Struggling to decide what to watch in this era of “Peak TV”? Too many streamers, too little time? Fear not, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has the answer: at last night’s 75th Primetime Emmy Awards, the 23,000-plus academy voters were definitive – there are only three good TV shows. Succession. The Bear. Beef. Watch those and you’re done. Andor, be hanged! Apple TV+, you’re cancelled! What a relief.
Who could argue with their choices? Succession really was the best TV drama last year. The Bear isn’t a comedy (that’s a rant for another day), but it’s the best show in the list of nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series. And Beef is clearly, almost laughably, the best limited series, especially in a list that includes Daisy Jones & the Six and, goodness gracious, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet the Emmys is not the Olympics – the golds don’t need to go to the fastest or strongest in each category. It is – supposedly – a celebration of all that is great and good on primetime American TV.
The lack of imagination is stunning. In their respective categories – drama, comedy and limited series – the three shows utterly dominated. Of the 21 major awards the shows were up for, they won 17, with all three winning best show, actor, writing and directing. Succession also won best actress and supporting actor, The Bear won best supporting actor and supporting actress, and Beef won best actress.
The four awards they did not win? The Bear had no nomination for best actress; Succession’s J Smith-Cameron lost out for best supporting actress, but barely figured in the final season; Beef’s supporting actors and actresses (Joseph Lee, Young Mazino and Maria Bello) lost out to Paul Walter Hauser (for Black Bird) and Niecy Nash-Betts (Dahmer). It’s a bit like winning the League Cup when Manchester City win the treble.
It’s a crying shame, because the Emmy nominations revealed a (US, primetime) TV landscape of breadth and imagination – Succession, The Bear and Beef, for all their undeniable quality, are cut from the same part of the cow. What of Andor, which took the increasingly airless Star Wars universe, chucked the lightsabers out of the window, and gave us a thrilling, gritty story of freedom fighters? Or the daring Jury Duty? Or House of the Dragon, which pulled off an incredible feat in matching the scope, intrigue and sheer bloody entertainment of Game of Thrones? Fleishman Is In Trouble, The White Lotus, The Last of Us, Barry – these are shows that deserve more than to be thought of as makeweights.
Perhaps the academy simply had too much to watch and couldn’t get through it all – though it’s clear with three or four box sets they did manage to bash through. The lack of imagination can be seen the most starkly in the nominations for best drama actor and actress. In the actress category, an astonishing five are from The White Lotus (including the jolly Italian prostitute who could have been plucked from Carry On Italiano), along with one each for Succession (of course), The Crown (Diana, of course) and the cruelly treated Better Call Saul. The actor’s list is even more embarrassing – four each for Succession and The White Lotus.
Plenty of shows have a right to feel aggrieved at being snubbed, but perhaps none more so than Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff which long outstripped its excellent if overrated big brother. The Emmys loved Breaking Bad, granting it 58 nominations, of which 16 won. As for Saul, it also scooped plenty of nominations over the years – 53. Last night, however, sealed its unwanted record as the show to have the most nominations without a single win. When you consider the outstanding performances of Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Tony Dalton et al, plus Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s unsurpassable scripts, it makes the Emmys look like dolts.
What made the academy so gaga for just three shows? The viewing figures are muddy. Succession’s finale managed only 2.9 million overnight viewers in the US, though HBO say that consolidated streaming figures put that closer to 9 million. The Bear’s second season, according to Hulu, is the most-watched FX comedy yet – in its first week, it drew 853 million minutes of viewing (though please don’t ask us what the means in real money). Netflix is famously unhelpful when it comes to viewing figures, but Beef was the No 1 streaming title in the week of its release (1.59 billion minutes). Alas, all these impressively large numbers have the same meaning as Gregg Wallace marching around the Heinz factory shouting “4,000 million gallons of ketchup?!”.
As a direct comparison – to, say, Succession’s overnight of 2.9m – episodes of Fire Country, Yellowstone, Accused, NCIS Hawaii, NCIS and FBI all achieved more than 10m viewers in the US. Unlike the Golden Globes, the Emmys couldn’t even find a spot for Helen Mirren, who starred in Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone spinoff 1923 (7.4m viewers).
So, the three big Emmys winners managed that sweet spot of being critically adored, chatted about by social media and drawing respectable ratings. Perhaps this is the Emmys acid test. Fire Country? Great ratings, but critically panned. Out. Better Call Saul. Critically acclaimed, average ratings. Out.
This is the TV industry eating itself, painting itself into an ever smaller circle, at a time when there has never been so much money to splurge on scripted shows. Just imagine if the event had handed awards to Succession, The Bear and Beef, but also to Better Call Saul, Poker Face, Barry, Ted Lasso, Jury Duty, Andor. The conversations would be thrilling, rather than deadening. The Emmys decided, in one night, to become a monstrous version of that bloke who corners you at a party and says “What do you mean you haven’t seen Succession?”
We’ve seen Succession. And The Bear. And Beef and The White Lotus. We have, in fact, seen an awful lot of good television recently. If only that could have been reflected at the Emmys.