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Winter TV Awards: With FX in Flux, Can ‘Mrs. America’ Break Through?

With "Watchmen" out of the way, it's finally time for "Mrs. America" to shine.

MRS. AMERICA -- "Betty" --Episode 4 (Airs April 22) Pictured:   Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America”

Sabrina Lantos / FX

For the first time in ages, it doesn’t seem like the best year to be FX.

Constructed under the watchful eye of John Landgraf, Chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions, the network developed a murderer’s row of projects that allowed them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the Emmy Awards with TV’s heaviest hitters, including HBO and Netflix. And while FX was less successful translating nominations into wins, there was nevertheless a feeling that the network often had arguably the best roster of shows on TV in any given year, with “The Americans,” “Atlanta,” “Better Things,” and a glut of Ryan Murphy programming filling its ranks.

But 2020 has been a strange beast for the network, which has seen its programming turned upside down with the introduction of FX on Hulu. In 2019, Disney acquired 20th Century Fox for $71 billion and, in the process, gained control of the entirety of FX’s catalog of content, as well as a majority share of Hulu, turning a host of former competitors into kissing cousins. In the aftermath of the transition, FX on Hulu was announced, which would feature dozens of FX’s best programming through the years on Hulu, as well as new FX series that would exist only on Hulu, including Alex Garland’s “Devs” and the Cate Blanchett-starring limited series “Mrs. America.” So, high-profile shows that were from FX and developed by FX never aired on FX because they were only available on Hulu — which in this case wasn’t Hulu and was, in fact, FX on Hulu, even though these programs remained, in the end, FX shows.

What could go wrong?

None of this appears to be FX’s fault, but rather a consequence of the fog of war that feels as though it has subsumed the network since the Disney acquisition. As it stands, it’s not as though the quality of FX programming has precipitously dropped, but rather that the future looks a little hazy.

Here’s how that shakes out with regards to the Winter TV Awards.

The network’s best bet with regard to significant awards traction comes in the form of “Mrs. America,” a dynamite limited series centered around Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, and the campaign to stop and/or pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Witty and winsome, “Mrs. America” is packed to the gills with talent, from the aforementioned Blanchett, to Rose Byrne as Steinem, Uzo Aduba — who won an Emmy for her efforts — as Shirley Chisholm, as well as character actress ringers in Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and Sarah Paulson, among others.

“Mrs. America” likely would have taken the Emmy Awards by storm had it not been steamrolled by HBO’s “Watchmen” a brilliant treatise on race and violence in America that only proved more and more prescient as the year unfolded. But “Watchmen” aired in 2019, making it ancient history (i.e. ineligible) in the eyes of the Winter TV Awards and leaving a huge gap that “Mrs. America” is more than ready to fill.

Better Things Season 4 Finale Pamela Adlon

Pamela Adlon and Olivia Edward in “Better Things”

Suzanne Tenner / FX

Beyond the limited series, though, FX doesn’t have the strongest slate of contenders. While “Better Things” has heartfelt critical acclaim, Pamela Adlon’s incisive look into the lives of women, family, and Los Angeles has never garnered the attention it deserved from awards bodies. Despite talk that the show’s fourth season, which aired earlier this year, may indeed be its finest — IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers named it his No. 1 series of 2020 — the show’s wholesale disappearance from Emmy nominations suggests that it’s unlikely to be suddenly embraced by organizations that have been overlooking it from the start.

“What We Do in the Shadows” has a shot at gaining momentum in the months to come, having stepped up in a big way for its second season, which was in turn reflected in eight Emmy nominations. With three of those nominations coming for writing, it seems almost assured the series will earn a nod with the Writers Guild.

And then there’s “Fargo,” which aired the final episode of its fourth iteration at the end of November, but seemed to disappear into the ether as soon as it appeared, like a stone slipping into a pond with nary a ripple. Blame it on the final weeks (months?) of an as-yet ongoing election news cycle, coupled with a new wave of the virus that ate 2020, “Fargo” never managed to make the waves, for better or worse, of previous seasons.

Perhaps most concerning about FX’s awards contenders is a distinct lack of new programming. While the network scored a ratings hit with comedy “Dave” and some critical acclaim for “Devs,” other prestige plays didn’t spur the affection or attention of previous years, with both “A Teacher” and “Black Narcissus” largely dead on arrival.

Anyone can have an off year, especially this year. Let’s hope FX has better things ahead.

[The Winter TV Awards Preview will be updated each week with fresh analysis of a new network. Take a look at past entries below.]

December 1 Update: Apple TV+

Ted Lasson Jason Sudeikis Brendan Hunt Nick Mohammed Apple TV+

Nick Mohammed, Jason Sudeikis, and Brendan Hunt in “Ted Lasso”

Apple TV+

Thanksgiving is now firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re headed full steam ahead into the holiday season and the start of the Winter TV Awards season in earnest. With that in mind, there’s little doubt what Apple TV+ is thankful for as 2020 comes to a close.

