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Before Anthony Anderson and Lauren Graham announced the 68th Emmy nominations earlier this morning, Television Academy Chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum took the stage to briefly speak about our current slate of television, highlighting the obvious—the medium is at its all-time best, a second Golden Age, he said.
And given the bold stories we are beginning to see, the various innovations in the ways we consume television, and—most significantly—the diversity of the casts that populate some of this year’s best shows in particular, this is definitely true, especially when you look at this past year’s pathetic Oscars.
Even though the TV landscape has some more work to do and more attention to give, next to a dull and white Oscars, it’s certainly in a better place in terms of the kinds of narratives and performers we’re finally seeing. But not that much better. This year, of 72 acting nominees, 18 are people of color. That’s exactly 25 percent of all the nominees. It’s by no means an acceptable number, and is really not much of a change from last year (there were 16 POC performers nominated across all acting categories). On the other hand, of the 20 awards given to actors and actresses at the Oscars, every single nominee was white and, to our knowledge, identified themselves as straight.
Thankfully, this year’s Emmy nominations, which award achievements in television throughout 2015-2016, aren’t THAT dire. Leading the diversity conversation this past year is the limited series category. The People v O.J. Simpson, a breakout drama that continues to prove how FX may be the network with the most to offer, made up half of FX’s nominations at 22 nominations. It lags right behind Game of Thrones, which took 23 nominations. However, what makes the limited series about the famous athlete’s much publicized murder trial in the '90s even more impressive is the diversity of its cast. Despite being a period piece, one of the most fascinating aspects of the series is its eerie ability to speak about our own cultural climate, the racial tensions that haven’t changed much from the time of Simpson’s trial to today. The series couldn’t have come at a more opportune time and it really is incredible that the show pretty much dominates the limited series acting categories, with Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown amongst the nominees.
Last year in film several of 2015’s most acclaimed films, Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Carol failed to be recognized by the Academy, an embarrassing oversight that led to the Academy creating a diversity improvement plan, which sought to increase the number of women and POC of color members in its academy. TV fares slightly better, and as Viola Davis pointed out in her speech after winning an Emmy last year for How to Get Away with Murder, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
In this sense, TV, at least this year, appears to be more inclusive, and as we’ve seen in this year’s nominations, the roles seem to be there in a way they aren't in film. Of all the Oscar nominees for best picture last year—The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Spotlight, and Room—not one of them had a lead or even a major supporting character who wasn’t white. The directors of these films were also all white.
When the Oscars aired and gave out its awards early this year, there was also heavy criticism of its exclusion of LGBTQ people. Although TV is by no means that much better, it’s nice to see series like Amazon’s Transparent getting attention and performers like Tatiana Maslany (who plays a gay character on Orphan Black) being rewarded for their nuanced and important work. Still, LGBTQ characters and narratives are for the most part absent in this year’s nominees; Orange is the New Black was shut out and I just want to see Jussie Smollett rewarded for his work on Empire. I’m also intentionally excluding Modern Family for its stereotyped, lazy representation here.
Besides O.J., there were two other series that really highlight diverse storytelling and casting that received Emmy attention. Master of None, the Netflix comedy created by Aziz Ansari was nominated, as was black-ish, the clever ABC sitcom about a black upper-middle class family. Comedy has always been ahead of the game in terms of the stories we get on TV, and it’s no real surprise that of all categories it has ended up becoming the most inclusive. Leads Ansari (the first-ever South-Asian actor nominated in a leading role) and Anthony Anderson received deserved nominations for their performances on these shows, but it’s really exciting that Tracee Ellis-Ross has also finally been included, especially since the lead actress in a comedy field has been so consistently white. (Now let’s get Constance Wu for her work on Fresh off the Boat here next year.) What this also speaks to is that when something is of quality on television, people will watch and voters will reward. There were wonderful and diverse films last year, but perhaps the major problem is that no one wanted to give awards attention to these achievements. Straight Outta Compton made over four times its $50 million budget, and was one of the most discussed films of last year, and then, nothing.
Looking at this last year alone, the TV industry is clearly in a better position than the film industry. Perhaps it’s because the onslaught of viewing platforms like Amazon and Netflix allow for more niche, diverse storytelling, but TV seems to be at the forefront of telling stories that represents more than one kind of person. And people seem to respond to this in a way they don’t with film. While the increase in representation in this year’s Emmy nominees is only marginal, it’s great to see that viewers and voters are rewarding shows like black-ish, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and Transparent. For TV viewers, if something is good people will get behind it. In film, if something is good, at least in terms of the Oscars, people will ignore it. Maybe that’s why the Emmys is in better shape.