Genre at the Emmys: A New Task For Game of Thrones

In 2006, the SyFy Channel (which was still the SciFi Channel at the time) made a bid to get Battlestar Galactica recognized at the Emmys. It looks as though the network spent around one million dollars trying to get the show, or at least their lead actors, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, a little bit of love on the ballot. Whatever their reasons, surely BSG deserved some props for what was a groundbreaking effort in television, let alone in science fiction and fantasy.

It never received a single nomination.

This year’s Emmy nominee list saw Game of Thrones with 13 tips of the hat, including Best Drama. But let’s make no mistake—when it comes to awards like the Oscars and the Emmys, genre has a pretty rocky relationship. The only genre show to ever win Best Drama at the Primetime Emmys was Lost in 2005, and examining the history of SFF in the Emmys brings up some interesting data.

Taking a glimpse at the shows nominated for Best Drama over the years, it looks like the first bid for genre was The Twilight Zone in 1961. While that shouldn’t be all that surprising, what is surprising is that The Twilight Zone was never nominated again. The next show on the ballot probably doesn’t come as much of a shock either; Star Trek was nominated in ’67 and ’68. What makes it disappointing is knowing that it was beat both years by Mission: Impossible.

Then genre disappeared from the Emmys and was not seen again until the late 80s, when Beauty and the Beast was nominated. From 1988 on, a trend seemed apparent: nearly every year there was a token SFF show on the nominee list that never won. Quantum Leap, Star Trek: The Next Generation (notably, the only show ever nominated that was in syndication), The X-Files, Joan of Arcadia, Lost, Heroes…. With the exception of 1990, when Quantum Leap and Twin Peaks were nominated at the same time, there has usually been only one show that features time travel, space, or the unexplained.

Are those really the best representations of genre on the small screen? Were there no other qualified candidates during this 20+ year stretch? It seems as though earning legitimacy for these sorts of awards relies on two factors—the size of the audience and the size of the network. Most of the shows listed were very popular in their day, and the networks that funded them have all the money and the viewership to back it up.

With that in mind it’s no wonder that Battlestar Galactica was unable to secure nominations. The SyFy Channel doesn’t have the largest audience by any means, and while the show was popular, it was popular among a very select group of people who already enjoyed genre in the first place.

Game of Thrones has a unique advantage in this case. It is being hosted by one of the hottest networks in the business, one that has The Sopranos and Six Feet Under under its belt, and it is reaching a fever pitch of popularity. While Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are certainly favorites these days, Game of Thrones might be poised to pull a Lord of the Rings in the near future. It was Steven Spielberg who said it following the 2004 Oscars—the win for Return of the King was a long moment coming for the fans who had watched Star Wars lose out nearly three decades before. Just like Return of the King‘s Oscar made up for snubbing Star Wars in ’77, a Game of Thrones Emmy could make up for ignoring Star Trek in the 60s.

Why am I not acknowledging Lost‘s win in this scenario? While Lost is absolutely genre, it had a widespread appeal that went far beyond that. It didn’t immediately wave a geeks-belong-here flag the way that a show full of magic and dragons, or aliens and cloning would. One could argue that this might be the reason it was taken more seriously. However, if Game of Thrones wins at some point down the line, it will be a very visible pull for genre that could help silence the dissenters who are still snorting at SFF legitimacy after all these years.

Perhaps this is even more amusing because, like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones is epic fantasy. The greater public seems to have an untapped taste for these yarns that much of mainstream media is still keen on brushing under a rug. In fact, it seems to be much easier to swallow than the spaceships and robots of Battlestar Galactica. As for why that is, I can only speculate. There may be some interesting answers there.

On a fascinating sidetone, it seems that aside from Lost‘s Michael Emerson, no one wins Emmys for genre parts with the exception of leading ladies. Lindsay Wagner won for The Bionic Woman, Mariette Hartley for The Incredible Hulk, Gillian Anderson for The X-Files, and Patricia Arquette for Medium. Does this make a case that genre provides better parts for women than mainstream television? It’s certainly something to think about.

Obviously, analyzing this data doesn’t provide conclusive answers, but it makes me curious about what television will look like in the next ten or twenty years. While I doubt that we’ll be looking at a slew of shows about other-worldly kingdoms and the broadsword-wielding people who defend them, if one less person rolls their eyes when I tell them I’m watching Farscape or Merlin reruns, I’ll call that a win.

Emmet Asher-Perrin is still bitter that Farscape never won an Emmy. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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