argue Emmy voters were somehow wrong to award her over Hahn. But it does add yet more evidence to support the argument that dramatic performances will always have the edge over comedic ones in the limited series categories, which are not separated by genre (it’s a similar problem to Oscar voters preferring dramas over comedies).
Nicholson’s win early in the evening set the stage for the small-town murder mystery, which became the show that unified TV watchers after “WandaVision” wrapped up, to sweep the three acting categories in which it was nominated. But it wasn’t exactly a surprise when former winner Kate Winslet, who needs only a Tony Award to complete her EGOT, beat Olsen (and Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”) for lead actress. However, the fact “Mare” didn’t have a contender in the lead actor race was good news for Bettany, who revealed his acting range and the humanity in Vision and was thus the favorite in an open category once Ethan Hawke (“The Good Lord Bird”) failed to earn a nomination.
Ultimately, Bettany was beaten by Ewan McGregor, a well-known film star who won for his portrayal of the eponymous fashion designer of Netflix’s “Halston,” a series that bombed with critics and was a far cry from being a “watercooler show” that category presenter Taraji P. Henson kept going on about when it premiered in May. His triumph is not entirely dissimilar to Mark Ruffalo winning the category in 2020 for “I Know This Much Is True,” a series that also was under-watched but starred a familiar face. So why, exactly, was McGregor able to triumph over Bettany and the rest of the field, which also included Hugh Grant (“The Undoing,” which was a watercooler show) and two men from “Hamilton?”
It’s simple, really: Emmy voters don’t like genre shows. They have long overlooked them outside of the technical and craft categories. And despite what some would have you believe, the Emmy success of ”Game of Thrones” was a fluke, the result of the show’s overwhelming global popularity coinciding with the end of previous Emmy darlings like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and the establishment of the current popular vote system. When you actually look at the Emmy record of the show’s sprawling cast, you’ll find that Peter Dinklage was the only actor to triumph for his performance despite a long list of acting nominations that the show received throughout its eight-season run. This tells us that while the show was able to win a record-tying four times in the drama series category, which is voted on by every member, the acting branch of the TV academy was never really on board. Still, many TV fans had hoped that “Thrones’” success would lead to Emmy voters being more accepting of genre series. And it has, at least in terms of nominations.
While “WandaVision” earned 23 nominations, the Disney+ “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian” picked up 24 and has been nominated twice now for Best Drama Series. Meanwhile, Giancarlo Esposito nabbed a nomination for supporting actor this year (though that could also be leftover goodwill from his “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” performances) and Timothy Olyphant and Carl Weathers were shortlisted in guest. “The Mandalorian” has won 14 Emmys from 39 nominations, but none at the main ceremony. Elsewhere, Amazon’s fun, violent superhero series “The Boys” was nominated for Best Drama Series alongside HBO’s horror series “Lovecraft Country,” which earned acting bids for stars Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Michael K. Williams, Jonathan Majors and Courtney B. Vance (the last of whom won for drama guest actor).
This type of recognition is far more than shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Battlestar Galactica” ever received during their respective runs. But until Emmy voters follow through and award genre programs and their actors for their work, these nominations will always feel hollow. They’re just further proof that Emmy voters haven’t changed all that much over the years. While they want to appear as if they’ve evolved and become more open to science-fiction, fantasy and superhero programs, they haven’t. And if “WandaVision,” which captured the zeitgeist in a way no superhero show has done before thanks to its out-of-the-box concept and truly excellent performances, can’t win a single award at the Primetime Emmys, what hope do any of the other shows have?
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