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The Furniture: Who Should Win the Emmys for Production Design

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Last year, I made a pitch to the Academy of Television Arts and Science on the subject of production design. Hopefully you also remember that amazing table tennis parlor from Penny Dreadful. But what you might not remember is that not a single one of the nominees I recommended actually won. Not even Lemonade, about which I am still annoyed.

But here I am, one year later, trying again. Here’s who should win each of the five production design Emmys. (At least Game of Thrones isn’t eligible this year, or they’d be winning for the fourth year in a row.)

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary or Fantasy Program (One Hour or More)
The Young Pope is almost dizzyingly lush. It’s here as a “contemporary” program, but much of it feels just as fantastical as the other nominees. It revives the gilded extravagance of the old Catholic Church, back when the Pope presented himself as more of an emperor than a priest. One is reminded of the clerical fashion show from Fellini’s Roma, but with a much darker undercurrent.

The whole Vatican becomes a manifestation of the unpredictable, cryptic fanaticism of Pope Lenny (Jude Law) and the darkness that follows him through its halls.

This closed universe is also punctuated with bizarre props, Paolo Sorrentino’s signature touches of surrealism. The Papal office features a Venus of Willendorf and this luminescent globe.

But perhaps the greatest triumph is the overall magnitude of the production, which was not actually shot in the Vatican. The Sistine Chapel, among other crucial locations, were rebuilt in Cinecittà Studios.

also nominated in this category:
Penny Dreadful, "Perpetual Night, The Blessed Dark"
The Handmaid's Tale "Offred (Pilot)"
Westworld "The Bicameral Mind"
Westworld "The Original"

Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program (One Hour or More)
This is your occasional reminder that production designer Judy Becker does not have an Oscar, for Carol or for anything else. It’s crazy. And while Feud: Bette and Joan can’t fix that, the least it can do is get her an Emmy. Her work is very best thing about the show, with the possible exception of Judy Davis and her hats.

Becker and her team’s recreation of the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? sound stage takes full advantage of its potential as a backdrop for high drama. Joan Crawford’s favorite restaurant is deliciously theatrical, Bette Davis’s house a perfectly out-of-place Yankee outpost in Hollywood.

But Crawford’s house takes the cake. It includes some exact replicas of real furniture that was supplied by Crawford’s friend William Haines - the gay silent star who left acting in the mid-1930s and became a very successful interior designer.

And yes, she really did have a cherry tree in her living room. The style is eccentric without being deranged, an almost-opulence that avoids indulgence. It offers a better read on her character than either the script or Jessica Lange’s performance.

Each room has a different take on performative innocence and virtue, clunkily exoticised with popular chinoiserie and accented with gorgeous furniture. It’s perfect.

Also nominated in this category:
Masters of Sex "Freefall, Inventory, The Pleasure Protocol"
Stranger Things "Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers"
The Crown "Smoke and Mirrors"
The Man in the High Castle "The Tiger's Cave"


Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half-Hour or Less)
Last year’s award went to Transparent, which is here again. But I’d like to make a pitch for the other nominated Amazon show, Mozart in the Jungle.

The design team is nominated for “Now I Will Sing,” something of a mid-season climax. Monica Bellucci plays La Fiamma, an opera singer preparing for a triumphant return to the stage after a few years of isolation. The concert, originally planned for Venice’s historic La Fenice, has been moved to the Grand Canal.

She begins on a raft. The illumination, both from the bridge itself and from the decorative street lamps, is gorgeous. Then a second floating stage arrives, carrying Plácido Domingo as he joins La Fiamma for “La ci darem la mano."

During intermission, the concert moves to the Piazza San Marco. Seizing the opportunity for a very Italian embellishment of her famous moniker, the stage is surrounded by tall flames.

On the one hand, this is a bit on the nose. On the other, this is opera. Subtlety is sacrificed for passion. It’s a wonder, one that hopefully takes home the Emmy.

Also nominated in this category
Grace and Frankie "The Burglary, The Gun"
Silicon Valley "Success Failure, Terms of Service, Hooli-Con"
The Big Bang Theory "The Dependence Transcendence"
Transparent "If I Were a Bell"
Veep "Omaha"

Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality-Competition Series
Prop comedy reigns supreme in this category, which is why Portlandia has won so many times. And while last year I pitched Drunk History and its delightful manifestations of drunk verbal mistakes, their submission for this Emmys wasn’t their best work. The Portlandia submission, meanwhile, is excellent.

The titular plot involves Fred’s attempt to start his own boutique cell phone company. It doesn’t work, obviously, but the humor is in the details. Here’s his initial map of the coverage area, for example:

But it’s not just the one sketch. There’s also a funeral for men, in general, held by some Men’s Rights Activists:

The biggest avalanche of jokes comes with a sketch about tip jars. A local cafe commissions one from Diego, a leading figure of the “j’art” world.

The museum and magazine mock-ups are great, as are the actual art-jars that he makes in his enormous studio. Here’s a conceptual one that blocks tips on their way into the jar with a big red and white plug:

also nominated in this category:
Bill Nye Saves the World "Earth is a Hot Mess"
Drunk History "Hamilton"
Saturday Night Live "Host: Alec Baldwin"
The Voice "Live Finale, Part 1"


Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Event, or Award Special
This category was split off from the variety/nonfiction series category last year, presumably to accommodate the recent spate of live musicals. It had only existed once before, in 1977 and 1978.

But this year the only nominated musical is Hairspray Live! The list is filled out by The Golden Globes, Samantha Bee, Yet Another Art Deco Oscars and the Lady Gaga halftime show. Hairspray Live! will win, and it probably should, but maybe it’s time to put this category back in the history books.

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Reader Comments (8)

The Young Pope has been very underrated (I still can't believe Jude Law missed out - the Emmy should have been his), so I hope it wins here. I don't always notice Production Design, but I definitely noticed it in that case, and in Bette and Joan's, which had me googling Bette's goregous-for-their-era homes.

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I'm still not entirely sure what I thought of The Young Pope as a whole, but as far as this element goes, it was a major achievement. I think it deserves this Emmy.

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

When in doubt, go italian. Young Pope and Mozart in the Jungle should win.

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

It's so unfortunate that The Crown and Feud are nominated in the same categories for both Production and Costume design since both shows absolutely deserve the Emmys. Breathtaking work.

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDg


August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDO

Was "West World" nominated?

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Jaragon -- yes. it has two of the five nominations in The Young Pope's category.

August 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I suspect The Young Pope will win for the same reason The Tudors always seemed to win.

August 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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