Every awards season brings its share of flubs and snubs, overlooking shows or performances that deserve recognition. Here at The Escapist, we are big fans of The Expanse. Personally, I have singled it out as a worthy successor to Game of Thrones and the defining science fiction show of the past 10 years. The Expanse absolutely deserves more awards and the attention that more mainstream recognition would bring to the show. Even with a single season left to broadcast, it is a monumental accomplishment that deserves consideration among the peaks of the modern television landscape.
Naturally, it received absolutely no Emmy nominations this year. It has never received any Emmy nominations, even in the technical categories where shows like The Expanse tend to perform well. The Expanse has excelled among genre fans, picking up multiple consecutive Saturn nominations and even winning the coveted Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form in its first season. However, mainstream awards success has largely eluded The Expanse.
It is tempting to argue that The Expanse has been overlooked due to a snobbishness around genre television, particularly science fiction. There is a longstanding belief that the major awards bodies like the Emmys do not recognize science fiction and fantasy works as frequently or as consistently as they favor prestige dramas. There has historically been some truth to this observation, with many classic landmarks of science fiction television overlooked by the Emmys.
Patrick Stewart has candidly complained that the Emmys never acknowledged the quality work being done on Star Trek: The Next Generation, stating, “There was an albatross around the necks of projects like this where they were not taken seriously.” The Next Generation accrued 58 Emmy nominations, but 57 of those were Creative Arts Emmy Awards. The show’s only Primetime Emmy Award nomination came in its final year, with a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.
This nomination was something of a “make-up award,” a concession to the show’s popularity and success. The nomination became a joke among the writing staff. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine even built an absurd subplot around Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) being nominated for an award he would never actually win. Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe remarked of the nomination, “Everyone knew that TNG was not going to win. … It’s not the kind of show they usually give awards to.”
There were arguably exceptions. The X-Files was a fixture of the Outstanding Drama Series race up until the launch of The Sopranos, but it couched its genre elements within a reliable procedural framework that likely made it more accessible to voters. Lost won Outstanding Drama Series in its first year, becoming the first science fiction or fantasy show to win the award and giving genre television “sudden, massive visibility,” but it was also a show that was hard to classify or pigeonhole.
The success of Lost perhaps paved the way for more science fiction series to break into the Emmy running. Battlestar Galactica earned rave reviews that pointed to its topicality as “a fierce parable on the war on terror,” and it secured multiple Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing nominations during its run. However, the show remained completely locked out of the higher-profile Outstanding Drama Series and performance categories.
Things have changed in recent years. The fantasy series Game of Thrones was an Emmy favorite. Its final season racked up 32 nominations, becoming the most-nominated single season in the history of the awards. Winning 59 statues over the course of its run, it is the most awarded narrative series in Emmy history. It is not just technical categories. With four wins in Outstanding Drama Series, it is tied with The West Wing, Mad Men, L.A. Law, and Hill Street Blues for most wins in the category.
Even beyond Game of Thrones, recent years have seen the Emmys increasingly embrace genre television. By 2017, genre shows like Westworld and Stranger Things were dominating the field. Perhaps this reflects the shifting television landscape. After all, the much-lauded prestige dramas of the Golden Age of Television like The Sopranos or Mad Men have long been replaced by more heightened and populist fare.
The Shield creator Shawn Ryan points to the launch of The Walking Dead as a watershed moment in the evolution of prestige television, like Jaws and Star Wars were to the New Hollywood movement. Critic Andy Greenwald suggests that the emergence of generic “prestige simulacra” also played its part. Whatever the reason, the shift is clear. The Emmys have noticed. Looking over this year’s nominees, critic John Jurgensen noted the domination of “fantasy franchise spinoffs and other escapist fare.”
However, this widening of scope is not simply about recognizing genres that have long been excluded. It is a more cynical exercise. After all, awards shows have been hemorrhaging viewers. This has created an existential crisis. The Academy Awards famously toyed with (and then retreated from) the idea of creating a “Best Popular Film” category to include movies that people had actually seen, which would have created a silo of things audiences enjoyed away from the “real” awards fare.
The Emmys just did what awards shows should do, including popular shows in the major categories to give the ceremony some “populist sizzle.” This year’s nominees are dominated by buzzy and accessible hits. The Outstanding Drama Series nominees include a superhero show (The Boys), a period horror series (Lovecraft Country), a steamy streamer period drama (Bridgerton), and even a Star Wars spin-off (The Mandalorian). It’s impossible to imagine a comparable Best Picture lineup.
As such, The Expanse isn’t necessarily excluded according to genre bias. Instead, its exclusion perhaps speaks to another systemic issue with the Emmy Awards and a challenge facing awards shows in general. This is a popularity contest, where success is often framed in terms of preexisting reach. A small show like The Expanse would always be at a disadvantage, particularly in a climate where the Emmys look to be eagerly asserting their relevance to the larger culture.
Back in 2003, before the explosion of streaming services and networks, television critic Aaron Barnhart argued that there is “clearly a bias toward the Nielsen Top 30 programs and always has been” in the major nominees. Although the metrics for popularity and success have changed in an era where streaming ratings are oblique and obscure, the logic still holds. The Emmys tend towards particular shows, often from particular providers, and with a particular pedigree.
The Emmys tend to be dominated by the same brands year in and year out. For example, this year marked the 19th time in history that the “HBO brand” had “received the most nominations of any network/platform in a single year.” Netflix was just behind, receiving 129 nominations to HBO’s 130. This is down from Netflix’s record-setting tally of 160 nominations in 2020, which in turn broke the record of 137 set the previous year by HBO. That is an incredible run from HBO and Netflix — an awards season arms race.
As such, The Expanse has a starting disadvantage as an Amazon streaming series, with Amazon only picking up 20 nominations — five of those for The Boys. The Expanse is further hindered by the fact that it is a show that only arrived on Amazon in its twilight years, and so it receives less of a push from the streamer — any awards push this year seemed to come from the fans or the writers. The Expanse is also undoubtedly further hindered by the fact that it didn’t originate on Amazon, but SyFy.
SyFy is hardly an Emmy favorite, and this is an awards body that gave three nominations to Facebook and five to YouTube. When the channel has received major awards or nominations, it rarely seems to be on their own merits. To pick an example, the Sci-Fi Channel won its first major Emmy in 2003 when abduction drama Taken took home Outstanding Miniseries. However, the miniseries’s official title of Steven Spielberg Presents Taken suggests a key influencing factor.
To find a major nominee from SyFy, one has to travel back over a decade to 2010. Oscar winner Kathy Bates received a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her work as the Queen of Hearts in the miniseries Alice. However, the nomination seems likely to have been a recognition of Bates rather than the show. Bates was an Emmy favorite, picking up consecutive nominations for her work on Harry’s Law the two years that would follow.
Of course, awards don’t actually mean anything and rarely correlate directly with quality. The Expanse doesn’t need any Emmy nominations to validate its status as one of the best shows on television. Still, it would be nice to see good work recognized regardless of genre or point of origin.