“Ted Lasso” seems like the gift that keeps on giving for the streamer, now entering its second year of existence. Inspired by a series of promos for Premier League football — soccer to us brutish Americans — airing on NBC Sports, the series centers around its titular character (Jason Sudeikis), a college (American) football coach from Kansas who takes a job coaching an English Premier League team, unaware that his hiring is predicated on the assumption that he would tank the franchise.

Developed by Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt (who also appears in the series as Coach Beard), and Joe Kelly, “Ted Lasso” is Apple TV+’s first unequivocal hit, appealing to critics and audiences alike, as buzz for the series has only grown since its debut in mid-August. The secret to the show’s success appears to exist in its messaging, which leans hard into hope and espouses positivity and kindness at every turn.

But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops for Team Lasso. Characters face very grounded struggles familiar to anyone in their late thirties or early forties, issues around divorce and relationships, parenting and aging, professional fulfillment and success. While early episodes present Lasso in almost cartoonish fashion, Sudeikis quickly pulls him back from the brink and stabilizes the character in vital fashion.

“Ted Lasso” is about sports in the way “Friday Night Lights” is about sports, which is largely in name only. What the Apple TV+ show is really concerned with is how adults build friendships as they age and rebuilding support systems rather than wandering alone through the wilderness. Considering Lawrence’s TV track record, which includes ABC’s “Cougar Town” and NBC (then ABC’s) “Scrubs,” the focus on heartfelt adult relationships in “Ted Lasso” comes as no surprise, just as Sudeikis’ warm-but-nuanced portrayal of Lasso seems effortless for the actor who spent most of his childhood growing up in Kansas.

Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery

Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery in “Defending Jacob”

Apple TV+

This buzz, which is so, so difficult to cultivate this year, feels organic and invaluable to Apple TV+’s awards hopes after an underwhelming Emmy season saw the streamer take home a single award out of 18 nominations. As flashy and star-laden as “The Morning Show” was, it never appeared to evoke the impassioned response it needed to thrive.

At this juncture, Sudeikis and the series seem like surefire nominations at the Golden Globes, in addition to potentially breaking through at the Writers Guild Awards, among other accolades throughout the upcoming season.

But with all that in mind, what other shows could the platform have in contention when nominations are announced?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of other shows with breakthrough potential amidst the admittedly limited offerings of Apple TV+. Those series available during last year’s November launch are ineligible for the upcoming awards and others, like “Dickinson,” won’t return until next year. Meanwhile shows including “Defending Jacob,” “Little Voice,” and even “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” with its amazing quarantine episode don’t seem as though they have the momentum to make a strong showing in the coming months.

Still, there’s always “Ted Lasso,” the show that Apple TV+ is so confident in that it’s renewed not just for a second season, but also a third, indicating that they have high hopes (and high expectations) for the series moving forward. We’ll see how quickly that investment pays off in the weeks to come.

November 24 Update: HBO

Lovecraft Country HBO cast

“Lovecraft Country”

HBO

It’s Thanksgiving week and if you’re HBO, with a perpetually deep bench for prestige TV players, you always have something to be thankful for. But what makes the elite awards player particularly interesting as we head into the Winter TV Awards season is that its 2020 slate seems to lack a shoo-in contender to lead the charge.

“Game of Thrones” is long gone, but HBO still cobbled together a wildly successful year at the Emmys, taking home 30 awards total, including big prizes in limited series for “Watchmen” and drama series for “Succession.” But despite their September celebration, there doesn’t appear to be a single series that has simultaneously garnered widespread critical acclaim while also capturing the cultural imagination.

Still, like any competitor, all it takes is one big night at an awards ceremony to change a show’s fortunes, so let’s look at the most likely routes for HBO to find accolades in the months to come.

The best place to start is in limited series, where HBO has a secret weapon tucked away in Michaela Coel’s searing  “I May Destroy You.” Generally considered one of the best shows that 2020 had to offer, the stark examination of consent and trauma stayed with viewers long after the series, as all the most haunting art does. The subject matter might seem like a barrier to entry with awards body, but Coel is the kind of talent that groups should be falling over themselves to celebrate. The multi-hyphenate has already been roundly fêted on her home turf in the United Kingdom, winning the BAFTA Award for Best Female Comedy Performance in 2016 for her first series, “Chewing Gum,” and it’s reasonable and right that her success should finally the transatlantic leap.

