At the Emmys, as Everywhere Else, IP Is King as ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘Star Wars’ Land Key NodsJuly 13, 2023
For a few years in the 2010s, TV was seen as a refuge from the intellectual property boom engulfing blockbuster filmmaking. Original, mid-budget stories aimed at adults were no longer welcome at the multiplex, but they could often find a home in a prestige-hungry medium newly attractive to A-list talent. Beginning with the launch of the streaming service Disney+ in 2019, however, “cinematic” universes like Star Wars and Marvel established a presence on the small screen, while the conclusion of “Game of Thrones” that same year kicked off the arms race for the next crossover genre hit.
The Primetime Emmy Awards have acknowledged this trend in the past. “WandaVision,” “The Mandalorian,” and “The Boys” all earned series nominations in prior years, affording artistic legitimacy to these franchises in addition to their popular success. (The first two series were the small screen debuts of Marvel and Star Wars, respectively; “The Boys” is a superhero satire that is itself adapted from a comic book, with a budget and fandom to match that of its targets.) But for its 75th annual honors, the Television Academy fully embraced the IP extravaganza that’s enveloped the rest of culture. TV is no longer a refuge from the prevailing winds, but a channel for them.
“The Last of Us,” based on a best-selling video game, earned 24 nominations across all categories, a major milestone for the historically troubled and derided field of game-to-screen adaptations. “House of the Dragon,” the prequel to “Game of Thrones,” brought in eight nods — not quite “Thrones” levels of dominance, but still respectable for a new series facing stiff competition from incumbents. Joining both as a contender for Outstanding Drama Series is “Andor,” Tony Gilroy’s grounded, realist take on interplanetary revolution. Even “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” the critically derided Star Wars standalone set between trilogies, is up for Outstanding Limited Series, proving the power of name recognition at a time when it’s never been harder to catch voters’ attention. Comedy saw the breakthrough of “Wednesday,” a victorious bid to translate “Addams Family” camp to the TikTok generation.
It’s indicative that two of these series come from HBO, the platform that’s long prided itself for being a standard-bearer in quality and curation. It was a big deal when HBO conferred some of its hard-won cachet on “The Last of Us,” signaling that this take on a video game would be different; it was a big deal when HBO greenlit the first spinoff in its vaunted history with “House of the Dragon,” a bet that has thus far paid off. HBO and the Emmys have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, so it tracks that the former’s own pivot — or capitulation, depending how you spin it — to big-budget spectacle has had a domino effect on the latter.
A rising tide has not quite lifted all boats. Despite years of buildup and a production that spared no expense, Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” failed to garner any above-the-line nominations. (Its half dozen nods were all in craft categories like prosthetic makeup and visual effects.) Nor are smaller-scale stories entirely absent from this morning’s list of honorees. With “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted her own novel about the messy aftermath of a Manhattan marriage; “The Bear,” still basking in the glow of its second season while nominated for its first, is largely confined to its cramped Chicago kitchen; in just two seasons, Mike White has built “The White Lotus” into an unlikely juggernaut driven by the latent misery of the bourgeoisie.
But as IP is ascendant, other Emmy favorites are on their way out. Yes, “Succession” is set to sweep the drama field for its transcendent final season. Once that show — or “Better Call Saul,” “The Crown,” “Ted Lasso,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” all also on their way out — wraps up, however, it only frees more space for franchise offshoots to expand their foothold. Perhaps in future years, the second seasons of “Andor” and “House of the Dragon” could break into the acting categories as well; “The Boys” could join them once it returns from a strike-imposed production hiatus, tilting the balance ever further in favor of established brands. (Ryan Murphy’s “Monster” anthology isn’t part of a cinematic universe, but its nominations indicate true crime can be ruthlessly effective IP if its source material is infamous enough.) The struggles of “The Rings of Power” suggest you can’t buy your way to an award, or at least not yet. Paired with solid execution, though, a built-in audience doesn’t hurt.
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