Arts

Emmys: Our Critics on ‘Beef,’ ‘Succession’ and Category Confusion

The 2023 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced on Wednesday. James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, two television critics for The New York Times, discussed who made it and who didn’t, the limp limited-series slate, reality TV blind spots and all those acting nominations for “Succession” and “The White Lotus.”

JAMES PONIEWOZIK Weirder than usual Emmys season this year, Margaret! The writers are on strike. The actors might follow them. We don’t even know when or if the actual awards show will happen. And yet the nominations have come chugging along, to remind us what TV was like when there were people making it.

Meanwhile, TV is going through a period of retrenchment, with cost-cutting at Warner Bros. Discovery and elsewhere. So however credible the Emmys are as an award, they could make a bigger difference in who gets a budget and who gets the ax.

Now that I have the cheerful stuff out of the way: The TV biz may be filled with uncertainty, but I don’t see a lot of big shockers among the major nominees. But I’ll start with a happy surprise — let’s hear it for “Jury Duty,” the sneaky faux-documentary comedy that was designed to seem neither written nor acted but that pulled off its audacious stunt on the strength of both crafts.

MARGARET LYONS It is indeed a weird time for TV! I feel like we are watching two circles in a Venn diagram drift apart: The people who care about TV and the people who make money off TV. And the Emmys are carrying on as usual like divorcing parents agreeing to be polite at their daughter’s wedding, even though everyone is mad, everyone knows exactly how poorly some parties have behaved, dad wants to bring his new girlfriend, Discovery+ and also it’s a cash bar.

But “Jury Duty”! I’m especially thrilled it was nominated for casting — I’d argue that was its greatest and most essential achievement across its many successes. I did sort of chuckle, though, that it is up against “Barry” and “The Bear,” shows that feel so foundationally different from an ensemble of goofy jurors that it seems outrageous for them to all be in competition.

From left, Edy Modica, Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in “Jury Duty,” a surprise pick for best comedy.Credit…Amazon Freevee

I’m also surprised that “Atlanta” only notched one nomination (for cinematography) in its final season. But there are a lot of banner shows for whom this is their last Emmys.

PONIEWOZIK I could run through a whole list of nays and hoorays, but I want to look big picture first. A running theme in our Emmy chats lately has been how much stronger the limited-series nominees were than everything else. I do not think that’s true this year! To me, “Beef” is the class of the field among what’s nominated, which also includes the garish “Dahmer,” the middling “Daisy Jones & the Six” and (LOL) “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” None of those last few come close to “Dead Ringers,” the sanguinary David Cronenberg re-imagination that was the rare case of a TV adaptation with something original to say. It got a single nod, like “Atlanta,” for cinematography.

LYONS I’m with you: “Beef” is the standout in its category for me, too.

There is always some blurriness between comedy and drama, but exactly where that gray area is changes from year to year. Sometimes all the comedies are kind of bummers or many dramas are quite snappy; sometimes the length distinction feels arbitrary at best. What struck me this year is the chasm between comedy and drama in the guest performer categories — obviously a real apples-and-oranges, but it points to a major format trend between the disciplines.

Dramas have significant “departure” episodes, exemplified by “The Last of Us,” and comedies have what amounts to celebrity cameos, like Taraji P. Henson on “Abbott Elementary.” “The Bear” is not a ha-ha comedy, but Jon Bernthal’s nod for guest actor feels very “comedy” because of how that character operates within the fabric of the show.

Taraji P. Henson received a guest acting nomination for her appearance in “Abbott Elementary.”Credit…ABC

PONIEWOZIK Yeah, Margaret, every Emmys these days is a pretty good argument against separate comedy and drama categories. For me, “The Diplomat” is more a comedy, yet there it is in drama. Is “Bad Sisters” more a drama than “Barry”? I guess, but you can measure the distance in millimeters.

But speaking of dramas that are among the funniest things on TV: We won’t be helping our chances in Google search unless we start talking “Succession.” The saga of the Roy family ends, appropriately enough, with its whole family scrapping for a limited amount of acting prizes. This time Shiv, I mean Sarah Snook, has an edge, as the only member of the clan up for best actress. (Watch out for Bella Ramsey of “The Last of Us,” though. You may have a shiv but she has a knife!)

If it is the year of “Succession,” which Roy deserves best actor? I’m not going to shade Brian Cox—I am afraid to — but Logan was by necessity more a supporting figure in the final season, holding sway in absentia. Between Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong I guess I slightly lean Strong, partly for how painfully he conveyed Kendall’s doomed hungry ambition, partly as payback for everyone who made fun of him for taking acting seriously and correctly using the word “dramaturgically.”

One thing I’m sure of is that the “Connor’s Wedding” episode should (and probably will) take every category it can. But I do have to laugh at the supporting-drama-actor category: Eight nominees, all from “Succession” or “The White Lotus.” There was acting going on elsewhere on TV last season, I swear it! (But congratulations in advance to Matthew Macfadyen.)

LYONS For me, best actor is Strong by a light-year — not to put down any of the other performances, but his control of the register of Kendall’s voice alone deserves an Emmy in my book. And while I know what you mean about “Succession” overload in supporting actor, going through the list of submitted roles, I’m not convinced there’s someone who was clearly snubbed. Though I’m starting to worry that “For All Mankind” will never know a moment of Emmy glory ever, and that bums me out.

Jeremy Strong received one of many acting nominations for “Succession” in its final season. Credit…Macall B. Polay/HBO

The Emmys have a lot of blind spots, but the refusal to engage meaningfully with reality programming drives me crazy. “Love Is Blind” is nominated over “Couples Therapy”? Come on! And in the reality competition category, what does “Alone” have to do to get a little love?

PONIEWOZIK Yup! The Emmys have come a long way — or at least a way — from the days of handing statues to “Modern Family” in perpetuity. But competition reality is now one of the most set-in-stone categories, and there again are “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I confess I’m not up on “Alone”; I am but one man with but two eyes. But I would have loved to have seen them open the books for “The Traitors” — like “The Mole” in a Scottish castle, with Alan Cumming hamming it up as if he were in a John Waters production of “Macbeth.” (It got a single nomination, for casting.)

As everyone out there compiles their own lists of grudges, here’s the standard reminder that the Emmys calendar is not the same as Regular Human Person Calendar. The eligibility period runs from June through the following May. So you’ve gotta have a good memory!

“The Bear,” for instance, is eligible not for the just-released Season 2 (which was astounding) but for last year’s Season 1 (which was perfectly good). The comedy category is full of shows nominated for seasons that are not their peak: “Abbott Elementary” (still lovable but off its Season 1 pace), “Barry” (a great achievement with some rough patches in its final run) and “Ted Lasso” (dear God).

LYONS Beyond the sometimes confusing calendar, I also want to mention the sometimes-confounding category rules. For example, “I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson” is indeed an Emmy nominee, but not in scripted variety series with “Black Lady Sketch Show” or “Saturday Night Live” — it counts as a short form comedy, drama or variety series because its episodes are under 20 minutes. Tim Robinson is also nominated, but again, in a short form category.

So sure! To understand the Emmys is to accept their shortcomings, and to that end I’d say this feels like a quintessential selection: A few bright surprises, a few heavy hitters, some shows that are coasting on name recognition (“Wednesday,” come on now) or lingering affection for previous seasons. Now we’re left to wonder if the ceremony will happen and in what capacity …

PONIEWOZIK See you in September! [Checks the headlines about the Hollywood labor negotiations.] Or much, much later!

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