With an endless supply of options and quality, television has become easy to celebrate in recent years. The Emmys are finally catching up to the party, nominating culturally beloved arrivistes like Mr. Robot, Master of None, Black-ish, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. When host Jimmy Kimmel takes the stage on Sunday, September 18, here are five things to look for so we can help the Emmys do its job of awarding great TV:
1. The silent battle between newcomers and old favorites.
For people who want to care about the Emmys, the biggest nail-biter every year isn’t any individual category, but whether the TV Academy will make room for up-and-comers. The Creative Arts Emmys — i.e., the technical majority of the awards, which were handed out last weekend and aren't televised — did its part by making first-time winners of Archer (Outstanding Animated Series) and RuPaul (Outstanding Host of a Reality Series) last weekend. With Veep and Game of Thrones — the reigning comedy and drama — and familiar faces like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), Allison Janney (Mom), and Tony Hale (also Veep) heavily favored to win their categories, the pressure is on for the Emmys not just to reward excellence, but also to stay relevant.
2. How many Emmys will The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story get?
After nabbing a Creative Arts Emmy for casting, the fictionalized take on the O.J. Simpson trial (a.k.a. the best show of the year so far) has a lock on two categories: Outstanding Limited Series and Sarah Paulson’s lead actress role as prosecutor Marcia Clark. (Paulson, who played two different characters in American Horror Story: Hotel, is up for another Emmy for that other Ryan Murphy series.) The People v. O.J. Simpson will be competing in four other categories, including those for acting nominees Courtney B. Vance, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sterling K. Brown, David Schwimmer, and John Travolta. Vance and Brown are the odds-on favorites in their respective categories, but the votes for the O.J. crowd might end up canceling each other out, too. (For a side bet, you can try to guess how many shows with “American” in the title — in addition to American Crime Story, there’s The Americans, American Crime on ABC, and American Horror Story: Hotel — will take home trophies at the end of the night.)
3. Will Viola Davis make history again?
The How to Get Away With Murder star made Emmy history last year by becoming the first black lead actress to win in the drama category. That achievement wasn’t lost on Davis, who used her time at the podium to quote Harriet Tubman and argue for more diverse characters (“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”). No African-American lead actress has won a second Emmy for the same role, so we’re rooting for Davis to set another record. Murder has lost its shine, but fortunately for Davis, her fellow nominees — Homeland's Claire Danes, Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, The Americans’ Keri Russell, and House of Cards’ Robin Wright — make for a weak field, competition-wise. (Homeland, Empire, and House of Cards’ heydays are past them, while not enough viewers probably watch Orphan Black or The Americans.) No matter what happens Sunday, though, Davis will stay on the awards circuit this year with her strong Oscar chances in Denzel Washington’s Fences.
4. TV’s diversity on display.
There’s a reason why there won’t be an #EmmysSoWhite campaign this year: Television continues to feature many more characters of color than the movies do. To be sure, representation problems still plague TV both on-screen and in writers’ rooms, and our idea of what diversity looks like needs to expand beyond African-American inclusion to encompass other races, as well as all classes, sexualities, and creeds. Still, it’s refreshing to see Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Courtney B. Vance (The People vs. OJ), and Sterling K. Brown (The People v. O.J.) as the front-runners in their categories, as well as Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Anthony Anderson (Black-ish), and Key & Peele competing with healthy chances for an upset.
5. The genuine toss-up that is the dramatic lead actor race.
The absolute unpredictability of this category reflects the stagnation and/or niche appeal of the post–Mad Men, post–Breaking Bad serialized drama. With last year’s winner, Jon Hamm, no longer eligible, the race is dominated by the stars of critically acclaimed but little-seen series (Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk, The Americans’ Matthew Rhys) or brand-name actors in faux-prestige shows (House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey, Ray Donovan’s Liev Schreiber, and Bloodline’s Kyle Chandler). Awards prognosticators are calling it for Malek, who continues to be marvelous despite Mr. Robot’s sophomore splat, but a win for the overdue Rhys would be just as sweet.