This Year's Emmy Nominations Are a Triumph for Genre TV

Even with a global pandemic uprooting much of our life as we know it, some annual staples of the entertainment industry are finding ways to evolve. The Emmys, which honor the best in the past year of television, are the latest to do so, announcing its nominees through a socially-distant livestream on Tuesday morning. The festivities were filled with their usual heartbreaking snubs and celebrated victories -- including some that genre TV fans might not have been expecting. With HBO's Watchmen, Disney+'s Star Wars: The Mandalorian, and FX's What We Do in the Shadows all scoring nominations in the double digits (including the coveted "Best Miniseries or TV Movie", "Best Drama", and "Best Comedy" categories, respectively), the Emmys are arguably embracing the weird and wonderful world of genre TV like they never have before.

The "genre TV" label has been tossed around in the TV world for decades, after Internet forums began to use the moniker when discussing science fiction and fantasy programs. Over time, the term has essentially come to mean any show that fits a specific niche (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and superhero television) before being classified as a traditional drama or comedy. Since their launch in 1949, the Emmys have sporadically acknowledged genre shows, with The X-Files, Lost, and multiple Star Trek shows all being nominated for Outstanding Drama series during their respective runs. The Emmy's acknowledgment of genre TV has somewhat fizzled out in recent years, with the only exception seeming to be Game of Thrones' 58 wins and 161 nominations, and Westworld's 9 wins and 43 nominations. But both of those shows have become so ubiquitous in the mainstream television landscape (and have such an unpredictable approach to their own fantasy/sci-fi canon) that they arguably have transcended to something beyond traditional "genre TV".

Sure, Tatiana Maslany won a (well-deserved) Best Actress Emmy in 2016 for playing a baseball team worth of clones on the sci-fi drama Orphan Black, Emmy darling The Good Place toes the line between genre and a traditional sitcom with its afterlife setting, and shows like Rick and Morty and Over the Garden Wall have gotten recognition in the animation categories. But by and large, genre shows have been seen as a sort of afterthought in the traditional Emmys landscape, either getting a handful of nominations in various technical categories (as was the case for Star Trek: Picard this year) or being left out altogether.

This makes this year's nominations - particularly for Watchmen, The Mandalorian, and Shadows - such a pleasant surprise. All three of the shows are undoubtedly genre TV, and stem from various sci-fi or fantasy source material -- Watchmen "remixes" the lore of the iconic DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, The Mandalorian explores the canon of the Star Wars universe shortly after the original trilogy, and Shadows serves as an Americanized spinoff of the original Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement film. Each show also unabashedly uses the conventions of its genre to tell an intrinsically modern, poignant, and entertaining story. Watchmen uses the superhero mythos to tackle white supremacy, the problems of policing, and the Black experience in America, in ways that have only become more timely since the show aired last fall. The Mandalorian tells the story of self-preservation, duty, and the repercussions of war, while also chronicling the adventures of a heartwarming found family. And Shadows not only serves as a self-aware sendup/sequel to its film counterpart (and to the entire vampire genre), but deals with the immigrant experience, feminism, and other topics with hilarious ease.

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Take the Shadows episode "On the Run", which is nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series alongside two of the show's other Season 2 episodes. The episode - which follows Lazlo (Matt Berry) running away to a rural town and adopting a pseudonym to avoid paying a debt to another vampire - has been beloved by critics and fans alike since it aired in May, with Lazlo's "Jackie Daytona" persona still quoted regularly among fans of the show. Not only is the episode brilliantly-executed, but it is also unabashedly silly, as the entire plot rests on the fact that Jim the Vampire (Mark Hamill) can't recognize Lazlo when he has a toothpick in his mouth, and the pair ultimately square off in a lightsaber-like fight using pool cues. Weirdness and silliness are arguably a staple of genre TV, something that The Mandalorian and Watchmen also convey. When it's not leaning into traditional western and samurai influences, The Mandalorian is a genuinely ridiculous show, with more meme-worthy Baby Yoda moments, bizarre alien interactions, and Werner Herzog scenes than fans knew what to do with. Watchmen, amid its profound social commentary, manages to be truly bizarre at times, from Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) responding to news of his imprisonment with a prolonged fart, to a trap door gag that reportedly led showrunner Damon Lindelof to joke about the show's Emmys chances being gone. As is the case with many genre shows, none of these moments take away from the more serious elements of the plot, but they arguably help make the show a more entertaining and rewarding watch -- one that illustrates the simultaneous gravity and chaotic energy that many have been feeling in their lives this year.

With essentially two months until the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards actually air, there's absolutely no indication of how many - if any - awards Watchmen, The Mandalorian, and What We Do in the Shadows will ultimately take home. Either way, the shows' prevalence in this year's crop of nominees is something worth celebrating, and hopefully won't be the last time we see the variety of genre TV represented at the Emmys in such a way. There's no shortage of existing under-the-radar genre shows that fans think deserve praise in major categories, as proved by the years-long fan campaigns that have surrounded The Walking Dead and Marvel's various TV shows, and even the newer critical esteem surrounding things like Doom Patrol, The Umbrella Academy, and The Boys. And a slew of new high-profile genre projects are set to debut in the coming years, including Amazon Prime's Lord of the Rings series, a handful of big-budget DC shows on HBO Max, and multiple Star Wars shows and nearly a dozen Marvel shows on Disney+. Here's hoping that by the time some of those shows roll around, the idea of multiple genre shows getting Emmy praise in the same year won't be such a novelty.

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