When nominees for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards are announced on July 16, one history-making milestone is likely to be among them: For the first time since the inaugural statuette was handed out in 1952, contenders for Outstanding Comedy Series will be dominated by shows that center on female lead characters.
At press time, 24 leading TV critics and industry pundits for the awards-prediction site Gold Derby had nearly unanimously dubbed at least seven female-led series as frontrunners for comedy’s top prize, including: NBC’s The Good Place, Netflix’s GLOW, Dead to Me,and Russian Doll; HBO’s Veep (a current favorite to win), and Amazon’s Fleabag and 2018 winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Only a few short years ago, repeat nominees in the race included exalted, dude-focused fare such as FX’s Louie, HBO’s Silicon Valley, and CBS’s erstwhile The Big Bang Theory. But this year, HBO’s Bill Hader assassin dramedy Barry and Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, are the only such male-fronted series predicted to make showings in 2019.
While the Emmys have awarded numerous female-driven comedies during their run, from I Love Lucy to Ally McBeal to 30 Rock, journalist and author Carina Chocano says there’s something uniquely current about how and why this year’s contenders have resonated so deeply.
“The #metoo movement has made some [TV executives] aware for the first time that women have deep interior lives and are therefore viable as comedy protagonists,” says Chocano, author of the book, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks and Other Mixed Messages. “In this deeply terrifying political time, it makes sense that we turn to women to make sense of the gaslighting and verbal assault. Women are the most qualified at this moment to express how it feels to be alive in this culture of abuse, where we’re all being dehumanized. I guess you could say we’re all women now.”
Robert Rorke, TV columnist for The New York Post and a Gold Derby awards pundit, says Mrs. Maisel’s victory last year (Amazon’s first major win for an original series, a milestone that’s eluded even Netflix) signaled a crucial shift in the way these comedies are both marketed to viewers and promoted to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’15,000-plus voters, a body that’s increasingly favored single-camera dramedies over traditional multi-cam network sitcoms. (The last of the latter to win was CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005.)
In fact, with the exception of NBC’s afterlife-themed single-cam comedy The Good Place, broadcast network contenders have been totally eclipsed by edgier streaming series in this year’s race, especially cutting-edge dramadies like Russian Doll, Fleabag, and Dead to Me that Rorke says offer up uniquely gut-wrenching material.
“And there is now such a wealth of talented female actors who can shine in these roles—Christina Applegate, for one, has had the kind of success with Dead to Me that eluded her in previous traditional sitcoms,” says Rorke. “These actors don't mug. They don't do ‘shtick.’ They never try to be funny. Yet, they’re hysterical.”
This year’s spate of women-forward series have also all but replaced the “family comedy” in the Emmy race, whose most recent nominees, five-time winner Modern Family and two-time nominee black-ish (both on ABC) have disappeared from pundits’ pick-lists.
And speaking of families, only three female characters total among this year’s crop of frontrunners are moms raising children: Rachel Brosnahan’s stand-up comic in Maisel, Betty Gilpin’s ‘80s wrestler in GLOW, and Applegate’s widow in Dead to Me. But in all of these cases, screen-time the characters spend “parenting’ is dwarfed by scenes depicting professional (stand-up comedy, wrestling) or personal pursuits (solving a murder).
Chocano says this latest evolution of the TV comedy, however it may fare at this year’s Emmys on Sept. 22, is likely just one of many iterations to come in how women want to see their lives depicted on-screen.
“The family comedy—even slightly subversive ones like Modern Family and black-ish—have always upheld a certain patriarchal status quo, which isn't feeling so hot now,” says Chocano. “Those series’ creators tweaked the form. But our current mood is burn it all to the ground.”
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