Regina King and Felicity Huffman share a dubious honor at this year's Emmy Awards: They are nominated for a canceled show, American Crime, which ABC axed after three seasons in May. Your natural assumption might be that this doesn't bode well for their chances. Dead shows are long gone and forgotten, right?
Not so. Unlike posthumous nominees — who rarely win — it is quite common for stars to prevail for a canceled series.
By "canceled series," I mean a show that didn't get to finish on its own terms and have the luxury of a pre-planned, announced end date. So shows like Sex and the City, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Downton Abbey — all of which won Emmys for their final seasons — don't count; these programs had completed runs. "Canceled series" are shows like American Crime — critically acclaimed but low-rated and could've continued — or were past their heyday and struggling, or whose fates were up in the air until the last minute. (And yes, I know American Crime is an anthology series, but that doesn't change the fact that it's over because of crappy ratings. King and Huffman had also starred in every season and likely would've returned for a fourth.)
More than 20 people have won Emmys for canceled shows, including five in the last 11 years. Ellen Burstyn is the most recent, scooping up limited series/TV movie supporting actress honors in 2013 for Political Animals. The series was only submitted as a limited series after USA chose not to bring it back for a second season. That savvy move of submitting a canned one-season show as a limited series (formerly miniseries) was first employed by Thief, which was canceled by FX after low ratings but won Andre Braugher a limited series/TV movie lead actor Emmy in 2006.
You don't have to slum it in the "easier" limited movies/TV movie categories to win. Most winners for departed shows have come in the regular acting races. Beah Richards (Frank's Place), Alex Rocco (The Famous Teddy Z), Richard Kiley (A Year in the Life), Ron Leibman (Kaz) and William Windom (My World and Welcome to It) all won in the regular categories for one-season wonders (the latter show even won comedy series).
Kristin Chenoweth was absolutely stunned when she triumphed in comedy supporting actress for Pushing Daisies in 2009. "I'm unemployed now, so I'd like to be on Mad Men," she deadpanned. Three years earlier, Huff's Blythe Danner won her second straight drama supporting actress Emmy and casually said at the end of her speech, "I guess I have to thank Showtime even though they canceled us. They're nice guys, they couldn't help it, I guess."
Taxi — which was canceled by NBC in 1983, a year after it picked up the sitcom from ABC — produced three post-cancellation winners: Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane and Christopher Lloyd. Six-time winner Tyne Daly has the distinction of winning three times for a canceled show. She won her first drama lead actress Emmy in 1983 for then-dead-for-the-second-time Cagney & Lacey, which was later revived by CBS and back on the air by March 1984 after fan outcry and improved ratings for summer reruns. She took home her fourth trophy for the cop drama in 1988 after it was unceremoniously canceled for good. In 1996, she won drama supporting actress for CBS' short-lived Christy, 13 months after it went off the air. Dana Delany's drama lead actress victory for China Beach in 1992 also came a lucky 13 months after the show ended, following a six-month hiatus.
There are, of course, a host of reasons why these people won — like some of these shows and actors already being Emmy favorites — but it is reassuring that a defunct show is not a hindrance to Emmy glory. In fact, it might even help. Ideally, you'd hope voters just want to reward great work, regardless of whether shows are still on the air, and it seems like that might be the case in many instances. Plus, you have to get nominated in the first place, and there are always nominees for canceled shows across all fields every year.
But maybe voters also feel bad for their colleagues and want to bestow a parting gift. As we all know, sometimes the heat and attention on a series are not commensurate with its quality until after it's canceled. Voters could want vindication for their ill-fated favorites — an act of defiance, a middle finger to the networks and suits, a defense of their art. Hollywood loves to (appear to) be purveyors of good taste, and to make a statement and throw some shade to boot.
Some have used the Emmy stage to send a message. Not every winner has been as cheeky as Chenoweth or as benign as Danner in their speeches about their shows' demise. ''You should really put the show back on the air,'' Hirsch chastised NBC. '"There are people I don't wish to thank at all tonight.'' He later took out a full-page ad in the trades to apologize/mend bridges, adding, "but what I wanted to say was thank you."
Neither Patricia Wettig nor Timothy Busfield, who won drama lead actress and supporting actor, respectively, in 1991 for thirtysomething, thanked ABC, which canceled the show a week before the finale aired. In his speech for L.A. Law's drama series win later that night, David E. Kelley paid tribute to the beloved series and its fellow dearly departed China Beach, both of which were also up for the top honor. "You have made us proud to be on television," he said. "We will miss seeing you on the air."
Five years later, Kelley's Picket Fences would suffer a similar fate. After pulling the drama in February 1996, CBS abruptly canceled it and rushed a two-hour finale on the air in April, with the four episodes that were filmed and supposed to air before it burned off in June. Kathy Baker and Ray Walston won their respective third lead and second supporting Emmys that September. "This wasn't supposed to happen again," Baker quipped.
It could happen with King and Huffman. They represent the only nominations this year for American Crime, a vital, compelling show that wasn't afraid to tackle tough subject matters. A win for either would be a win for the show. Of the two, King has the better shot in supporting, not just because she doesn't have to deal with Big Little Lies' Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Feud: Bette and Joan's Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, and Fargo's Carrie Coon in lead like Huffman. (She does, however, have to deal with Laura Dern and it is the Year of Dern.) King, who played dedicated social worker Kimara Walters in the third installment, is the two-time defending champ in the category, having won American Crime's only Emmys ever the past two years. Voters clearly like her and it's not out of the realm of possibility for her to become the category's first three-time winner.
The Emmys like Huffman too. She upset Desperate Housewives co-star Teri Hatcher, who was heavily predicted to win, in 2005 and has been nominated the past two years for American Crime. She was once again excellent last season as Jeanette Hesby, a woman who discovers forced and immigrant labor on her family's tomato farm. While her category is a death match, don't completely rule out vote-splitting — now a factor without ranked ballots — between the Big Little Lies and Feud ladies.
It's an uphill climb for both, but it's not impossible. Because when it comes to the Emmys, you may have lost a job, but all hope is not lost for a win.
The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on CBS.
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