What Our Critics Think of the 2019 Emmy Nominations

This year’s Emmy nominations were announced on Tuesday. James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, two television critics for The New York Times, conducted a brief conversation about this year’s snubs, surprises and most deserving nominees.

MARGARET LYONS So comedies are better than dramas, it’s official. The variety and flair of the comedy categories — performing, writing, even directing — are just way, way more interesting than the sort of blah drama contenders this year.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK This is the story of TV nowadays. Comedy is more vital than drama, including but not limited to comedies that are veined with drama — here, “Barry” and “Fleabag,” the latter of which is a very likely candidate for Best Anything on TV this year. I know some people get bothered by shows straddling the categories (it used to be a constant beef with “Nurse Jackie,” for example). But we don’t have a dramedy category, and life is unfair!

Drama, though: Shall we address the dragon in the room? “Game of Thrones” got 32 nominations. Thirty-two! I am skeptical that there are 32 Emmys. Apparently the voting body missed out on the five million “‘Thrones’ Fandom Intensely Divided” pieces we generated in the spring.

[Here’s what happened at the 2019 Emmy nominations | See a list of Emmy nominees.]

LYONS Sure, but some of those are categories like “sci-fi fantasy costumes,” which, fair enough? I actually hope “Good Omens” takes that one, but on technical fronts, I think “Thrones” had a fine enough season. The bigger issue for me is the acting categories. Did anyone have a big acting year on “Thrones”? I don’t think they did at all. Maybe Gwendoline Christie?

PONIEWOZIK Disagree! Well, a tiny bit. The one major “Thrones” nomination I could most solidly endorse is Emilia Clarke’s, perversely because the character turn of Daenerys was so poorly handled. (Tl;dr: clues are not characterization.) To the extent that her end was emotionally affecting at all, it was pretty much through her pushing it over the line by force of will. The most intense battle in King’s Landing was between her and the script.

LYONS I think this also points to an interesting split: Where dramas and the drama performances feel plain and kind of … out of touch to me, the limited-series nominations and performances are where the real “drama” of TV currently lives. “Chernobyl,” “When They See Us,” even “Fosse/Verdon,” which I had good but mixed feelings about — those are all so much more interesting and daring than, I don’t know, “Ozark.” (Except I didn’t like “Sharp Objects.” Sue me!)

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PONIEWOZIK I liked “Sharp Objects.” You’ll be hearing from my attorney. But really, I’m also just happy that the Television Academy managed to remember back to something from last summer, which can feel like two decades ago in Peak TV years.

Speaking of which, this may be more a TV-critic issue than a real-person issue, but it feels increasingly weird to build the Emmys around a June-to-May eligibility period. That follows the traditional network-TV season, but feels alien to the way people experience TV today, which is more on the same annual calendar that the Oscars operate on.

LYONS Oh, I actually still like it? The Oscar calendar creates such a forced “summer blockbuster” vs. “holiday-time prestige” vs. “dump the lousy movies during this lull” rhythm; I like that any given month could be the month that the best show of the year comes out. Keep me on my toes, programmers!

Shall we talk a little about what didn’t make the cut? I was hoping to see “Better Things,” “High Maintenance,” “Jane the Virgin” — or maybe even a parting gift for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” somehow, even though it was a real long shot. I was also hoping Nicole Byer would get nominated for hosting “Nailed It!” (The show was nominated, but she wasn’t.) I wish “Shrill” had earned Aidy Bryant a nomination, but it’s such a crowded category.

PONIEWOZIK It’s funny that the reality competition category, one of the newer genres in the Emmys, can be so hidebound. So I was happy to see “Nailed It!” in at all, but I would also have loved to have seen “Making It,” which was just a delightful treat last summer. (The hosts, Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, did get nominated.) You really could put together a solid comedy list entirely from shows that were overlooked: Besides Pamela Adlon, who did the work of her career on “Better Things,” I’d have loved to see best-comedy nominations for “PEN15” and “Ramy,” for starters, but that’s probably dreaming. In drama, “The Good Fight,” one of the most timely and nuanced political series on TV, was hosed again, and “My Brilliant Friend” deserved better. And I thought we might see a best-drama nomination for “Homecoming,” a rare wholly successful streaming drama (maybe in part because the episodes were a half-hour long). Star power gets you only so far, I guess!