That said, if voting bodies feel less bound by critical consensus, there’s always a chance that HBO scores in limited series with the less-acclaimed but considerably higher profile limited series “The Undoing.” Reuniting “Big Little Lies” collaborators David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman, the series follows Grace Fraser (Kidman) as her seemingly perfect life spirals out of control after a mysterious death. Directed by Susanne Bier and co-starring Hugh Grant, the show falls short of greatness but scratches an itch for people longing to see Hollywood stars mired in soapy circumstances.

Matthew Rhys

Matthew Rhys in “Perry Mason”

HBO

In last week’s column we talked a little about Hulu’s dearth of drama contenders, and HBO faces a similar quandary in comedy. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Insecure” are always in the mix, but 2020 didn’t offer very many promising newcomers for the network to push.

Drama series, however, is another story.

HBO’s “Perry Mason” reboot, starring Matthew Rhys as the titular character, has already been renewed for a second season, a choice likely made on the back of solid reviews and strong ratings. It’s easy to get swept away by the lush visuals and note-perfect production design, suggesting that even if “Mason” can’t break through at the Golden Globes, it could definitely make some noise amidst the guild awards. Also, don’t completely count out a Rhys nomination at the Globes, where he was previously twice-nominated for “The Americans.”

All that considered, keep an eye on Misha Green’s “Lovecraft Country.” While not yet picked up for a second season, the series had strong reviews and even stronger ratings, nabbing 1.5 million viewers for the Season 1 finale last month. Focused on Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a young Black man traveling across a segregated America in the 1950s in search of his father, “Lovecraft” explores the horrors of racism and the terrors of Lovecraftian nightmare creatures, as well as the nightmarish reality of racism as Lovecraftian horrors. There’s certainly a lot to love within the series, assuming that voters aren’t stymied by the genre trappings of the show, which feels almost like this bizarro year made manifest on TV.

November 17 Update: Hulu

PEN15 -- "Pool" - Episode 201 -- Two days after the dance, Maya and Anna reluctantly go to a lame pool party. A crush unexpectedly shows up, causing them to question their sanity and reputations. Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine), shown. (Photo by: Lara Solanki/Hulu)

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in “PEN15”

Lara Solanki / Hulu

With another week in the rearview mirror, let’s shift the Winter TV Awards race focus to another streaming service: Hulu.

Though Netflix and Hulu ostensibly play in the same paddling pool, the former releases so much content in any given year that it quickly becomes obvious what has the potential to become an awards contender and what just isn’t up to snuff. As for the latter, without breakout hits like “The Handmaid’s Tale” in contention — the ongoing Atwood adaptation hasn’t aired an episode since August 2019, making it ineligible for this season’s awards — Hulu is left holding a grab bag of shows, some of which could hit, many of which might miss — and all of which deserve some kind of consideration in the coming awards season.

First and foremost amongst Hulu contenders is second season comedy “Ramy.” Created by and starring Ramy Youssef, the series follows a first-generation American Muslim-Arab as he navigates socio-political and cultural challenges as he works out how he fits into the world at large. Though the series didn’t see the leap in Emmy recognition many were hoping for, it did score three significant nominations, two for Youssef, one for acting and another for directing, and one for supporting actor in a comedy for two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who joined the show for its second season.

“Ramy” remains in contention this winter in no small part because the Golden Globes is where the series saw its first significant breakthrough in the awards scene, with Youssef winning actor in a comedy or musical for his work in the first season. If the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is still feeling the love — which it might, as the organization has nominated Ali for film roles twice in the last three years — the show could be a major player when the time comes.

Speaking of comedy, Hulu has plenty of other players just waiting in the wings. Consider “The Great,” which premiered earlier this year and featured the comedic talents of Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult and vaguely centered on the adventures and ascension of Catherine the Great.

Elle Fanning Nicholas Hoult The Great

“The Great”

Hulu

Created by Tony McNamara, who previously won acclaim via royal absurdity with an Oscar nomination for penning the screenplay for “The Favourite,” the series nabbed two significant Emmy nominations, in writing and directing respectively, and seemed on the precipice for more had momentum for the series hit sooner. It’s a big, splashy series that’s easy to get lost in and the kind of show where, if viewers like it, they love it.

As for other Hulu comedy players, it’s a fact too often overlooked that the streaming service has one of TV’s best comedies currently running. Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, “PEN15” stars Erskine and Konkle as teenage versions of themselves surrounded by actual teenagers and exploring some of the most trying times of their lives as they were in 2000.

