There’s no denying that the Emmys love to see movie stars drop down to TV. There’s also no denying that HBO is excellent at capitalizing on awards for their stars. This week, “Big Little Lies” wrapped up its seven-episode season to both critical and commercial success. Most importantly, the cast received rave reviews throughout the run of the show. The question now becomes whether the show can capitalize on the momentum come Emmy season. Many believe it could become another strong contender for HBO, but can the network pull off an Emmy sweep? Let’s examine the case.
The Case for a Sweep
For those unaware, the limited series follows a group of women whose children attend the same school in Monterey, California. The series is bookended with a murder, and as the police investigate the goings-on of the town, we are shown the story from the perspective of the women. On the surface, the series is a melodrama about the wealthy women drinking wine and hashing out their issues through their children. Peel back the curtain a little and the show takes on an entirely different tone, dealing with substantive issues like domestic and sexual abuse, as well as understated racism in affluent communities. There is a lot to love about the show and the talent involved is extremely impressive.
When shows like “Big Little Lies” come to TV, their pedigree can certainly build buzz before the audience ever sees the product. The series was directed in its entirety by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” TV goliath David E. Kelley (“L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal“) shepherded the series on the air and wrote every episode. Both of these individuals build an immaculate world that feels like a real place, yet fantastical at the same time. However, the series truly shines with its deep cast.
Even for HBO, the series was absolutely stacked with talent in both lead and supporting roles. Both Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman produced and starred in the series, and dominate the screen from the start of the season. Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern give amazing performances in slightly less screen time, but remain as emotionally effective as Witherspoon and Kidman. The series also features Zoë Kravitz (“Mad Max: Fury Road“) in a supporting role. Even the men on the show, including Alexander Skarsgård and Adam Scott, deliver solid performances in supporting roles. The series lives and breathes on the performances of its core four ladies, but the talent of the ensemble is undeniable.
With Witherspoon and Kidman competing for lead actress, Woodley, Dern and Kravitz will probably go supporting. Kravitz and Dern are true supporting roles, while Woodley has both the screen time and emotional weight to justify a lead push. However, to get as many nominations as possible, HBO will likely pull an “American Crime Story” and push her supporting à la Sterling K. Brown last year. Both Skarsgård and Scott do enough to merit nominations as well. Tack on spectacular below-the-line credits, especially for its editing, costume design, cinematography, and makeup, and the series should easily push a double-digit nomination count.
The Case Against a Sweep
While there are a lot of reasons why “Big Little Lies” will do well at the Emmys, there is a possibility the show doesn’t take home a single award. It’s hard to imagine, but this year might be even more competitive than last year’s Limited Series category. This would certainly be an injustice to the strong storytelling, and the female-centric narrative constructed here. When you factor in the TV movie aspect of the race, every category gets even tighter. In the world of Peak TV, this is simply a reality. Let’s break down the potential pitfalls that the show creates for itself, and other series on the horizon.
First, let’s address the inherent flaws with “Big Little Lies.” Perhaps the aspect of the show that makes it so strong, namely the four leading actresses, is also its downfall. Kidman should cruise through the season and win Best Actress, except she also faces competition from her running-mate, Witherspoon. Woodley will likely hurt Dern (in what should be the winning supporting actress performance) as well. Kravitz might not make it in at all given the tough field in supporting actress. Throw in two performances in supporting actor that are absolutely bubble contenders and you run into an issue. Despite the firepower, no one is showy beyond the big four. What hurts more, the big four will all go against each other in some fashion. This puts an inherent cap on the number of awards the series can win, and potentially creates vote splitting or snubs.
The Other Series to Watch
Next, while the direction and writing are extremely good, are they better than the competition? This year, we’ve already seen “The Night Of” take home DGA honors for Best Director. The series also picked up a nomination with PGA, but lost to “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” which obviously won’t be competing this year. The scripting in “The Night Of” is also from Richard Price, a legend who didn’t get his due for “The Wire.” He’s certainly popular in his own right and could find his way into the category as well. It’s tough to fully predict how much industry awards groups enjoyed the show because it was eligible against “O.J.” and “All the Way.” Come time for the Emmys, the series could easily get a huge bump.
Also of note is “Feud: Bette and Joan” which also looks like a powerhouse. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon will both be in play for Best Actress as well, and Lange could easily upset Kidman. She’s a TV legend and might be turning in the single best performance of her career. Sarandon’s performance in “And the Winner Is…” was stunning, and pulled at the heartstrings of everyone who watched it. Given last year’s Oscar shenanigans, the episode should strike a chord with those in the industry. Oscar winners playing Oscar winners may be the formula for success here.
The supporting cast seems to have more to do than the “Big Little Lies” ensemble with Judy Davis, Alison Wright and Stanley Tucci all giving showcase performances. By virtue of an extra episode and having Ryan Murphy produce the series, there’s going to be more showy moments for voters to gravitate to. Other than editing, “Feud” may actually be better than “Big Little Lies” in all the creative arts categories as well. With Murphy’s track record, 15-20 nominations for “Feud” is not unreasonable.
Perhaps the biggest unknown to enter the fray is “Fargo” season 3. The series hasn’t premiered yet, but word so far is very positive. The series once again has a deep cast, including Carrie Coon and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the actress categories. Again, it’s a lot of firepower for a show that utilizes women extremely well. So far, the series has grabbed three nominations between lead and supporting actress in its two seasons, so don’t sleep on it. With Coon playing a role similar to Allison Tolman in season 1, a nomination might be in the cards. Winstead appears to be a wildcard character, and if the trailer gives us anything, it’s that she’ll be a scene-stealer. Expect technical brilliance as well, as both of the prior seasons have received 18 nominations. It’d be crazy to expect less than 12 this time around, assuming the show regresses. Even crazier, it might not.
All in all, “Big Little Lies” is an absolute triumph. It’s an amazing show that brings a female-driven story into the mainstream. It was a success by almost every metric possible. That said, it might not sweep the Emmys. There’s simply too much competition across the board and the actresses may cannibalize themselves in the nomination phase. At bare minimum, we should be looking at Kidman and Woodley making a run at Actress and Supporting Actress, but the competition will be fierce. Fingers crossed the Emmys enjoy the show, but we can’t write home about a sweep unless it takes home upwards of 15 nominations. The problem is, that looks like a stretch at this point.