There are 14 shows up for drama and comedy series — seven in each category — at the Emmy Awards this year. But five of them were pretty much out of the running as soon as nominations were announced last week: Black-ish, Modern Family, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Better Call Saul and House of Cards.
Why? It's not because Veep and Game of Thrones are the favorites or because of buzz (or lack thereof) or bias or anything. (I, for one, would love for Kimmy Schmidt to win.) These five shows all have one thing in common: None of them received directing and/or writing nominations.
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Like the all-important editing nomination at the Oscars — Birdman was the first movie in 34 years and the 10th overall to win Best Picture without an editing nod in 2015 — the secret to a series victory at the Emmys is having a directing and/or writing nomination. It goes without saying that great direction and a great script are instrumental to the making of a great TV show, but there is statistical proof that recognizing the former two is just as vital when it comes to awarding great shows (or at least what's perceived to be great in all three cases).
Since the writing and directing races were added to the Emmys back in 1955, 11 dramas have won the series prize without contending in either directing or writing, while only five comedies have done so. (As the TV Academy experimented with categories and category names in the early days, there was no drama series award in 1957. In 1965, the Emmys handed out an award for achievement in entertainment, which went to four shows, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, but no drama.)
The most recent show in either genre to achieve this is Friends in 2002, which was the overwhelming favorite to win its first comedy series Emmy after a revitalized season with Rachel's pregnancy that saw it finish as the most-watched show of the season for the first time (as Phoebe would call it, a frienaissance). You have to rewind back to 1970 for the last comedy before Friends to win without nods for directing or writing: My World and Welcome to It, which only lasted one season. The other comedies in this exclusive club are Art Carney Special (1960), The Jack Benny Program (1961) and Get Smart (1969).
The drama side is a little bit more interesting — and would probably have a smaller count than 11 if it weren't for the lax categorizations back in the day. The Practice is the most recent drama to accomplish this feat, when it picked up its second straight series trophy in 1999. This was the fourth time that decade that a drama won without directing or writing nods, and the third time with the same person behind the show. The '90s was the Age of David E. Kelley. The TV Academy loves the prolific producer, who started the decade with series and writing wins for L.A. Law, before picking up two drama series awards for Picket Fences in 1993 and '94 without — yup — directing or writing nominations in either year. Law & Order was the other champ without those corresponding nods, when it upset in 1997, making the then-seven-year-old procedural an atypical winner in the serialized-favored category.
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Before Picket Fences' first win, you have to go back to the '70s to find the next five instances in that decade alone. Three of those victories were by miniseries/limited series Elizabeth R (1972) and Upstairs, Downstairs (1974, 1977). The latter actually competed and won in limited series in 1976, before switching back to drama series. The other two winners were anthology series Police Story (1976) and The Rockford Files (1978), the quirky procedural that subverted all of the genre's clichés. In the '60s, action thriller The Fugitive (1966) and anthology series NET Playhouse (1969) took the top prize without directing and writing support.
Having at least a directing or writing nomination is, of course, by no means a rule for Emmy glory, and even if it were, there are obviously exceptions. But the numbers don't lie. Whether voters are consciously aware of these nominations — I highly doubt they're all cross-referencing when they vote, and remember how voting has worked in the past and works now? — they do at least subconsciously appear to have a standard for well-rounded-ness in an Emmy champ. In drama, 11 shows have won the top award with a nod in at least one of those categories, while 37 shows have prevailed with mentions in both. In comedy, it's 22 and 34, respectively.
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Looking at it more granularly, the directing and writing shortlists also provide a year-to-year gauge on which shows are on the upswing and which are on the downturn in the Emmys' eye. Mad Men won its fourth and final drama series statuette in 2011 with two writing nods, but without a directing nod for the first time. The following year, it was the victim of the biggest Emmy shutout ever, going 0-17. House of Cards has been trumpeted as a sleek, snobby show that seems like a probable drama series winner, but this is now the second year in a row it failed to get directing or writing nods.
Likewise, from 2012 to 2014, Modern Family triumphed in comedy series with directing nods but no writing ones. In 2015, it was snubbed in both, a tell-tale sign that it wouldn't win an unprecedented sixth straight series trophy. On the other end of the spectrum, Veep was gearing up to take it down, earning its first writing nod in 2014. Last year, it won writing and finally broke into directing en route to its first series win.
That brings us to this year. Veep has three directing nominations and two writing ones, the most of any series contender. The next closest is Silicon Valley, with two nods in each category. Defending drama series champ Game of Thrones has two directing nods and one in writing. Master of None and Downton Abbey have one in each. Transparent and Homeland just have directing mentions, while The Americans and Mr. Robot only fielded writing nominees.
So when you're making your predictions in September, your best bet is to go for one of those. But don't forget, Game of Thrones is winning everything anyway.
The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, will air Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.