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Do Emmy Submission Episodes Actually Matter?

With the Emmys fast approaching here's Abe Fried-Tanzer to ask a perennial question...

For the past twelve years, I’ve analyzed the Emmy episodes submitted by the nominees. Every summer, I screen as many of the episodes of shows I don’t regularly watch as I can, and review the selections of those I do. It’s a fun way to get to sample popular series that, for whatever season, aren’t on your watchlist, but the question is: do these submissions actually matter?

The idea behind them is a good one. Emmy voters can’t be expected to watch every nominated performer’s work in every nominated show, and requiring them to screen just a select few episodes is far more reasonable...

Obviously, voters still bring in their own preconceptions and might already be fans of some of the shows or actors before voting. But is a 30 to 60 minute sample really serve as the best way of judging the quality of a television performance?

One clear instance of this episode submission process benefiting a performance is when Zeljko Ivanek beat out far more famous costar and fellow nominee Ted Danson for the first season of Damages because of his transformative, unforgettable turn in just one episode, while he took a backseat to Danson’s more prominent character in every other hour of the season. Kate McKinnon was a shoo-in for a repeat Emmy victory when she chose the post-election episode of Saturday Night Live that opened with her playing the piano as Hillary Clinton. Mariska Hargitay finally took home a trophy when she dominated the “911” episode of Law & Order: SVU -- that episode choice definitely helped push her ahead of all her fellow nominees.

It doesn’t always work that way, however. Lena Headey should have been a slam dunk for the fifth season finale of Game of Thrones where she does a naked walk of shame, but that wasn’t enough for her to win. Anthony Anderson actually had a great shot at winning two years ago for a powerful speech he gave in the “Lemons” episode of Black-ish, but his series has yet to win a single award. Aaron Paul lost on his first try for Breaking Bad despite his formidable submission of “Peekaboo,” which involves a death-by-ATM, but he would later triumph over costar Giancarlo Esposito because the episode he chose was better, though I’d argue that Esposito’s overall work that season was far more worthy of a win.  

Victories like Margo Martindale’s one-scene guest acting work in season four of The Americans suggest that voters don’t pay attention to the episodes and just vote based on who they like or know. A win for Robert De Niro’s deadpan imitation of Robert Mueller in the SNL episode hosted by Sandra Oh this year would be another indication of that. Billy Porter has a fantastic submission episode “Love is the Message” from Pose and a win for him would prove that at least some voters do spend time looking at the episodes, opting to honor a standout performer on a show that isn’t as widely nominated. I’d all also put in a plug for Marin Hinkle, who smartly chose the season premiere of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that focuses on her character. That episode  really should give her the edge over costar and defending champion Alex Borstein but likely won’t.

"Love is the Message" was one of Pose's very best episodes

Based on twelve years of paying attention to the submissions and who eventually wins, there’s no definitive answer about when and how much episode choices do matter. In some cases, it’s rewarding to see an undervalued player win for one breakthrough episode, while in others it’s frustrating to see a whole season of excellent work slighted in favor of just one juicy showcase. Either way, it’s fun to get to sample the same “best of” TV each season. 

Do you think Emmy episode submissions matter? Check out this year’s full list of submissions.


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Reader Comments (7)

They did before they changed the voting procedure. They don’t now. Now popular shows and stars win.

September 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJw

Yeah, the majority votes for the winner in every category instead of a minority committee. So episodes mean a lot less now.

September 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I don't think they do. I don't think they even care about a character arch or whatever.

September 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

You could notice how much they mattered in previous years. Key here being the voting format changing. Watching the submitted episodes was a good way to see surprises coming (Bobby Cannavale, Jeff Daniels, Eric Stonestreet, Archie Panjabi) as well as foreshadowing overwhelming favorites being much weaker (Steve Buscemi, Jon Hamm, Julianna Margulies, Matthew McConaughey, Sofia Vergara).

Since the voting format was changed in 2015 they really really don't. Not only have favourites with weak submissions won repeatedly since, but the Emmys have become more prone to rewarding shows with a high amount of trophies in a single night. Makes sense with the new voting format where all members vote for everything (like the Oscars, sweeps are likelier now).

Something they actually didn't do often. In the 20 years with the old system only 2 shows won 7 or more awards in a single year (The West Wing 2000 and 2001 and 30 Rock in 2008). Since the new format was implemented in 2015 it's happened already (Game of Thrones in 2015, 2016 and 2018, The Handmaid's Tale in 2017 and Mrs. Maisel in 2018).

September 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlex D

i wish they did, so that moira rose's brilliance in creating a human/crow hybrid in 'the crows have eyes 3: the crowening' would be recognised as the masterclass it is

i'm ride or die with catherine o'hara in the ridiculously stacked comedy actress category

September 8, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

par - I would love to see an O'Hara win too. I don't know how many people caught this, but she had an interview with ew where they asked her to respond in character to being nominated, and she said "Just thrilled to be recognized by the Emmanuels." How perfect.

September 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Interest article, I want to do Emmy Submission...

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJSC

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