COMMENTARY

Emmy nominations: The Good, the Bad, and the "Squid Game" of it all

Any year's Emmy nominations are a mixed bag at best. Here's our breakdown of this list's passing grades and fails

Published July 12, 2022 7:09PM (EDT)

Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" | Selena Gomez in "Only Murders in the Building" | Jung Ho-yeon in "Squid Game" (Photo illustration by Salon/ABC/Scott Everett White/Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu/Noh Juhan/Netflix)
Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" | Selena Gomez in "Only Murders in the Building" | Jung Ho-yeon in "Squid Game" (Photo illustration by Salon/ABC/Scott Everett White/Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu/Noh Juhan/Netflix)

Emmy nominations day is an annual celebration of life as a mixed bag, validating popular obsessions and artistic breakthroughs in some ways and living up to its reputation for rewarding repeat winners and legacy titles in others. The list of 74th Primetime Awards nominees evinces this yet again, featuring the usual number of selections that make sense and others that prove what a curiously stodgy group the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences voters can be. (Check out the Academy's full list of nominees.)

In the main, this round of Emmy nominations underscores a positive note about this time of Too Much TV: we may have to filter a lot of mediocrity out of a deluge of options, but the past year has yielded so much extraordinary work that the most well-rounded nominations list still would have left many deserving titles out in the cold.

And yet, although no Emmys nominations slate in recent memory could be considered flawless, this group of contenders validates the perception, true or otherwise, that the industry's creative heft is increasingly concentrated on cable and streaming.

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Not even this is entirely surprising in terms of this year's overall nomination tallies, which have shaped up in familiar ways in some cases. HBO and HBO Max scored a combined 140 Emmy nominations, led by the 25 nominations for "Succession" and 20 for its widely acclaimed anthology series "The White Lotus," both of which have a heavy presence in individual acting achievement categories.

Going up against "Succession" is a combination of past nominees such as AMC's "Better Call Saul" and Netflix's "Ozark," with phenomenal newcomers like Apple TV+'s "Severance" and Showtime's "Yellowjackets."

Apple TV+'s "Ted Lasso" leads the comedy nominations, as it did last year, with 20 Emmy nominations. What's most noteworthy in its category, however, is the presence of "Abbott Elementary" – the single primetime broadcast scripted series to gain a foothold among the top award categories.

Tempted as one may be to ask what it all means, don't forget that this is the Emmys we're talking about here – a body that never awarded any drama or acting nominations to "The Wire," one of the greatest series of all time.

That history makes several of this year's nominations especially significant.

The "Squid Game" of it all

Squid GameOh Young-soo and Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game" (Noh Juhan/Netflix)Every year's batch of Emmy nominations includes selections that make history. This time the laurels go to Netflix's "Squid Game," the first non-English language series to be nominated for Outstanding Drama, along with nods for its stars Lee Jung-jae, Jung Ho-yeon, Park Hae-soo, and Oh Young-soo in individual categories, part of a 14-nomination jackpot.

Tempting as it may be to declare this as evidence that Emmys voters are ready to think globally, don't be so sure. Granted, the success of "Squid Game" may indeed mark the beginning of something, but the most pertinent factor is that Hwang Dong-hyuk's superb thriller was too huge an international phenomenon to ignore.

If Emmy were truly looking toward other horizons the much quieter, contemplative Apple TV+ series "Pachinko" would have been in contention as well. But how many of the more than 20,000 voters watched that drama or other smaller-but-mighty foreign titles such as Peacock's British import "We Are Lady Parts"

There's no denying the achievement of "Squid Game" gaining a slot in a Best Drama contest that's shaped up to be a nail-biter. It is also this year's poster model for Emmy's ongoing effort to prove its relevance. In case there are any doubts about that, look closely at the rest of the nominations.

The shifting concept of the legacy nomination 

The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)Emmy's history for rewarding prior nominees and winners has long been established, especially when it comes to shows that are on their way out the door, which explains the 13 nominations for the recently ended Netflix drama "Ozark," including acting nods for its stars Laura Linney, Jason Bateman, and Julia Garner.

Tempting as it may be to declare this as evidence that Emmys voters are ready to think globally, don't be so sure.

This also explains the encore nominations for "Killing Eve" stars Jodie Comer (last year's Outstanding Actress in a Drama winner) and Sandra Oh for their work in a finale season that by most viewers' metric was . . . not good. In cases like this, the quality of a season matters less than the popularity of the actors.

It seems to matter even less in this year's comedy categories, where a lackluster season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" didn't get in the way of its Best Comedy nod along with its stars Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, and Tony Shalhoub – all of whom have won before.

Then again, that history of chronically repetitive nominations is weighted more heavily this year toward cable and streaming titles. If all things were equal, NBC's "This Is Us" would have received a Best Drama grace nod in its final season along with its stars, past Emmy nominee Mandy Moore and winner Sterling K. Brown.

But it, along with another multiple Emmy nominee, ABC's "Black-ish" and its stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, were left out in the cold this time.

