Winter TV Awards: HBO Is Looking for a Leader

Without "Succession" or "Watchmen," what show will lead the awards charge for HBO?
Lovecraft Country HBO cast
"Lovecraft Country"

If you’re HBO, with a perpetually deep bench for prestige TV players, you always have something to be thankful for when it comes to garnering accolades. 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 the bizarro year of 2020 made manifest on TV.

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