Conclusion: You Might Be Able To Make An Emmy Bait Series…But You Really Shouldn’t
If I were to ask the average filmgoer what an Oscar bait movie is, you probably wouldn’t have to think twice. It’s Merchant-Ivory, it’s an adaptation of a very complicated novel, it’s a film where a foreign actor uses an American accent or an American actor uses a foreign one. At its most cynical it’s the fundamental difference between the Steven Spielberg movies that came out in the summers of 1993, 1997 and 2005 (Jurassic Park, The Lost World and War of the Worlds, respectively) and those exact same years in December (Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich, ditto).
If one were just as cynical, you might consider any period piece series the same kind of thing for the Emmys. The problem is that argument doesn’t generally hold up. One could say that for Downton Abbey and the lion’s share of Masterpiece Theater, but HBO, pretty much the only source for great television for much of the 2000s, produced Deadwood and Rome in that era, and while both were infinitely better than so many PBS’ oeuvre, they didn’t dominate the Emmys the same way Sopranos did. This generally holds true for the lion’s share of other recent period pieces, even the ones that you’d think would dominate the Emmys. Showtime’s Masters of Sex had all the trademarks of an Emmy bait series — and was infinitely better than so many of the shows that were nominated during its run –but never received a single Best Drama nod. (I know, Mad Men. I’ll get to that.)
Now I need to make this clear up front: I don’t object to Emmy bait series as long as they provide entertainment. This is the fundamental makeup of almost every limited series that has aired on TV for pretty much the past decade — from True Detective to Fargo, from Big Little Lies to American Crime Story — all of these series gather big name casts and big name writers to lure in an audience and also awards. You look over my top ten lists at this column over the years, I’m relatively certain there are at least three or four Emmy bait series on them. And that is generally because in small doses, they can almost always provide brilliant and often surprising drama. I’ve no doubt when ABC debuted American Crime they were considering it more for its awards potential more than ratings — the fact that it was one of the most brilliant series I’ve seen in the past decade was surely incidental.
The thing is that it can be hard to know you have a series that will dominate awards shows. Did the creators of MASH or Hill Street Blues or Cheers know there series would be dominating the Emmys for years to come when they created them? Almost certainly not. They might have thought they would with Frasier or 24 but it’s doubtful. And I know for certain that nobody thought The Sopranos or The West Wing would get there. Almost every major series that wins awards gets them by luck. You can’t build them. The problem is, just as with movies, network executives try to do just that and the results aren’t just not Emmy worthy; they’re often unwatchable.
An Emmy bait series, far more often, is a show that combines an amazing cast with a great writer or idea and then the nominations theoretically start rolling in. I say, theoretically, because far too often the series themselves are disasters. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was the definition of one — it was created by Aaron Sorkin and featured an all-star cast headed by Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Steven Weber, Amanda Peet and D.L. Hughley. In its cast were future winners Merritt Weyer and Sarah Paulson. Everybody expected it to be one — and it crashed and burned very quickly. (Indeed, NBC ran promo ads for 30 Rock where Alec Baldwin thought he was joining that show about a sketch comedy. Little did he or the network know that this would be the big award getter for the network for seven years.)
NBC didn’t learn that lesson and in 2012 tried to launch another clear Emmy bait series Smash — a musical based series with Tony winning writers, heading by Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston and Emmy winner Debra Messing. They gave it the lead after the Monday night premiere of The Voice in 2012. The series may have managed to at least run two seasons, but that spoke more about where NBC was as a network at the time; if anything it was a bigger disaster than Studio 60 with even fewer rewards. (That same year ABC tried something similar with Nashville, a female led music drama led by Connie Britton and Hayden Pattiere, with co-stars such as Eric Close and Powers Boothe. This series would be more successfully critically and have a longer run, but only after it threw all aspirations for quality away and became a pure soap.)