What "Abbott Elementary" teaches us

Abbott ElementaryQuinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" (ABC/Gilles Mingasson)On the other hand, the strong showing for "Abbott Elementary" in the Best Comedy and comedy acting categories is a high mark for the series and for what it represents about broadcast comedy. Sure, Emmy's still high on HBO's "Barry" and "Ted Lasso," but the ABC sitcom's nominations prove there's still life in the broadly-appealing mockumentary format Emmy voters rewarded many times in past years via "Modern Family," for one.

People searching for evidence of the "Ted Lasso" niceness effect across television may see it here, applied with a down-to-earth vision to a socially relevant subject primarily examined in news features or granular documentaries: underfunded public schools.

At the same time, "Abbott" and Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building" are the only new entries in the Best Comedy category. CBS' wonderful "Ghosts" could have easily found a home there, but no such luck.

The "Abbott Elementary" nominations prove there's still an appeal in the broadly-appealing mockumentary format. 

If you expected FX's highly deserving "Reservation Dogs" to show up in any of these categories and add an influx of Indigenous representation to the mix, you are right to be disappointed. But that also means you may have expected too much of Emmy voters, a group easily flummoxed by newcomers that challenge stylistic boundaries and categorization.

"Reservation Dogs" is unmistakably a comedy, but it's also a cinematic exploration spread across eight episodes. Can we honestly expect that to compete against the millionth season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?

Very much a country for old men 

Only Murders in the BuildingSteve Martin and Martin Short in "Only Murders in the Building" (Hulu)I've already voiced my displeasure about the continuing presence of Larry David's creaky HBO comedy in Emmy nominations lists, especially in years like this when there are so many more worthy and fresh shows that could occupy that slot instead.

Besides, it's not all sour grapes and puckered faces with this batch of nominations, even among the old guard. "Hacks" fans have plenty to be pleased about, and there's no way that I'd knock down Jean Smart's re-nomination.

I'm similarly free of qualms about Steve Martin's and Martin Short's Best Actor in a Comedy nods. That said, Emmy failed to recognize the main reason they and "Only Murders" hit as broadly as they did.

No country for young women

Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley, Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield and Joe Keery as Steve Harrington in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)Yes, this refers to Selena Gomez's individual acting snub. She may be the straight woman in this trio, but she makes Martin and Short funnier and better than they'd be without her. Sadly, her lack of a nomination is part of a trend. "Stranger Things" scored a lane in the Best Drama race, but Emmy found no love for Sadie Sink's standout performance in the fourth season.

Mind you, the drama supporting actress category is incredibly tight this year. Other categories have less of an excuse in that regard. Will the day ever come for "Ziwe" or "The Amber Ruffin Show" to get their propers in the Variety Talk zone? Who can say? They're still new to the scene and have the added misfortune of not being named Jimmy.


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The stranger-than-fiction bias in limited and anthology series

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in "The Dropout" (Beth Dubber/Hulu)Speaking of familiar names, the true-crime trend has taken over the limited series category so completely that all but one of the nominated titles are based on a real story that generated headlines. "The White Lotus," last year's critical darling, is the only one that's entirely fictional, and it's easier to digest than the more creatively adventurous "Station Eleven," represented among the top categories with a nomination for Best Actor in a Limited Series, Movie or Anthology series for Himesh Patel.

If Emmy voters truly wished to demonstrate they were forward-thinking, Patel's young co-star Matilda Lawler would have received a nomination for her mesmerizing performance as young Kirsten in "Station Eleven." Alas, apparently this year's supporting actress category for limited series, etc., etc., was set aside for the casts of "The White Lotus" and "Dopesick." (See: No country for young women). 

The 2022 diversity report card

AtlantaDonald Glover as Earn Marks in "Atlanta" (Oliver Upton/FX)Showering fewer scripted shows with multiple nominations means Emmys non-white representation is sizable but limited in scope (where are all the Native nominations?), leaning on "Abbott Elementary," "Squid Game" and "Ted Lasso" to deliver on the inclusion front, along with Oh, Bowen Yang for "Saturday Night Live," Issa Rae for "Insecure," Natasha Rothwell for "The White Lotus" and Donald Glover for "Atlanta."

That also means that Best Actress and Supporting Actor Categories in a Limited Series, Movie or Anthology consist entirely of white performers since the true crime genre tends to focus on stories about white women and men, usually rich ones, involved in spectacular examples of wrongdoing.

Zendaya netted her second nomination for "Euphoria" while her co-star Hunter Schafer was passed over – which reminds us that last year's Emmy nominations were notable for the breadth of queer representation. This year that banner is carried by, among others, RuPaul Charles, Jane Lynch on "Only Murders," Murray Bartlett on "The White Lotus," along with cast members from "Queer Eye" and "Saturday Night Live" – which is nothing to sniff at, but doesn't build upon last year's history-making endorsement of trans visibility.

This, too, is an Emmy standard reflective of the industry as a whole: It takes a while for progress to break habits that favor homogeneity of content and a narrowly cast view.

Be that as it may, if Variety Sketch nominee "A Black Lady Sketch Show" loses again to its only competition in its category, "Saturday Night Live," we ride at dawn.

The 74th Primetime Emmy Awards airs live at 5 p.m. PT./ 8 p.m. ET on Monday, September 12 on NBC.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland


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