Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but there might be a slight problem with the phenomenon known as Peak TV.
With the announcement of the 2021 Emmy Awards nominations this morning, it became increasingly clear that when it comes to voting for television’s best of the best, the TV Academy watches what it watches, loves what it loves, and nominates those things as widely as it possibly can.
For some shows, that comes as a colossal boon. With regard to drama series, Netflix’s “The Crown,” Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” had 87 nominations between them.
Among limited series, Disney+’s “WandaVision,” Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” and HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” had 57 nominations collectively, to say nothing of the 35 nominations in Comedy categories between Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” and HBO Max’s “Hacks.”
Those are all shows the TV Academy clearly watched and loved. So much so that Supporting and Guest categories are flooded with mentions of these very same series over and over again. Take “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which scored nominations for O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Bradley Whitford, Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, and Samira Wiley — in Supporting categories alone. The same goes for “Ted Lasso” where Juno Temple, Hannah Waddingham, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, and Jeremy Swift all scored Supporting nods.
This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem, but it does feel like the exact opposite of what the platonic ideal of Peak TV is all about. The inherent brilliance of having hundreds upon hundreds of vibrant and anomalous shows populating the TV landscape is that, ideally, we’d see the very best parts of those series reflected in the Emmy nominations.
Of course, as it stands, this is little more than a pipe dream, as incentivizing 22,400 — give or take — TV Academy voters to watch as many of the hundreds — and hundreds — of eligible programs as possible is a fool’s errand.
But wouldn’t it be lovely all the same?
Instead, it seems as though the spread of nominations is contracting, rather than expanding. In each of the last three years, 12 shows have garnered 10 Emmy nominations or more. In 2019, those shows scored 196 nominations, in 2020, the shows nabbed 192, and this year that number jumped to 224 nominations.
Those numbers, however, don’t paint the entire picture without knowing approximately how many nominations were distributed each year. Two years ago, there were 649 nominations meted out, giving the top 12 shows a 30.2 percent share. Last year, total nominations numbered 628, with the top 12 taking a 30.7 percent share. But this year, a clear reflection of the ongoing pandemic, overall nominations were reduced to roughly 613 — “Celebrating America – An Inauguration Night Special” appeared on multiple platforms, so its two nominations were not included in the overall count — meaning that the top nominees received a whopping 36.5 percent of all available nominations.
While it’s possible that this jump is entirely due to a lack of submissions and/or more ineligible shows due to the pandemic, it feels probable that this is an issue that won’t be disappearing any time soon.
All that being said, a person can’t really blame TV Academy voters for having a limited scope in 2020 and 2021 of all years. The heart wants to binge what the heart wants to binge. That translated to good news for popcorn and feel-good shows.
“Ted Lasso” had long been the favorite for a slew of comedy series-related awards and the show delivered in spades. While in 2009, “30 Rock” set the record for the most nominations for a comedy series in a single year with 22, “Ted Lasso” found itself nipping at the iconic show’s heels nabbing 20 nominations this year, the most of any freshman comedy. It’s validation for a series that captured viewers minds and hearts in the midst of their pandemic viewing. With former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis starring as the good-natured center of the show’s lovable world, the success of “Ted Lasso” suggests that positivity is having a moment.
The same goes for TV Academy members who were craving more movie magic on their TV screens. With 24 nominations for “The Mandalorian” and 23 for “WandaVision,” it’s a ringing endorsement for the “Star Wars” and Marvel-style of doing business, which seems like positive reinforcement that will only increase moving forward.
But even beyond that, it’s important not to overlook the voting membership’s embrace of longtime favorites finding a second wind. Tying with “The Mandalorian” for the most nominations of the day, “The Crown” scored 24 nominations which is impressive enough on its own but shows the series truly breaking out of its shell. In each of its three previous seasons, the show earned 13 Emmy nominations, a respectable but not groundbreaking amount of representation.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a slightly different tale, but with a considerably different perception amongst the industry. While critics grow increasingly mixed over the dystopian tale, now heading into its fifth season, the show’s fourth season earned 21 nominations, the most it’s ever collected in a single year. And yet not the most “The Handmaid’s Tale” has ever earned for a season.
Let me explain. In its first season on the scene, “The Handmaid’s Tale” received a wholly respectable — just ask “The Crown” — 13 Emmy nominations. That number went up for Season 2, when the show’s nomination total grew to 20. At first glance, it would appear that the TV Academy then lost some of its enthusiasm for the series, when in 2019 the nomination total dropped to 11. However, Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” bridged the Emmy eligibility window, resulting in 2020 seeing 10 nominations for the series. That means that in reality, Season 3 of the series ended up garnering 21 overall nominations — and four wins — outshining the three wins for Season 2.
The point being, perception only goes as far as you can perceive. That should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget. Professionals within the industry were confident in the Emmy nomination success of shows including “Ted Lasso,” “The Mandalorian,” and “The Crown.” They were less sure on if HBO Max’s “Hacks” had achieved enough industry penetration to make a good showing or if TV would be more welcoming to superheroes than film has been. But now we know.
That said, because Peak TV makes it impossible to watch every scripted and unscripted series being created and distributed, we’ll never know if the nominations represent the best of what television has to offer. All we know is that these are the shows that voters watched the most, that they liked the most.
But the question remains: Are they watching enough TV to really capture its beauty and breadth?