If there’s a clear example of an Emmy bait show on TV today, its Apple TV’s The Morning Show. It has an entire cast of actors that make up awards shows, from Reese Witherspoon to Jennifer Aniston to indie film gurus Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass. And it has managed to get the award nominations and have the success that so many of these series don’t. The problem is the lion’s share of critics do not like it and even those who do think it’s closer to camp than actual drama. It is considered a success, more because of where it comes from than actual quality; I have a feeling if The Morning Show ran on HBO or Showtime, or even Amazon or Hulu, critics wouldn’t think as highly of it.
This is in effect why I don’t think anyone should consider Mad Men an Emmy bait series. Yes, it’s a period piece but 1) the cast was made almost entirely of complete unknowns when it premiered, 2) the period was one that up to then wasn’t really explored the same way before and 3) most importantly, it was the first drama ever to debut on AMC. Had it premiered on HBO — which considering Matthew Weiner had offered it to the networks was a real possibility — it could have been considered an Emmy bait series, much like all of the limited series and movie they make. Because it premiered on a network that until then had only done one mostly forgotten original series, it was clearly a revelation.
In that sense, this is how Netflix became the behemoth for original series it does today. Just as with Mad Men, HBO was offered House of Cards first, but despite the talent associated passed on it because they weren’t willing to agree to a two season commitment. House of Cards might only have been viewed as another HBO drama, even with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright attached as leads and David Fincher as producer. The fact that Netflix took that risk — and that it paid off — is pretty much the reason for their success. (HBO was also offered Orange is the New Black and The Crown before Netflix took them. Whoever chose those series and went to bat for The Newsroom and Here and Now — critical messes that were also clearly Emmy bait shows — should have been fired.)
This brings us back to Ozark. When the series premiered back in 2017, it was essentially the kind of Emmy bait series that so many networks have designed and failed. It has an all-star cast, the kind of dark plot that filled so much of Peak TV particularly in the 2010s and centered on a ‘White Male Antihero’. But Ozark is nothing like any of the other Netflix dramas that have gotten Emmy nods for Best Drama for the past decade. It has none of the sly wit and intrigue that House of Cards had (at least initially), nor any of the looks into race, gender, sexuality or social issues that Orange is the New Black did, nor a real look behind English history with humanity that The Crown does, nor the sense of wonder and joyful youth that Stranger Things has.
Hell, there was actually a better Netflix crime drama that aired before Ozark that under lesser hands would be considered Emmy bait. Bloodline had an all-star cast (Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Sissy Spacek and Ben Mendelsohn) playing a family getting deeper and deeper into the mire of their brother’s criminal behavior. It was designed the writers behind Damages (a series which had the cast of an Emmy bait drama but an entirely different style that made it unique) It received several nominations (none for Best Drama, sad to say) and Ben Mendelsohn took a deserved Supporting Actor prize in its final year. So why do so many critics consider Mendelsohn’s prize a disappointment and the ones that Julia Garner has won a triumph? I’m still puzzling this five years after the fact. But almost no one gave a damn about Bloodline. A lot of critics (and quite a few people I respect) really give a damn about Ozark. Yet Bloodline was a radically different series, better written, directed and acted. Ozark is basically what everybody says it is — another dark drama with a white male antihero.
And to be clear, it’s not even particularly better than some contemporary dramas with ‘white male antiheroes’ Mr. Robot was infinitely more imaginative, creative and enthralling than Ozark ever was. After its first season, it basically disappeared from the Emmy ballots and the last two years it aired, it got nothing and Ozark dominated. Better Call Saul is so much more than Ozark ever will be, but the last season both shows were eligible Ozark dominated and Better Call Saul was left behind. (But I repeat myself.) I don’t pretend to know what Emmy voters think half the time, but I can’t comprehend their love for a show that is so clearly inferior than so many of the dramas that it competes against.
I can take some comfort, however cold, that Ozark will soon be over. Maybe we’ll stop seeing shows that are clearly designed to get Emmys dominated the category. Of course, I’ve already complained about Succession and there are signs that Morning Show will continue to dominate those categories for awhile. And as we speak, the creator of Downton Abbey has just debuted his follow-up series for HBO. The more things change…