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Emmys 2020: From 'Watchmen' to 'Ramy,' the nominations aren't quite 'so white' this year


Kelly Lawler   | USA TODAY
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Maybe the Emmy voters have been paying attention. 

When the 2020 nominations were announced Tuesday, among the yawn-inducing repeat nominations for "Ozark" and "The Handmaid's Tale" was a more diverse group of nominees. The Television Academy may have been influenced by recent calls to diversify awards shows, especially amid national protests against racial inequality and police brutality. But whatever the reason, it's extremely welcome.

From acting nominations (Octavia Spencer for Netflix's "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker") to series nominations (HBO's "Insecure" and "A Black Lady Sketch Show") the Emmys may finally have woken up, at least a little bit, to the abundance and diversity of talent on the small screen. 

In a year with an otherwise unexciting and poor crop of nominees, it's a small bright spot for the Emmys, and Hollywood awards generally. 

The nominations for TV's biggest awards show (ABC, Sept. 20, 8 EDT/5 PDT) were announced virtually, and  the list was mostly made up of usual suspects (some deserving, some not) and predictable newcomers, just like every year in the notoriously stodgy award show. But the number of people of color nominated this year, specifically Black performers, is significant. There were 28 people of color nominated in the major acting categories, about double the number from 2019.

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It's hard to assign motive to an anonymous body of 23,000 voters, ranging from actors to directors to editors to casting professionals. But Hollywood awards, especially the Oscars, have been criticized repeatedly in recent years for being "so white," as prominent categories like acting and directing shut out potential nominees of color, despite critical acclaim.

But this year, the Emmys recognized a large group of Black actors, including Zendaya ("Euphoria"), Jeremy Pope ("Hollywood"), William Jackson Harper ("The Good Place")  and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II ("Watchmen") who received nominations that surprised some industry prognosticators. (If they'd paid attention to the scope and excellence of the performances, they wouldn't be shocked.)

The biggest success story is HBO's "Watchmen," a series that specifically confronts race and policing in America. Although it aired in 2019 before mass protests broke out across the country, its depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre and its nuanced portrayal of a Black policewoman made it achingly relevant in 2020. The limited series deservedly received 26 nominations, the most of any series. 

The voters surprisingly got it right elsewhere, too. Netflix's "Unorthodox," a superb limited series about a woman leaving an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with mostly Yiddish dialogue, managed to get both series and acting nominations (for star Shira Haas). "Ramy," Hulu's wonderful dramedy about a Muslim man in New Jersey navigating his faith and love life, managed acting nominations for star Ramy Youssef and supporting actor Mahershala Ali (no stranger to awards). And in a huge shocker, FX's delightfully quirky vampire comedy "What We Do in the Shadows" managed a best comedy nomination. Finally, the funniest show of the year actually gets an Emmy nomination. 

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Of course, the nominations were far from perfect. Even in a pandemic that's upending everyday life, the TV Academy can be counted upon to be mostly boring and misguided in its choices.

Disney+'s aggressively average "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian" took a slot in best drama that might have gone to 2019 nominee "Pose," a far more daring and ambitious drama about transgender people of color in 1990s New York. Actor Billy Porter was again nominated for "Pose" (he won in 2019), but considering its large transgender cast, it seems pointed that the Emmys have so far only nominated the most prominent cisgender actor. 

More than the Oscars, Grammys or Tonys, the Emmys suffer from repetition in its nominations, simply due to the nature of television. Netflix's "Ozark" is continuously nominated despite reeking of mediocrity. Apple TV+'s terrible-but-glossy "The Morning Show" predictably won nominations for its big stars Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell (though not Reese Witherspoon).  "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" lost its spark in its third season, but managed 20 nominations, second only to "Watchmen" (HBO's "Succession" and "Ozark" took third place, with 18 each). "The Handmaid's Tale" was downright terrible in much of its third season, but still it remains a best drama contender. 

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No list of award show nominees or winners can satisfy everyone. The Emmys will always be at least partially frustrating (the TV Academy still has a ways to go when it comes to recognizing Latino and Asian American talent, for one thing). But it is significant that the organization seems to be slowly, if not quite surely, recognizing that great TV isn't just the same old family sitcoms or crime dramas about white male antiheroes.

There is more to TV, and this year there's just a little more to the Emmys, too.