The Upside Down of “Stranger Things” became an apt metaphor for this divisive year, and, maybe not so strangely, “Stranger Things,” along with several other Best Drama Emmy contenders, offered unifying themes to combat the forces of oppression, hate, and turmoil.
These included “Westworld,” “The Crown,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Feud: Bette and Joan,” and “Big Little Lies.” And, not surprisingly, they all offered stellar craftsmanship in support of their unifying themes.
Showrunner Peter Morgan told IndieWire that his biggest takeaway has been the realization of the necessary bond between the monarchy and Parliament. “Sometimes the monarchy screws up and sometimes the politicians screw up,” he said. “And it takes one or the other to fix the problem.”
In Season 1, that unity is forged between young Queen Elizabeth II (nominated Claire Foy) and that old war horse, Prime Minister Winston Churchill (nominated John Lithgow). Together, they help Great Britain endure the challenges of the post-war, mid-century world. In terms of nominated crafts (including production designer Martin Childs, cinematographer Adriano Goldman, costume designer Michele Clapton, and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams) that meant contrasting public and private moments to humanize them, keying on Morgan’s sense of dramatic movement and sharp dialogue.
“Big Little Lies”
Director Jean-Marc Vallée turned Monterey into the visual metaphor for the insecurity, fear, and anger hidden beneath the surface of this incisive dramedy. It centers around three struggling moms (nominated Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley) and the natural and architectural beauty are part of the lies that sustain their community.
For nominated cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who changed his normal routine of shooting strictly on location with natural light, it was about making minor adjustments on studio sets so it all blended perfectly. Because getting truth in available light was still very important.
“Feud: Bette and Joan”
Old Hollywood had a tough time staying relevant in the ’60s, exemplified by the fierce rivalry between Bette Davis (nominated Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (nominated Jessica Lange) in the chilly “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” But for showrunner Ryan Murphy, beneath the fear, jealousy, and contempt, was an undeniable sadness. The Hollywood machine manipulated these two aging stars and they had more in common than they realized.
And it’s the collision of their personal styles (the casual Davis and the always glam Crawford) that comes across so well in the nominated work of production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Lou Eyrich, and hairstyling of Chris Clark, Ralph Michael Abalos, Wendy Southard, and Helena Cepeda. This includes double duty on the making of “Baby Jane” as well. Also, the nominated retro score and main title design by Mac Quayle and Murphy, respectively, suggest the sadness behind the survival, too.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Margaret Atwood’s totalitarian Gilead was eerily timed for Trump’s America, and Reed Morano, the cinematographer-turned director, established the palette of the color-coded dystopia with nominated cinematographer Colin Watkinson and costume designer Ane Crabtree. The color red, worn by the Handmaids, became the key visual component, symbolic of both menstrual blood and political rage.
And Watkinson played off the gray, neutral environments to create Vermeer-like imagery. He used atmosphere to create depth in the frame, and would light from outside the room. It was a visceral way of highlighting the red and teal dresses worn by the Commander’s Wives.
The Duffer Brothers created a sensation with “Stranger Things.” It was very much an ’80s homage to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. They captured just the right lived in sense of suburbia for their fictional Indiana town called Hawkins (shot in Atlanta), and their scary Upside Down became a real-life “Dungeons and Dragons.”
The challenge was coming up with something more than pastiche, and the Duffers succeeded, aiding by nominated crafts work from production designer Chris Trujillo, cinematographer Tim Ives, editors Dean Zimmerman and Kevin Ross, music supervisor Nora Felder, and main title theme by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, among others.
In their brilliant re-imagining of Michael Crichton’s adult theme park, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy wisely took a more graphic and philosophical approach to A.I. The brutal sex and violence definitely tapped a cultural nerve, resulting in an Emmy-leading 12 craft nominations. It was about beauty and ugliness in this collision of sci-fi and the western.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Paul Cameron’s nominated cinematography for the opener was shot on 35mm film to capture an organic feel in contrasting the theme park’s slick western town with the sterile multi-level, glass-infused programming center. This also benefited Nathan Crowley’s nominated production design of the western town at Melody Ranch and Zack Grobler’s Pacific Design Center-inspired programming center, also nominated, as well as costume design nominee Trish Summerville’s colorful western costumes and futuristic look of the employees.