There’s a trend, that started with franchise blockbusters a decade ago and has been picked up in the world of TV, where studios associate size and scope with large budgets. Not that long ago it was not a source of pride how over-budget “Waterworld” went, or that Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” was sprawled over multiple stages and became Fox’s most expensive show ever.
Now HBO and Netflix want you to know their world-building shows push the cinematic boundaries of peak TV with a spare-no-expense attitude toward production values, and as a result are able to pad its Emmy nomination totals with a wide assortment of craft categories.
Epic fantasy, period and sci-fi world-building become easy boxes to check off for flagship series like “Westworld” (14 BTL noms), “Game of Thrones” (11 BTL noms), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (9 BTL noms), “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (9 BTL noms), “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (7 BTL noms), and “The Crown” (7 BTL noms). Netflix, in particular, has learned to master the craft nomination game, picking up an additional 24 BTL nominations for “Stranger Things” (7), “Glow” (7), “Godless” (6), and the “USS Callister” (4) episode of “Black Mirror.”
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Maybe the best evidence of this trend is the lack of nominations — zero, to be exact — AMC received for “The Terror.” The network is associated with the more intimate type of storytelling audiences used to find in the arthouse movie theaters, while also bringing the best of low-budget horror filmmaking to the small screen. AMC’s brand is definitely quality, but not scale.
Meanwhile, “The Terror” filmmaking team went out of their way to demystify how they reproduced the treacherous, supernatural journey of a mid-19th-century expedition to find the Northwest Passage on a Romanian soundstage. One would think that seeing the same team that brought Mars to life on the big screen (“The Martian,” directed by “The Terror” producer Ridley Scott) bring their ingenious use of green screen and visual effects to TV would be worthy of craft recognition, but it maybe seemed too basic in a world where “Game of Thrones” takes weeks to shoot a battle scene and “The Crown” hopscotches from castle to castle.
It is also hard to catch Emmy nomination attention when shooting on a realistic, modern setting. Case in point, not even Netflix could help voters see the incredible craft that goes into “Dear White People,” which also got completely shut out. While Winchester looks like a present-day elite university, its rich palette of color, expressive lighting, and camera, along with the most sophisticated use of sound and music design this side of David Lynch, were just as worthy of recognition as noir-ish “Barry” and haunting “Teddy Perkins” episode of “Atlanta” — both shows receiving a well-earned seven BTL nominations.
Speaking of Lynch and “Teddy Perkins,” it was a pleasant surprise to see the Emmys recognize the most ambitious — albeit bizarre — filmmaking of the year. Lynch’s use of sound and production design is at the heart of his cinematic genius; that he was able to bring the same level of craft to 18 hours of TV that he brings to a two-hour movie is without a doubt one of the biggest accomplishments of the last year. “Twin Peaks: The Return” was also awarded for cinematography, hair and make-up, editing, and Lynch’s direction.
Meanwhile, a large percentage of “Atlanta” nominations were the result of one of the most gutsy half-hours of TV ever. Breaking the wonderfully stylized world of “Atlanta,” “Teddy Perkins” was its own self-contained, creepy adventure that the Academy rewarded with nominations for production design, editing, sound editing, cinematography, and direction. The series principal director Hiro Murai got the nod for “Teddy Perkins,” but will be going up against his boss, Donald Glover, who also got a directing nomination for the “FUBU” episode. Talented “Atlanta” cinematographer Christian Sprenger will be going up against himself, receiving a nomination for “Glow” in addition to his work on “Teddy Perkins.”
It’s fantastic that TV also recognizes the craft of nonfiction filmmaking. The late, great Anthony Bourdain brought his love of cinema to his food journeys in “Parts Unknown” in ways that were as innovative as they were emotionally effective. “Parts Unknown” received nominations in cinematography, editing, sound editing, and mixing, something that one could imagine making Bourdain more proud that the show itself being nominated. Meanwhile, after being a surprise Oscar snub, Brett Morgan’s “Jane” received seven nominations, including four in craft categories.