Kit Harington, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and Richard Madden in HBO's Game Of Thrones.
Kit Harington, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and Richard Madden in HBO's Game Of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO
On Sunday night, Game Of Thrones will face off against five other shows for Outstanding Drama Series: period pieces Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, CBS's solid and conventional lawyer show The Good Wife, the violent and dark drama Dexter, and the beloved football-and-family saga Friday Night Lights.
It's the one real genre show in the group. What do we mean by "genre"? Mostly, in the context of contemporary prime-time television, we mean sci-fi and fantasy shows, although that term can also be applied to conventional mysteries, romantic comedies, and other well-worn formulas.
Certainly, there are other reasons to bet against Game Of Thrones: The reviews weren't quite as glowing as for some other shows, Mad Men had an exceptionally strong season and has won for the last three years in a row, Boardwalk Empire cleaned up in the technical categories on Saturday night, and Friday Night Lights is one of the most admired and least nominated shows of the last decade, meaning that it might be the spoiler before Game would.
On the other hand, Game Of Thrones is based on an enormously popular book series by George R.R. Martin. Its ratings grew from the beginning of the season to the end. It received 13 Emmy nominations. But it brings up a question that often plagues the Emmys (and the Oscars, too): Is this the kind of show that wins awards? Is it the kind of show that even could?
Sci-fi shows have sometimes been nominated in the past: The X-Files was nominated four times, from 1995 to 1998. But they have trouble bringing home the prize: The X-Files lost four times to four different cop-and-doctor shows: NYPD Blue, ER, Law & Order, and The Practice. Star Trek: The Next Generation was nominated in 1994, and it lost to the small-town quirkfest Picket Fences. That's not to say any of those winners weren't deserving, because they were. But they are effectively procedurals revolving around fiery professional people; they are more alike than different.
And Battlestar Galactica, a highly respected show that managed to be nominated for writing, directing, and numerous technical accomplishments, never made it to an Outstanding Drama Series nomination — even when slots went to so-so programs like the soapy Grey's Anatomy and the wheezing later seasons of The West Wing.
Of course, there are plenty of ways other than genre bias to be frozen out: HBO's devastating, revered series The Wire was shrugged at by the Academy for five seasons, too. But while the advent of cable has raised the bar of television drama, it increasingly seems like populist shows — the kind people are most likely to actually watch — have a very hard time breaking into big nominations. And dismissing sci-fi and fantasy shows out of hand, while it's slightly different from refusing to take traditional popular shows seriously, is a related phenomenon, because both are rooted in the assumption that certain kinds of shows are for watching, and other kinds are for giving awards to.
This wasn't always the case: In the 1970s, The Rockford Files won Outstanding Drama Series once, and so did The Waltons. For that matter, so did Marcus Welby, M.D. Without pining for the days when television simply didn't make shows like Mad Men, it's a little bit sad that it's so difficult to find room to recognize really well-executed popular entertainment.
In a lot of ways, that's what genre television is. If you sat down to watch Game Of Thrones, you would see a lot of good acting, but you'd also see (as you would on Boardwalk Empire) a lot of topless women, along with a lot of beheadings and eviscerations. Violence is certainly part of traditionally honored highbrow shows like The Sopranos, but it wasn't like this. This is disembodied heads, gratuitous nipples, and blood spurting like Dan Aykroyd's finger in that Julia Child sketch on Saturday Night Live. It's serious, but it's also populist. It plays to the elevated sensibilities of riveting drama and epic adventure, but it also plays to the groundlings.
There is nothing to regret about Mad Men's three consecutive wins, and there will be nothing to regret if it wins again. There will be nothing to regret if Boardwalk Empire — which has all the nudity of Game Of Thrones but gets its alternate universe from its period setting rather than a fictional world — wins. It's just interesting to wonder whether a show like Game Of Thrones, no matter how well made and no matter how well executed, is the kind of show that wins this award anymore — or ever.