Despite it’s skepticism-inducing premise, the “PEN15” concept forces audiences to relive all the trauma and hilarity of adolescence, but with a newfound pathos for their own awkward existences. It’s embarrassing, yes, but simultaneously delightful and tragic. But maybe most importantly, it’s extremely funny. Any awards show worth its salt should find a way to honor the storytelling innovation utilized by the series, which dropped the first seven episodes of its second season in September.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games on Hulu. There’s also plenty of room for contemplative and gorgeous limited series offerings, the likes of which Emmy voters found in Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel “Normal People.” A coming-of-age story that encompasses class and sex and friendship and love, all within the confines of a beautiful Irish backdrop, critics and audiences were bewitched by the series, which scored nominations for writing, directing, casting, as well as lead actor in a limited series for Paul Mescal at the Emmys against ridiculously stiff competition.

Competition in limited series continues to grow by the day, but “Normal People” deserves to be a player in all categories.

Plus, Hulu also has the limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” which was adapted from the Celeste Ng novel of the same name. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as mothers at odds, the series received a solid critical response and five Emmy nominations to boot, suggesting it could be a contender with upcoming awards. If anything stands in its way, it could be the HBO offering and Nicole Kidman vehicle “The Undoing,” as it’s currently unclear how many former “Big Little Lies” stars now starring in other melodramatic limited series can be simultaneously nominated without knocking each other out.

November 10 Update: Netflix

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Wrotham Park

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher

Des Willie/Netflix

California unceremoniously made the leap to winter last week with about as much grace and foresight as the Trump White House transition team, bringing to mind the chilly red carpets and rained out FYC events of years past, all of which served as hallmarks of TV’s other awards season.

With the Emmys firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time for the Golden Globes and its ilk to shine, offering insight into the best that TV had to offer over the last year, using a slightly different lens — specifically, a working calendar that structures its eligibility from January 1 to December 31, as opposed to the Emmy Awards’ eligibility timeline of June 1 to May 31.

While that’s the predominant difference between Emmy season and the Winter TV Awards season, there are plenty of other distinctions which make the latter a robust and entirely different animal from the former, not the least of which is the elevated number of awards distributed by specialty organizations and guild groups. Who better to discern the highest caliber work the industry has to offer than those working every day in the trenches?

And so, it’s the perfect time to start checking in on the state of the race(s) that will populate the calendar through next April — just in time to switch our focus back to the Emmys.

This week, critics are buzzing about Netflix’s “The Crown,” so let’s take a look at the streaming giant’s top series. A longtime awards favorite, the series drops its fourth season on November 15 and early reviews are positive — consistent with the show’s marks for previous seasons. For some, including IndieWire Executive Editor Ann Donahue, Season 4 serves as a high water mark for the series, in no small part thanks to some key performances introduced this year.

“With the addition of [Margaret] Thatcher, played to gritty, galling Iron Lady perfection by Gillian Anderson, and Diana [Spencer], a near-impossible role that Emma Corrin makes look effortless without descending into hagiography, ‘The Crown’ gives a riveting look at a decade that codified callous excess in the characters’ public and private lives,” Donahue wrote in her review.

This makes for great odds at the Golden Globes, where the series has seen six nominations for its actors over the previous three seasons, as well as wins for each Queen Elizabeth to date — Claire Foy in 2017 and Olivia Colman earlier this year. It remains unclear if Corrin can make a big enough splash as Princess Diana to breakthrough in the Supporting Actress category at the Golden Globes, in large part because so much of her competition will be coming from her co-stars. Not only was Helena Bonham Carter nominated for her work as Princess Margaret at the Globes for Season 3 — her eighth career HFPA nomination — Anderson also has her own glittering reputation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, having earned five previous nominations and one win.

Ozark Season 3 Netflix Jason Bateman Laura Linney ending

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in “Ozark”

Courtesy of Netflix

Where “The Crown” continues to thrive, however, another Netflix drama contender appears to be flagging. After a disappointing Emmys performance, things have been pretty quiet with regard to buzz for “Ozark.” Despite receiving its best critical reception to date for Season 3 of the series, only scoring one Emmy win out of 18 nominations was a devastating blow for the series. At a point when chatter about any series that debuted outside of the last six weeks is practically non-existent, it’s not a great position for any show released in early 2020 to be in, but particularly painful for “Ozark,” given that just months ago, it seemed primed to make the leap to the next level of prestige TV shows.

But the streaming giant does have another queen lurking in the background and positioning itself to be crowned in future months: limited series “The Queen’s Gambit.” An adaptation of the 1983 eponymous novel by Walter Tevis, the series follows an orphan chess prodigy (a fascinating Anya Taylor-Joy) in the 1950s attempting to become the world’s greatest chess player. Though high drama in the world of chess might not seem like it would make for riveting television, the series is luxuriant and bewitching, finding a way to derive stakes from the protagonist’s inner journey in ways that lesser shows regularly fail.

Much like “The Crown,” the lush production values mean that “The Queen’s Gambit” could be a regular player throughout awards season, with all eyes on Taylor-Joy whose performance deserves all the accolades it can get.

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