Anthony Hopkins in HBO’s "Westworld." The program landed 22 Emmy nominations. (John P. Johnson / HBO)
We are a nation hurtling toward a dark dystopian future, in which robots fulfill an endless need to be entertained and women are enslaved as reproductive machines. Or we are going to be just fine despite racial tensions, fat shaming, alien invasion or government conspiracy because family, love and loyal friendship will always win the day.
The Emmy nominations mean many things to many people, but this year, with an unprecedented number of popular new shows occupying berths in the categories of outstanding drama and comedy, they offer a surprisingly sharp guide to the fractured American psyche.
Let’s face it. It’s been a rough year. The country’s divided along every line imaginable. Glued to their phones and a 24-hour digital news cycle, Americans alternately consume conspiracy theories and cute kitten videos, political rants and baby panda food fests.
The nominees announced Thursday morning, evenly spread among streaming, cable and broadcast, are a perfect reflection of the Great American Mood Swing.
The drama category stretches from the bleak vision of “Westworld,” in which the robotic hosts seem more human than the actual humans, and the chilling religious military state of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the tear-jerking celebration of family that is “This Is Us” and nostalgic cocoon of “Stranger Things.”
Or to boil it down to two shows, on the one hand, the evil machinations of “House of Cards” versus the lovely self-sacrificing nobles (and seriously great costumes) of “The Crown.”
Only “Better Call Saul” falls into any sort of moral middle-ground — Bob Odenkirk’s almost-Saul is a man with good intentions who can’t seem to get ahead without compromising them.
As news networks teem with competing versions of reality (is global warming real?) and the future (will America be great again?), it’s not surprising that our big television narratives are doing the same. Though it’s tempting to see their existence, or even their popularity, as a direct reaction to the Trump presidency, that isn’t quite fair.
These are shows that were brought to life before he won or took office. “House of Cards,” the Netflix series where Capitol Hill appears a more treacherous place than Westeros, debuted way back when Trump was still holding court on “The Apprentice.” “Westworld” is based on a 1973 film and “The Handmaid’s Tale” on a 1985 novel.
Their success, however, plays off the same psychological extremes that undoubtedly helped give rise to such a divisive presidential campaign and unprecedented presidency. Collectively, the darker of these shows get at themes of fracture and dissatisfaction, of us and them, the power elite versus the real people, in a way that is chilling. Which makes the need for the alternate comfort zone even more understandable.
The influence of this particular presidency, though, is undeniable in the sketch and variety comedy categories.
It was a big year for “Saturday Night Live,” which added to its nomination record, and tied “Westworld” for first place, with 22 nominations, most of which were no doubt due to the show’s nonstop lampooning of President Trump and his associates. Likewise Stephen Colbert returned to his political ways and made his way back into the race with “The Late Show.”
But in the comedy list, things were more complicated and perhaps more hopeful. “Master of None,” “black-ish” and “Atlanta” dealt with relevant race issues with a sense of humor but also varying degrees of intensity — from the seriousness of police brutality and shootings against young African American men to the challenges of growing up Muslim around bacon-eating, bar-hopping friends. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is, as many have pointed out, the first comedy that revolves around a victim of kidnapping and rape.
Extreme views on race, however, should have been more of an issue in the inclusion of Bill Maher as a nominee for variety talk show over Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers. The HBO host had freely used a racial slur in an early June episode, shortly before the Television Academy voters cast ballots.
Though the incident was fresh, they still decided to go with Maher, an increasingly polarizing figure they’ve been voting in (and leaving out) for the last few decades. The question is why now, especially in a field where there is more than enough new talent to go around?
He is, however, in keeping with the extremes that characterized television over the last year — and now the Emmys.
As for who might win? Optimists who love “This Is Us,” tune in Sept. 17. Doomsdayers, what’s the point, unless it’s to validate your deepest fears — that we are indeed headed toward a future where the darkest of scenarios seems plausible, like Maher winning an Emmy.