With two-time reigning drama series champ Game of Thrones sitting on the sideline, we are guaranteed a new winner at Sunday's Primetime Emmy Awards. Not only that, it could be a brand new one too. Five of the seven nominees are freshmen series, while the other two oldies have never won the top prize.
So who will walk away with the honor?
The Nominees: House of Cards and Better Call Saul are the only returning nominees from last year. The former is on its fifth straight drama series nomination, but it's on the downswing with the TV academy; it nabbed its fewest nods ever (seven, down from last year's 13), winning one at last week's Creative Arts Awards for music composition.
But at least House of Cards has won Emmys (seven, if you're curious). Better Call Saul, on its third straight drama series nod, has never won a single one. It does have its most nominations ever this year, nine, up from seven each the past two years.
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The other five contenders are all newbies. House of Cards' Netflix brethren The Crown and Stranger Things are in the running and have 13 and 18 nods, respectively. Hulu fielded its first drama series nominee in The Handmaid's Tale, which has 13 nods total. HBO kept its slot via Westworld, which co-leads the field with Saturday Night Live with 22 nominations. And NBC's This Is Us, which has 10 nods, became the first broadcast drama in six years to be shortlisted for the award.
Who Will Win: Stranger Things
Let's be clear: With five untested shows, this can be anyone's game, but Stranger Things has the edge right now. Why? Because people love Stranger Things. The show might still win under the old voting system with ranked ballots, which build consensus, but the new plurality vote favors passion. And we already know there's tremendous industry support for the throwback series: It won the Producers Guild Award for drama series and the Screen Actors Guild Award for drama ensemble in January. Since 2000, there have been five instances — The West Wing and Mad Men each did it twice, Breaking Bad did it once — of one show sweeping the PGA, SAG and drama series Emmy in the same calendar year (the old PGA eligibility period spanned 18 months, so the cycles didn't completely line up). And let's not forget the Emmys nominated friggin' Barb.
Stranger Things also won two crucial categories at the Creative Arts Emmys, where it picked up five total: editing and casting. Since 1980, only nine shows have won drama series without an editing nomination, and the last five drama series winners won editing.
The casting races have taken on greater importance since the academy allowed the directors and producers peer groups to vote in addition to the casting directors group three years ago. (Members vote in their own peer groups — actors vote for acting awards, sound mixers vote for sound mixing awards, etc — and everyone gets to vote for the program awards.) This larger swath of voters paints a better picture of who might win the series prize. Game of Thrones has won casting (and editing) the past two years en route to the drama series trophy.
A win for Stranger Things — or any of the Netflix nominees or The Handmaid's Tale — would mark the first series victory for a streaming service since online shows were ruled eligible to compete in 2008.
This Year's Emmys Will Be Different in One Very Big Way
This Is Us is the other beloved, popular hit of the bunch and could ride on that alone with the new system. It would be the first broadcast show to win drama series since 24 in 2006, but it has some speed bumps to overcome. Not only is it missing an editing nod, but This Is Us failed to get a writing or directing nod (blame its over-submissions), which are key bellwethers of Emmy success. Only 11 dramas have won the series prize without one of those nods, The Practice being the most recent in 1999. House of Cards, which has no shot here, is the only other nominee that did not make the cut in either writing or directing.
The Handmaid's Tale, which won three Creative Arts Emmy including guest actress for Alexis Bledel, is the other favorite, but it's missing that editing nomination. However, the last show — and only one this century — to win drama series without an editing nod was Mad Men in 2008, so maybe Elisabeth Moss shows defy that stat.
The Crown and Westworld are both gorgeous pieces of work in very different ways, but the former feels like it's taking the "elegant, classy prestige" spot that Downton Abbey — which won as a miniseries but never as a drama series — vacated. Westworld, which won five Creative Arts Emmys, clearly has a lot of fans within the academy and would continue HBO's win streak in the category (though we all know the best HBO show this year was The Leftovers). Better Call Saul would give AMC its seventh drama series win (more than, believe it or not, HBO), and broke into the directing race for the first time, but it'll probably again just have to be happy to be nominated.
Who Should Win: The Handmaid's Tale
The searing, visceral series only got better and better as the season went along, and its haunting relevance could help and hurt it. You might want to vote for it because of its timeliness or it might be all "too real" for you, so hey, let's escape with a triple-hanky tearjerker right now. But imagine how pissed Netflix will be if Hulu won on its first shot.
The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on CBS.
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