The Emmys' Good Lord Bird problem
What the worst snub of the year tells us about the state of the awards show
Wallowing in the television funk that I typically fall into between seasons of Succession, I decided last year to watch the screeners for a new miniseries that had appeared in my inbox: The Good Lord Bird.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests over the summer, Showtime had shied away from heavily promoting the series, which centers on John Brown's 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry and could've potentially and inaccurately been accused of being a white savior story. I had virtually no idea what to expect going in, only to find myself captivated by one of the greatest shows I've watched this side of 2010 — which makes it all the more inexplicable that the series was almost entirely shut out of the 2021 Emmys.
Every awards ceremony overlooks certain gems; half the fun of watching is for the snubs and surprises. But the exclusion of The Good Lord Bird is indicative of much bigger problems facing the Emmys.
For one thing, the Emmys have been slow to evolve in a way that reflects current trends in television — such as the rise of limited series. These are shows that tell a complete story without recurring characters or storylines that reappear in subsequent seasons, like The Good Lord Bird, HBO's Chernobyl, or an anthology like The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. While Vulture notes that there were so few contenders in the category over a decade ago that there were only two nominees for the award one year, tastes have changed. "Viewers and talent don't really like long series anymore," The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg explains. "Big name stars don't want to work that much or that hard, and viewers and Emmy voters don't have the attention span for them." Limited series are also beloved by streamers, which can invest in high production values and take bigger creative risks due to the finite nature of the project. As a result, "limited series" has become such a big and intensely competitive category that its five available nomination spots are insufficient. Both Vulture and the Los Angeles Times have suggested expanding the number of nominees to accompany the now-critically-dominant form of serial storytelling; making the category narrower (by spinning off anthologies into their own competition, or breaking it apart by genre) could be another possibility.
But the exclusion of The Good Lord Bird isn't because the five nominees that did make the cut — I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision — are obviously better. In fact, Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson's exclusion from the Outstanding Lead and Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie categories respectively is so egregious (Hawke, in particular, wasn't just an assumed shoo-in as a nominee, but considered the likely winner) that multiple critics have wondered aloud if Emmy voters even watched the show. They might not have: Although there were only 37 limited series on the 2021 ballot, that's still many hours of television to pick through. In fact, the prestige television landscape has become so saturated that you almost can't blame Emmys voters for "favoring mass appeal over ... niche and artsy" shows like The Good Lord Bird, a case Inkoo Kang makes in The Washington Post. Still, call me an idealist, but I believe awards shows should exist in part to introduce audiences to new great material that they haven't watched yet, not just regurgitate mainstream nominees.
To that end, there is a conspicuous similarity between many of the major snubbed limited series this year, which Robert Daniels points out at Vulture: "Barring the deserved success of Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You," he writes, "the Emmys struggled to recognize Black stories that are not couched in degradation and Black visions that both inspect and reject the white gaze that this voting body has time and again embraced." The Good Lord Bird, based on James McBride's novel of the same name, is, of course, an antebellum drama, told from the perspective of an enslaved teenager, while Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, about the West Indian community in London, and Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad, were also mostly or entirely shut out. At a certain point, such snubs become a self-perpetuating cycle: If the Emmys don't honor Black stories by Black creators, then awards-hungry studios will be less likely to fund such projects in the future.
The Good Lord Bird was only ultimately nominated for a single award, "Outstanding Main Title Design," which it won last weekend during the Creative Arts Emmys. It's a bittersweet honor that won't likely put The Good Lord Bird on anyone's radar, relegating it instead to continued exposure exclusively by word of mouth. But while there is ample opportunity for the Emmys to improve, TV fans have always had to rely on other ways to learn what's worth their time. Say, like this one: shining a light on the most unbelievable awards omissions. The 2021 Emmys may have goofed this one up, but maybe now you'll watch my favorite show.