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Emmys: Even With ‘Atlanta,’ The Comedy Category is Still Frustratingly Resistant to Change

With a chance to give more of the categories' nominees to boundary-pushing comedies, the Emmys doubled down on the past.

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As the Emmy nominations were announced on Thursday morning, one of the boldest new entries into this year’s awards race signaled the future of an entire category. “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s groundbreaking FX comedy, picked up 6 nominations overall, including nods for Glover as lead actor and the series itself.

“Atlanta” was a heavy favorite — both at sites like Gold Derby and in IndieWire’s own prediction pages — to nab one of the best comedy series category’s six spots. The Academy recognized the show for writing and directing, not just tossing it a solitary comedy series nom. Episodes as disparate as “Streets on Lock” (where Glover’s Earn spends time in county jail) and “B.A.N.” (a surreal episode-length glimpse into programming on an imaginary cable channel) only come from a fully executed vision that has the freedom to change from week to week.

“Atlanta” wasn’t as easy as sell as something like “Veep” that has a more conventional, laugh-heavy central performance to help guide the audience (and lends itself easier to a clip reel). Though Glover is definitely the main character of the show, his role is varied — he’s even missing from one episode entirely. Even with a strong sense of Earn, Van and the show’s inner circle, so much of the show’s success is dependent on tone and atmosphere. It’s a forward-thinking nomination, but one in a category where those are still disappointingly hard to come by.

READ MORE: 2017 Emmy Nominations List: ‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Westworld’ Nominated for Best Drama Series

Recognizing “Atlanta” as the sole newcomer in a crowded 2017 comedy field, it made sense that this nomination would come at the expense of one of the Best Comedy Series category mainstays: “Modern Family.” The ABC sitcom has been an Emmys juggernaut for most of its time on the air, winning the whole thing in each of its first five seasons and remaining in the mix over its last two. But the series has faded, both in quality and awards momentum. Surprisingly, the show cracked the upper echelon for the eighth time, and it did so at the expense of “Transparent.”

The success of Jill Soloway’s Amazon series in recent years wasn’t just a signal of the network’s staying power in the scripted programming sphere, it was a signal that the academy was willing to recognize a show that diverged from the conventional beats and arcs that used to define TV comedies. There’s a formal freedom that comes with the half hour, one that has injected real vibrancy into the comedy realm.

That the Academy only saw fit to nominate “Atlanta” in lieu of “Transparent” and not in the place of “Modern Family” is a disappointing signal that inventive, non-traditional comedy series still face being pushed to the side. Given the opportunity to recognize quality and ambition, the Emmys ignored the latter by largely rubber-stamping last year’s nominee list.

"Transparent"

Silicon Valley” just wrapped up a volatile season, filled with cast departures and some extreme role changes. Mike Judge and Alec Berg have found new ways to put Pied Piper through the ringer, but in many ways, it’s the same show that it was when it premiered. Though we’re confident that the show has a template to survive in season five, a repeat Best Comedy Series nomination for the show isn’t exactly a signal of exciting new creative voices.

In “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy will always have a shot with a voting body that kept “30 Rock” in its inner circle all the way to the end. With two excellent performances at its center, it’s another show that has found its creative groove and likely won’t deviate from it as long as Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess are locked in. Its continued nomination in future years will probably be a referendum on the relevancy of its stars and creators, rather than a consideration of the show’s year-to-year value.

In many ways, that’s how “Modern Family” has held on to its nominations in this category for so long. In its heyday, the show demonstrated its strength as an ensemble by overwhelming most of the Comedy performance categories. It was a testament to how well those early seasons found fresh ways to balance those disparate family threads. But, in recent years, as the show has struggled to replicate that formula, “Modern Family” sticking around is recognizing the series for its past rather than its present.

Compare its list of 2017 nominations with those of “Transparent.” A lone nomination for Ty Burrell compared to a laundry list of noteworthy recognition up and down the ballot (including well-deserved nominations for Kathyrn Hahn, Judith Light and Jim Frohna’s cinematography) shows that “Modern Family” getting a Comedy Series slot is either a way of keeping a spot at the table for broadcast or showing an unwillingness to reward a shifting comedy landscape.

If this is a move for self-preservation more than stubbornness, there were other, closer-to-traditional comedies from the network side that merited attention. The multi-nominated “black-ish” is now firmly in the category’s rotation, “The Good Place” proved that serialized comedy could be a creative success and “The Last Man on Earth” has been honored in the past. All are finding exciting ways to shake up what the idea of a 2017 sitcom can be.

READ MORE: Emmys 2017 Snubs and Surprises: ‘Transparent,’ ‘The Leftovers,’ and Pamela Adlon(!)

The bevy of nominations for “Master of None” — Lena Waithe and Angela Bassett! — does signal that at least one of these unconventional half-hour series has a shot at staying power. But as the focus now turns from nominees to the ceremony in September, it’s likely that in the race for the overall crown, this will likely be the third-place option for voters as “Atlanta” lines up against an increasingly familiar comedy face.

“Veep” remains the entrenched, reliable nominee it’s always been. Despite David Mandel’s ability to reposition the show’s mammoth ensemble, it may feel like a new show, but the same performers continue to be nominated. No nods for Timothy Simons or Sam Richardson this year, despite being the building blocks for this strange new version of D.C. “Veep” taking this category again wouldn’t be as unimaginative as that streak of “Modern Family” wins was, but given that things seem to be heading that way, it’s another instance of this category having difficulty looking forward.

If anything can shake this category, it’ll be next year. With “Atlanta” and “Master of None” having no guarantee for new seasons within the eligibility period, Best Comedy Series could be headed for the kind of shakeup its Drama counterpart felt. Let’s hope that next July, we’ll be able to celebrate the new life in the comedy world rather than being reminded of what’s been there for a while.

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