LYONS I also thought “Homecoming” would be on there — not that I loved it so much, just because it seemed like it would be. We should note that “PEN15” did get a writing nod, which is a welcome surprise. “Lodge 49,” “Queen Sugar” and “You” somehow did not merit any drama nods, which is bad and wrong. But I do want to talk about what’s good and right: “Schitt’s Creek”! “BoJack Horseman” (in animated series, but still)! “Fleabag” in a bunch of categories. “Russian Doll” and Natasha Lyonne. “The Good Place.” I’m stunned. Elated, but stunned.

PONIEWOZIK I have to give the academy credit for being willing to look beyond the usual suspects. “Schitt’s Creek” has grown over time, but still, Pop is neither a high-profile traditional network nor a buzzed-about streaming platform. (The Emmy voters have clearly been reading my Twitter feed, which was gaga for that show this season.) And while FX certainly has a higher profile at the Emmys, I was delighted to see a best-drama nomination for “Pose,” which is just a visual and emotional feast and swings big. That’s the sort of thing I like to see rewarded.

LYONS I am very happy for “Pose,” and it’s part of what makes the best drama category sort of hilarious to me: “Hmm, which show is more accomplished, interesting, distinctive, special, evocative, etc.? ‘Pose’ or ‘The Bodyguard’? How shall I decide?” Like, “The Bodyguard” is pretty good, but come on! “Hmm, which is better at excavating the human condition: ‘Better Call Saul’ and its artful perceptiveness, or ‘This Is Us’ and its nonsense?” I firmly believe in different strokes for different folks, and there are lots of great ways to be a drama. But this is just unbalanced and goofy to me.

PONIEWOZIK This is a conversation we could have every year lately, but — we maybe no longer need a TV movie category? (From a creative standpoint; from a serving-the-industry standpoint, of course we’re stuck with it.) I’m not sure this year’s choices were bad, considering the alternatives, but none gets within shouting distance of “When They See Us.” And Ava DuVernay chose, purposely and fruitfully, to tell that story as a limited series rather than as a movie. We have the movies for movies!

LYONS I actually wrote down in my notes “seems like there’s an opening for TV movies,” so we’re in the same chapter but not on the same page. I’d love to see a resurgence in TV movies, and I think things that go straight to streaming have an interesting future. It feels as if someone (besides HBO, I guess) could really dominate in this category with maybe not that much effort. Not that these aren’t perfectly fine TV movies, but is this the most fascinating and robust category I have ever seen? No, it is not.

PONIEWOZIK This is where the whole blurry-line-between-Netflix-and-movies gets interesting. You throw in “Roma” or “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and we’ve got a competition! (I continue to say that “Buster” was a perfectly excellent six-episode limited comedy series.) But then we’d have to get into fisticuffs with our movie-critic colleagues.

LYONS Which “Bandersnatch” path gets assessed? (I maintain that episodes of “Black Mirror” are not movies; this makes me furious, but somehow I will find the strength to go on.) I thought “Bandersnatch” was an interesting thing to try, but at no point did I think, “What a marvelous film this is.”

PONIEWOZIK Of course, nominations are nominations, and awards are awards. We’ve said a lot about the Emmys’ spreading the love around, but they also love to give out gold watches to retiring shows. Come September, the night may be dark and full of statuettes for “Thrones” and “Veep.” In which case I say dracarys.

Margaret Lyons is a television critic. She previously spent five years as a writer and TV columnist for Vulture.com. She helped launch Time Out Chicago and later wrote for Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. @margeincharge

James Poniewozik is the chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent 16 years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic. @poniewozik

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